When I was selected to be one of the 18 English teachers for the inaugural Panama Teacher Match program through Partners of the Americas, I knew I was in for an adventure. I had requested to be sent to a rural area, but everything about my placement was a mystery. This was the summer adventure I was craving! The unknown was the beauty of the experience! I never expected to fall so in love with the community.
The town of Almirante, Panama, boasts diversity worthy of major celebration. There are the indigenous Ngöbe people, the Afro-Panamanians, and the Hispanics, all collaborating to paint the vibes of the community. A walk down the main street of town showcases the beautiful result of this cultural blend. A variety of houses, from brightly-colored ranches to stilt homes made from wooden boards, keeps the scenery ever-changing. Caribbean grooves blasting from patios tempt you to bust a move right there in the street. The mix of Spanish, the Ngäbe language, and the English-based creole called Patois keeps your ears engaged and your mind active. The people are friendly and quick to help a foreigner in need, but there is something strikingly misrepresentative of the fun-spirited community: the garbage that littered literally every space in town.
I quickly came to know my colleagues, students, and new friends from the community as some of the kindest, most welcoming people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, but each day I would walk home from my school and be struck over and over again by the appearance of the town. The litter obscured the charm of the community. I wanted to do something that would help Almirante represent its inner beauty. I thought, “Hey! Maybe the school would want to organize a ‘Clean Up Almirante Day.”
I pitched the idea to some colleagues, and they loved it! I then pitched it to some students, and they thought it was very necessary. Finally, I pitched it to the administrators, and they thought it was brilliant! Everyone was 100% on board. I was so thankful for the instant support I received. The local store owners were so generous with their donations of garbage bags and discounts on work gloves. The Clean-Up Day was quickly proving to have the support of many, many people in the community. The wheels were in motion, and—after some tedious planning—the logistics of Clean Up Almirante Day were organized!
On the morning of the Clean-Up Day, however, I was nervous. The event would only be for ninth grade students and their homeroom teachers. The ninth graders were asked to come early in the morning to clean up the town, and then they would be exempt from their afternoon classes. I feared that many of them would simply not show up. I reminded myself that this was only the first time this project was being done, and I reassured myself by thinking, “If we get just five students from each homeroom, a total of 40 students, I will be happy with that. That’s a start!”
As the students slowly arrived and gathered outside the school, my nerves calmed. The turnout was excellent, ultimately nearing about 100 students. I looked around, overwhelmed with pride not only because my dream had come true (we had organized a Clean Up Almirante Day) but also because these students and teachers were showing support for a cause that would drive their future commitment to their community and to their planet. That was the true goal: to raise awareness and build a sense of responsibility for the care and keeping of our sacred planet Earth.
Students and teachers came prepared to work, and work they did! Students laughed, joked, and sang while they picked up bags upon bags full of garbage from the streets of their hometown. They smiled while they labored, and they felt pride and accomplishment in doing something positive for their community.
I know that this event has triggered a movement. Not only did the participants learn about their duty in caring for their community, but those townspeople who saw the students working hard to clean up their home were changed, too. I firmly believe that the people of Almirante will think more consciously about where they throw their trash and what they do to maintain a beautiful community—not only for what it looks like, but also for what it means to give back and to take care of our planet.