Monday, May 04, 2009

Dear Paw-Paw...

When I was a little girl, I don’t think that I ever believed that Paw-Paw really needed his wheelchair. I remember trying to trick him into “blowing his cover” through a series of investigations every time we came to visit. While everyone sat in the living room after dinner, I pretended to go into the kitchen for a snack and then sneakily crawled on my hands and knees espionage-style until I was underneath Paw-Paw’s wheelchair. I suppose I thought that if he was paralyzed, he shouldn’t be able to feel me under there (keep in mind, this was when I still fit under the wheelchair, so my investigative skills still left something to be desired). I was always so convinced that I had him, right up until the point he would reach down and grab my hair. He was so sneaky! And I always made sure that I got to sit next to him every night at dinner to test him by tapping his feet with mine, just to see if he noticed. He would always shoot me a look out of the corner of his eye, but he never mentioned anything about my covert operations.

While my scientific theories may have been faulty as a child, I always secretly wondered if Paw-Paw didn’t have everyone fooled. It didn’t make sense to me that he could do all the things he did – and still be confined to that chair. When I would tell my friends that my grandfather was in a wheelchair, I was always surprised when they seemed sad. Then I realized they hadn’t met Paw-Paw. Because once anyone met Joe Ryan, they stopped feeling sorry for him and started wondering what THEY had been doing with their lives all this time. I don’t know about you, but I never saw a tomato quite as nice as the ones in Paw-Paw’s garden, I am pretty sure that he resurrected every one of my mother’s wilting orchids, and I know for a fact that no one else knew their way around the kitchen like my grandfather. He was a whiz at fixing a bike, and probably the most dependable weatherman around. He could debate politics with you until the cows came home, and he never forgot a face. While some may have been discouraged by the thought of spending the rest of his life sitting down, Paw-Paw knew that his strength didn’t come from his legs. Even though I only knew him at the end of his life, anyone could see that he had an energy that drew people to him, and not a day passed that someone didn’t stop by to have a chat on the porch or by the fire.

I am grateful for that wheelchair. From what I understand, my mother might not have been born had fate not stepped in. Unable to have children before contracting polio, something about Paw-Paw’s treatment must have changed my grandparents, and after returning home they were blessed with two amazing children and could have the family they always wanted. My mother told me once that being a grandparent changed Paw-Paw, and I hope that is true, because being his grandchild has certainly changed me. Our time in their house defines my childhood, and when I compare my experiences with so many others, I begin to understand how the love and support of my family has given me the strength to go out and strive for great things. Though he may have been a man of few words when it came to matters of the heart, I always knew that I could count on his constant support in whatever I chose to do.

While Paw-Paw never allowed his life to be limited by his body, his life finally reached his limit. After Grandma passed away, I think that he realized that he couldn’t fight against the limitations of life any longer. However, if anyone could have, I think that Paw-Paw would have made a valiant effort. As I watched Paw-Paw get older, I don’t think I ever really believed that there would come a time when he wouldn’t be a part of my life, and now I know that that is true. He has taught me so much and been such a pillar of strength in my life that I know that his memory will continue to influence those whose lives he has touched.

So today we have to say goodbye to Paw-Paw. He was a wonderful man and a loving husband, brother, father and grandfather. I know that I am grateful for being able to be a part of his life, and I hope that he will continue to love and support us throughout ours. We will miss your presence Paw-Paw, but we will carry your guidance with us always.

Elizabeth Cairns

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Me aculpa…

Well, for all of you who were enjoying my periodic updates, I apologize for my lack of communication in the last year. In short, I finished my service with the Peace Corps May 2, 2008, and have been preparing to start graduate school at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC this September. Many of you have heard of this plan for some time, which is why it may come to a shock to you that I have recently decided to transfer to the Bologna campus of SAIS in Italy for my first year. This decision was made at the very last minute, but I believe that it is the right choice for me. For those of you in DC with whom I have been trying to get in touch with since I have been here the last month, I will miss you a lot, and I hope that you will still be here next year when I return to complete my MA at the DC campus. The most difficult part about making this decision was the knowledge that another year would pass before I can spend quality time with my friends and family. You all are so important to me, and every time I go on a new adventure it pains me that I cannot take you all with me. However, I am beginning to understand that part of my commitment to international development requires that I make sacrifices, and for the first time in my life I have a clear purpose and goal for my professional career. Unfortunately, those goals do not include life in DC right now. However, it is my home and you are my family, and I will never forget how much you mean to me and how essential your support is in every step of my journey. So, that said, I will be leaving this Tuesday. Class begins on Thursday, and the Johns Hopkins administration will hopefully help me find an apartment on Wednesday. As always, everyone is more than welcome to visit me any time, as I will be there until mid-June of next year. Please excuse the short notice, and I hope to see you all when I return, or earlier, if you are interested in the Tuscan countryside!

Love always,

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sally Struthers, Eat Your Heart Out.

The village of El Yayal and its surrounding communities is located around the Loma Guaconejo Natural Reserve, approximately 30 kilometers outside of the town of Nagua. The population of El Yayal is approximately 300 people, containing roughly 100 homes. The people residing in these communities depend completely on agriculture and animal husbandry as their source of income, farming mainly cocoa, coconut and fruit and raising cattle, chickens, and pigs. The majority of the men work the fields while the women spend most of their time cooking, washing clothes and looking after the house and children.

Within these communities there are a few associations working towards community development. Both the Catholic and Evangelical churches in El Yayal are active contributors to the community, working on road improvement projects, child registration initiatives, and school improvements. Within the Catholic Church there is also a Directiva de Vecinos (neighborhood outreach) that makes sure all members of the community are well informed and able to participate in church and community activities. Each community also has a Club de Madres (mothers’ group) of 25 women who meet once a week to discuss community problems and to try and come up with solutions. Previous projects these groups have worked with are organic farming, small business development, and community aqueducts. They also devote a considerable amount of time to raising money for church improvements and to provide financial assistance for needy members of the community.

Within the community many parents have expressed concern about the increasing level of disease and health problems rising in the community. There is a high level of kidney problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, anemia, parasitic, and respiratory problems in the area, not only according to the community members but also according to the local nurse who runs the community health clinic. The lack of knowledge about dietary needs, nutritional balance, water sanitation and antibacterial cleaning practices can lead to many of the previously mentioned problems and imposes unnecessary health risks on all community members. Consequently, the quality of life in El Yayal is suffering on many levels.

Currently, of the 104 houses in El Yayal, 33% do not have latrines and of the houses that do have latrines, only 27% are in fair or good condition.

Another problem brought up by the women in the area is that few families within El Yayal and the surrounding communities have propane stoves. Those who do own them are restricted by their lack of income and the remote location and the scarcity and high cost of propane. Therefore, the majority of families cook over outdoor stoves. These stoves are either pits made of clay or three cemented blocks raised up on a table. They use a significant amount of firewood, requiring members of the family to spend an average of one and a half hours daily looking for firewood. Due to this high demand of wood, many trees are being cut down, contributing to the deforestation of the area and the threat to the local watershed. Cooking over these fires three times a day, women are inhaling smoke equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes daily. Amongst major complaints from those who cook include irritated eyes, headaches, lung problems, chest pains, cough and dizziness. Therefore, these traditional stoves pose a threat not only to the environment but also contribute to the worsening health of those around them.

My work in El Yayal as a Peace Corps volunteer focuses on two projects in direct response to these health concerns, VIP (Ventilated Improved Pit) latrines to address the lack of adequate sanitation facilities in the community, and Improved Ceramic Woodburning Cookstoves to address many of the common health concerns. The community is contributing 35% of the total project costs in the form of labor and raw materials. The Women’s Group of El Yayal initially presented the projects to the community and will oversee the construction and education related to the projects. The committee will also address any problems related to the project and will organize the solicitation of any funds needed for maintenance or new beneficiaries.

Each VIP Latrine and Ceramic Cookstove cost approximately US$100.00 a piece. For US$100.00, a family in El Yayal will have the capacity to alleviate many of the ailments that they have come to accept as an inescapable reality. Please consider donating whatever you are able to our project. All donations are tax-deductible and easily processed electronically through the Peace Corps website. Follow this link for more information:

Saturday, May 19, 2007

You can help!

Dear Friends and Family,

As friends and family of a Peace Corps Volunteer, you all knew it was coming. That’s right guys, my first donation solicitation! This is a very grassroots project that some of my closest friends from college have been working hard on for the last two years, and it finally has the opportunity to get off the ground. Or, it would have, if the roof of their library hadn’t collapsed. Now, all the money that they have been raising for the last two years has to go to fixing the roof, and they do not have the funds necessary to start up their after-school projects. Their director is a good friend of mine, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica, and an exceptionally motivated individual, and I know that your money will be well spent if you consider helping out their cause. Quality education is one of the most appalling deficits in developing countries, almost exclusively due to lack of resources. How can children learn to read if they don’t have any books? Think about how your life would have been limited if you had never been given those simple opportunities that we all take for granted as children. Any donation will help them a great deal, and could have a great effect on the quality of life for many children who otherwise could never have the opportunity to break out of the continually impoverishing cycle of underpaid child labor. Please consider helping out in any way that you can, by visiting their website,, giving a donation, and passing this email on to other friends and families.

Thank you all for your support, and continue reading below for more information!
Liz Cairns

We need your help!

AsociaciĆ³n SOLAC , a young non-profit in located in Lima, Peru, works on a number of grass-roots initiatives from human rights campaigns to community development projects. Our current project is focused on an impoverished community outside of Lima. This community is home to a number of migrant families from all over Peru. The main source of income for these families is the manufacturing of adobe bricks from the desert-like terrain on which they live. This back-breaking work nets families an average of $8 per 1000 bricks they are able to produce (see attached pics). Since these families are being paid per brick, as opposed to an hourly wage, many of the younger children are expected to work in the brick yard, taking away valuable study time and energy.

AsociaciĆ³n SOLAC is currently working through the small elementary school on small development projects that range from water purification to after-school tutoring and lunch program. After a community diagnosis was completed in 2005, it was determined that the school would see measurable improvements with the construction of a library and two study rooms. Unfortunately, just before its completion the roof collapsed due to bad luck with the weather. Now, we have a new engineer hired, and he's drawn up the designs for a new roof that will be both weather and theft resistant. This, of course, means more money. With our overly stretched budget, we are currently about $3000 short. Normally we would apply for grants through various NGOs and funds but in this case we don't have the months that are normally necessary the application process. How can you help? Go to and follow the simple steps to make a donation through our Paypal account. The link is on the homepage after you toggle the language.

If you have any friends or family that may be interested in helping out, or would like more information, please feel free to contact me.


Michael J. Quinzio and David Goodman
Associate Directors, Asociocion Solac

Lima, Peru

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

One Year Wall

“It’s kind of like camping…”

That is what two of my most recent visitors have said about the way that I live. were champs during their visit to El Yayal – my mom shelled beans, used the latrine, ate the soup, and didn’t hear the mice at night! My dad ate everything that was given to him, including the coconut that my friend Eulises climbed up a tree to get for him. Of course, there had to be a pig loose in the back yard in the morning when Mom had to use the latrine, but she handled it remarkably well. I was very proud of both of them. I have realized in the last months how lucky I have been in my experience here. Upon reaching the 1-year mark, some of my fellow volunteers have decided they just couldn’t handle it anymore. The thought of yet another year of this life was just too much to take. One thing that volunteers say to each other is, “You can’t judge one volunteer’s experience against another,” which is funny, because that is mostly all that we do when we get together – compare horror stories. But really, there is no way to tell who will make it and who will throw in the towel, because it doesn’t have anything to do with your attitude, your willingness to work or your professional all alone with no one to answer to but abilities, though those things can help you get through some bad times. Really, you never know where that final crushing blow is going to come from and you can’t judge anyone when it gets someone, because most of the time it could just as easily have been you. Living here is hard, and Dominicans do a lot of things that don’t make much sense a lot of the time, and sometimes the two worlds collide in a way that makes it impossible to keep going. We didn’t join the Peace Corps because we thought it would be easy, and while we go through it together, we are still ourselves. So I am proud of Ambrosia and Lindsay for knowing when to say enough is enough, but I will miss them, and I hope that they both know how much they are loved and envied by a ragtag gang of crazy people still left on this silly little island. So good luck girls, and I hope you send us chocolate and trashy magazines.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


First of all, I want to apologize to all of you who have been reading my blog diligently over the last year. It has been far too long since I have kept most of you abreast of what I have been up to. Life has been pretty crazy down here in the DR since late November, that is for sure. I was able to go home for 3 weeks over Christmas, which many of you know because fortunately I was able to see a lot of my friends and family. For those who I missed, I apologize profusely and I encourage you to channel that disappointment into a redoubled effort to make a trip to the DR. Ever since I got back from my vacation though, I have been unbelievably busy, which is a good thing, but it is also very tiring. One of the main reasons my work load has increased so much is that my project partner, a volunteer named Alysia who works as a small business volunteer with the cacao cooperative, was in a horrific car accident on January 8 in which she was thrown out of an out of control truck and cracked her spine.

Alysia was working as a translator for a medical mission of doctors and nurses from the United States when she suffered her injuries. Medical missions are one of the most popular secondary projects that Peace Corps volunteers undertake during their service. We are allowed to participate in one mission a year for one week, and there are on average about 5-6 missions available to volunteers a year. Missions vary in specialty from eye surgeries, hernias, plastic surgeries, and general medicine. Many volunteers say that these opportunities are some of the most gratifying experiences of their Peace Corps service. The style of mission varies greatly however, depending on the participation medical group. The surgeries are performed in hospitals in the largest two cities, but the general medical services are often performed in rural areas. It was on one of the latter missions that Alysia suffered her injuries. She and three other volunteers were working with doctors and nurses that were traveling to rural communities around Santiago to administer routine medical checks and provide medicine. This group had been visiting the same communities every year for the last 10 years and had formed a sustained medical history with the community members they visited. However, this year the Cibao Mountain region that they were traveling in had received record rainfall, and the steep dirt roads had become increasingly difficult to maneuver due to mud. Many vehicles without four-wheel drive found the roads unpassable. The medical mission had been traveling in a convoy of 4x4 pickup trucks and larger Daihatsu front-wheel drive flatbed trucks. On the second day of medical visits, the group was traveling to a very high mountain community that had suffered a lot of rainfall in the previous week. The 4x4 trucks were able to maneuver the hill, but the flatbed was having trouble. The driver tried to downshift to no avail, and then decided to put it in reverse to attempt the ascent from the bottom a second time. However, when the truck was put into reverse, the engine, power steering, and brakes locked up and the driver was not able to get control of the vehicle. The truck began to slide backwards down the hill and when it reached a curve in the road, it slid off the side of the mountain. The truck flipped twice with the driver and two passengers inside, throwing the 6 people in the back of the truck overboard. Alysia suffered the mildest injuries of all of the victims and due to adrenaline was able to send local villagers up the mountain after the other trucks for help. It was only a couple days after the accident that the full extent of her injuries became apparent. However, one of the medical students in the truck suffered a blunt force trauma to the head and died instantly on the scene, and another doctor suffered from a ruptured spleen and had to be operated on immediately. Alysia has been in Washington, DC for the last two weeks receiving medical attention, and we hope that she will rejoin us here in the beginning of March. Amazingly, despite their traumatic experience, the remaining medical team continued their work in the area for the next two weeks, though changed their policy and had the trucks go to the remote communities and bring the patients into the cities for treatment.

Alysia’s accident was particularly upsetting because it happened a week before the inauguration of her primary project with the cacao cooperative, a cocoa powder processing initiative. Through a grant from USAID, the cooperative is now able to market and sell 100% organic cocoa powder processed from their own cacao farms within the Dominican Republic. We are now in the process of investigating US markets as well. Many of you whom I had the pleasure of seeing during Christmas have a sample of this cocoa powder, and if you email me (, I can send you a list of easy recipes for dishes that you can make with it. Until Alysia returns from the US, I am working with the cooperative on their business plan and continued marketing of their cocoa. This weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the Peace Corps work in the Dominican Republic, and the first major sale of cocoa powder by my cooperative. We sold over 300 bags during the anniversary celebration and made many good contacts that we will be using for both Dominican and North American markets. In the next year we hope to open our market to bulk sales to Dagoba Chocolate in the US. All in all though, we are off to a good start. The sales of the cocoa are helping pay for the organic certification program as well. Through IMO Caribe, a Swiss chocolate buyer here in the Dominican Republic, we have 97 farms certified to sell as organic in the US, Europe and Asia, and we hope to reach 150 farms in the coming year.

Unfortunately, because of all the work I have been doing with the cooperative, my English and Reading classes have suffered in the last two months. It has also been difficult to get my students back on track after the New Year. Due to a combination of high levels of rain, teacher strikes, and vacation time, the students had over two months without school between November and February, and are only now being tested on the material they learned in the fall. I don’t have to tell you all again about how I feel about the public education system in this country. However, I have already committed to my community to summer school from June to August for both English and Reading classes. That way will have full use of the school and hopefully help the students maintain the knowledge they learned during the school year. I am also beginning a Healthy Families course with my mother’s group. The course will be once a week for ten weeks, covering nutrition, hygiene, water sanitation, trash disposal and family planning. Each participant will pay approximately $3 a week to attend the course, and at the end of 5 weeks will receive a biosand water filter donated by the Rotary Club. At the end of 10 weeks, they will receive a ceramic woodburning cookstove donated by USAID designed to improve fuel efficiency and limit smoke inhalation. Considering right now most of them are cooking over open flames inside and burning plastic cups and Styrofoam to get the fire going, I think that these will be an improvement. This work, combined with another round of organic certification this summer, should last me until the fall, when I would like to look into a latrine project. I don’t have a grant lined up for that one yet though, so you all might be getting a solicitation email around September. Get ready to start giving!

As of now, I am just sick of traveling, so I am going to go back to my site now and start hanging out with my neighbors so that people will actually come to my meetings. I think that they think that my work is really just going to the beach all the time, and they don’t really get why I am always gone, so I have some trust to regain. Right now my nickname in El Yayal is “la Andariega” instead of “la Americana”. One who travels a lot. I guess I deserve it.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dear Grandma...

My first memory of Grandma was when I was about 5 years old. We were at the beach for Easter, and she had hidden plastic eggs in the backyard filled with $1 in change each. Grandma really had the grandmothering job down pat. Sam had his friend Patrick visiting, and I was so proud to have such a cool grandmother. Of course, we had just entered the “Arcading” phase of our visits to the beach, so I know that Skeeball came out of the weekend with more money than I did, but after a couple of years of tickets, I think that I finally got that stuffed monkey, so everybody came out on top.

Grandma and Paw Paw’s house defines my childhood more than any other place, and I am sure that this is true for a lot of people. Easters with Bunny-shaped cakes, Summers digging holes in the sand, Thanksgivings making chocolate balls and decorating the tree on the porch. Their house is always stacked with the greatest food. While Paw Paw definitely is in charge of the cooking, Grandma was definitely the one to go to if you wanted a snack. (When we were little it was Grandma Utz’s potato chips, now it is Cheez Curls.) I mean, you can’t beat ice cream in both refrigerators. There were always people stopping by to say hello too- of all ages. I think that it is safe to say that the Ryans are an institution in Bethany Beach.

Of all of the memories I have though, I can only remember seeing Grandma actually at the beach once. And she wasn’t even on the sand. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and we were about to come in for the day, and I saw her standing at the top of the boardwalk, watching the waves. When I was little, I didn’t think about it much, because she was always there sitting in her chair reading or taking one of her classic snoozes when we came back for lunch, ready to make grilled cheese sandwiches or get barbeque from the Fire Department. But now, as I look back, I realize that it was the house itself that was Grandma’s domain. Because while all of us made memories in that house, it held memories too. And even though I never saw Grandma touch the sand, there is overwhelming proof that she did. The glass coffee table filled with sand and sea creatures, the glass whale filled with sea glass- these things served as a window to a Grandma that I never knew. Because, though as a child I never thought about it, Grandma was on the tail end of her life when I met her. As a 91-year old woman, her grandchildren didn’t even get to know her until she was in her 60’s. So much of her life we only know through pictures, knick-knacks on a shelf, or the occasional Japanese words she loved to use at sushi restaurants. So while I didn’t get to see her travel the world, raise her children, walk on the beach, or even smoke a cigarette, the evidence of her life was always around her. And her grandchildren and life in this house in Sussex Shores was the final chapter. I was a part of the end of her life and she was a part of the beginning of mine.

So we are here not only to say goodbye to our grandmother, mother, wife and friend, but also to take stock in our own lives and what Grandma has left behind. She has touched all of us and helped to make us who we are. The Tao Te Ching says, “After finishing the work, withdraw. Though you lose the body, you do not die. This is the Way of Heaven”. I believe that Grandma has finished her work in this life, and I hope that she enters the next in peace and with love. We each carry on a part of her work with us as we move on into the next chapter of our own lives. When I look in the mirror, I see my mother’s strength, and when I look at my mother, I see Grandma’s appreciation of beauty, among other things. Everything I am and I will be I owe to my family, so as we say goodbye to Grandma, I can only hope that I can take what she has given me and make her proud. I love you Grandma, and I will miss you.