*Originally posted Tuesday 19, March 2013 by Same Shqip Different Day, a Peace Corps Volunteer blog (check it out! it’s amazing).  Said volunteer is my partner coordinator/organizer for the Elbasan Youth Council. Be sure to follow her blog for more updates on Elbasan Youth Council.

“Preface.  In the last post I gave a “sort-of” excuse for being missing in blog-tion that I had been busy with work.  So…to be fair, I’ll now spend some time writing about this work!  Elbasan Youth Council (EYC).  Those three words represent, far and away, the most rewarding experience of my Peace Corps service.  All thanks to the 29 brilliant youth participants and my six program colleagues.  The next few posts will be dedicated to this program… “my baby” and the EYC family.

I had been doing some youth development programs with area high schools.  It was fun and important work, but I felt a nagging sense of guilt for being outside the Municipality of Elbasan- my host agency (PC jargon for primary assignment.)  I shared this guilt with my new site-mate, Luis, and whined about (he deserves a medal for tolerating me!) how I wanted to develop a city-based youth program.  Together we hemmed and hawed over multiple ideas.  How can we make this work?  And then, because he is awesome/ai eshte i tmerrshem, Luis nailed it – A Youth Municipal Council.  We pitched the idea to our Mayor, who has a soft spot for youth programming.  In fact, Mr. Qazim Sejdini started HIS career in youth development.  SLAM DUNK!  We were off and running!

Elbasan Youth Council’s program design closely resembles a model of my own experiences with “Tempe Leadership,” a civic initiative that educates future community leaders.  Never re-invent the wheel, when a great model is available.  Cheers/Gezuar to 28 years of the Tempe Leadership tradition… now paving the way for the future of Albania!  A debt of gratitude.            http://tempeleadership.org.

This BRAND new youth leadership program, publicized to all 14 high schools in the city, brought quite a draw… nearly 100 applicants.  Wow!?  Was it because the Youth are ready to have their voices heard?  Was it because this program provided a chance to further their English skills?  Was it because Albanians LOVE America and two Americans were part of the program?  Was it because Albanian Youth value opportunities for developing their leadership skills?  I think the answer is YES, to all of it!  However, certainly the “America card” is the least important or should be!

From 100 applicants, we had to cut the field to 30.  Yikes/O bo bo!  No one wants to be the “bad guy” who has to turn away hopeful and eager applicants, especially when they are teenagers/adoleshentet! But learning how to deal with disappointment is a leadership lesson in itself.  It had to be done.  So we devised a score card that ranked applications based on the quality and completeness of answers to essay questions.  And also took into consideration reference requirements.  We made every effort to be as fair/i drejte and transparent as possible.

As you might imagine, in a culture where nepotism is the norm and favors are often paid… this was not easy/kjo nuk ishte e lehte. Soon after the selection announcement, my Albanian counterparts were subject to phone calls from irritated parents asking, “Why wasn’t MY child selected!?” This would be followed by defenses such as “But we’re neighbors!” Or “Our kids go to school together!” Or “Our family supported the Mayor in his last campaign.”  I can only imagine how uncomfortable these calls must have been.

I was nervous, “Will we have to waver, make exceptions?”  The thought of it make my stomach hurt.   I worried that we were pushing our American standards on a culture that might not ready for them…and frankly, might not even want them!  Even with months of cultural and community integration, at the end of the day, I’m still and outsider.  I’m not Albanian/Nuk jam shqiptare.

As it turns out, my worries were unnecessary. (much like my Mom’s usually are about my nutrition, skin care routine, online profile, etc. but I digress.) My Albanian counterparts made me proud, as they remained firm time after time. They countered the inquiries by explaining; “We followed an American system for transparent and fair scoring.” They invited parents to review our process.  They invited disappointed applicants to go over their applications to receive tips and advice for strengthening their case next year.  And for the most part, with this explanation, came acceptance from nearly all those who challenged.  I was encouraged by students who pledged to try again next year.   And I was touched by the level of respect shown to American values.  And although America is far from perfect, this is something of which I can be proud!

In the end/Ne fund, we invited 30 young men and women to the First Class of Elbasan Youth Council.  One by one, as the selected Youth arrived for Orientation on an early Saturday morning… smiling, eager, curious and full of hope, I knew we’d done something right!  Very right.  And that was only the beginning/vetem fillimi!

Peace, Love and Doing the Right Thing.

PS:  More to come on EYC including… Youth Priority Issues, Community Projects and Making it Happen!”