By Andreia DeVries
Most of us spent New Year’s celebrating with family or friends. Jaime Posa, a 24-year-old Pleasantville native, worked through the holiday season in El Salvador to help oversee the completion of a bridge.
Posa has been working for the Peace Corps in El Salvador since February 2010, having traveled to the small Central American country with about 35 other Peace Corps volunteers less than a year after she graduated from the University of Florida. After living with various host families for two months in the “training community,” during which the volunteers became acclimated to the culture and language, Posa and the others were then dispersed to communities throughout El Salvador.
She was assigned to volunteer in La Montaña, a community in the country’s northeastern department of Morazán. One of her first initiatives was starting a group to teach children how to make jewelry. She was introduced to an artisan who agreed to help lead the class and lend some of his materials.
Posa then started to write grant proposals to get money to buy the rest of the materials needed for the group that met every Saturday. She obtained a few grants, including one from the public affairs office of the American Embassy.
The next project for her was constructing the pedestrian bridge to connect two villages separated by a river. When it comes to deciding on a Peace Corps project, the locals determine their greatest needs.
“The community members always know better than we do,” Posa said.
She met with local leaders to periodically complete a “needs diagnostic” in which community leaders would raise the issues they found most pressing. A vote was then held to determine which project to pursue.
Last August, they favored the bridge construction. The initiative was approved by the U.S. Peace Corps Partnership Program a month later. Posa then had to find the resources to build the bridge, which will now provide a main route to coffee fields where many people in the community work. It will also serve as a more direct route for children to reach school. She had help from a local development team and some friends.
“They introduced me to people in the community who had the technical skills needed,” Posa said. “Many people there had never been formally educated, so we had to go out of the countryside to find an engineer. We always tried to hire local labor though.”
With the Peace Corps mandate that at least 25 percent of the contributions for a project are derived locally, most of that came in the form of labor.
“It was a bit of a challenge to get so many people to give a day of time to help,” Jaime said. “But I had developed such a strong network of friends and family that they were more willing to help in the end.”
In all, 33 local residents volunteered for at least a day. It took about six weeks to gather the materials and prepare the site. The bridge was completed on Dec. 23. All of the funding for materials came from personal donations. Posa reached out to her network of support in Pleasantville for help, with about half of the donors coming from her home community. She is particularly grateful for the assistance and networking from her older sister, Danielle.
“It could not have been done without her,” Posa said.
After graduating from Pleasantville High School in 2005, Posa went to study finance at the University of Florida. During her freshman year at college, she was inspired by a former Peace Corps volunteer who visited her anthropology class.
“I heard her story and knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do when I could,” Posa said. “I always had a passion for helping people and my mom always encouraged me to volunteer.”
That included volunteering before joining the Peace Corps. During her sophomore year at Florida, she participated in an alternative spring break program where she worked at a school and orphanage in Bolivia. She also went to Honduras during her junior year.
“I love traveling abroad and learning new cultures,” Posa said. “And I’m interested in working in development.”
Posa had planned to go to Africa through the Peace Corps after graduation. However, the program she was to be involved with was shut down and she had to wait for another invitation. The following year she landed in El Salvador.
Other projects she worked on during the past two years included the launch of a youth girls soccer team, supplying a local school with 15 computers, providing 10 wheelchairs for disabled children and the elderly, helping two students win scholarships to study in the U.S. and organizing various fundraisers.
By the end of March Posa will be completing her Peace Corps service.
“It will be sad to say bye here but I am excited to see my family,” she said. “On a personal level, the most important thing I’ve learned here is the value of time and the value of life…To us (in New York) time is money, but to the people here, time is to share with family and friends. A big cultural difference is time.”
Posa plans to spend at least a month reuniting with her family after returning home and will also spend a few weeks with her grandmother in Florida.
Long term, Posa would like to continue working abroad or possibly start a non-profit organization.
“I also would like to continue helping my community in El Salvador,” she said.