Three years after returning from Tobago, Shala Meindel FIU ’08 Graduate still sends packages of supplies to the orphanage she served in while in Peace Corps.
Her FIU studies in criminal justice and social work led to an assignment at an urban juvenile detention facility in the small island in the Caribbean. The locked-down unit had no windows, air conditioning or beds. It housed dozens of children ranging from three to 18 years old. Many had been charged with petty crimes such as theft, while others were there for murder. Meindel saw only children in need and was focused on ministering to their critical needs: literacy, life skills, and drug and alcohol intervention.
“It was an amazing experience,” Meindel recalled. Many of the children had never gone to school and supplies like crayons and paper were foreign. Such limited resources drove her to apply for grants to supply the center with books. Slowly, she began teaching basic literacy.
The children helped Meindel learn Tagalog, the local language, to communicate better with them and understand what their lives were like on the streets.
Tobago“They have to figure out how to cope with being on the streets their whole lives and experiencing trauma,” she said. “You try to teach them things that they would use in real life. The kids in the U.S. do drugs to get high. Over there, they get high to cover the hunger pains. As a result, they get addicted at really young ages.”
About a year into her time at the facility, she was transferred to a new site – a Catholic orphanage for boys in a rural village. Her new assignment was working with teenagers who had fallen so far behind in school they could no longer attend. While she was still tasked with teaching basic reading skills, she continued to address individual needs.
Meindel won a grant through the Appropriate Water Project to pay for a water pump for the village, eliminating the one –and-a-half mile walk previously needed to get water. Running water improved personal hygiene and agriculture in the community.
Since returning to the U.S., Meindel carries on her mission to help at risk youth, now serving as an outreach worker in San Diego.
“I still love the work, but it’s different,” she admits. “Adjustment was, phew, I don’t think I’ll ever adjust. I’ve been gone three years and I still miss it every day.”