Recent graduate forming bonds in the Balkans

January 20, 2011

PLAINVIEW – Melanie Vasquez faced a big dilemma in December.

She was set to leave the Balkans and return home to Hobbs, N.M., and Plainview, Texas, where she attended Wayland Baptist University, graduating in May 2010, and where she was helping with student ministry in nearby Tulia.

Her plan all along was to stay six months, then come home. But something wasn’t right. She had unfinished business to do, though her funding to stay overseas was not guaranteed.

The questions loomed: Should she pack her belongings into storage, come home and hope to return for them later or leave everything in place and trust that she’d be coming back after a holiday visit with relatives and friends?

Vasquez chose the latter, trusting God to work the details out for her to return to the nation that is quickly becoming her second home.

“My original plan was to be here six months, but I just feel like it’s not over for me here,” she said. “About the third month here, I knew there was so much more to do and what that might mean. I began thinking, ‘How can I leave the people that have become my family and not let them have the opportunity to know me better?’ I just knew I had to come back until it was finished.”

Once she returns, Vasquez will be helping to run a community center and teaching English there. She is also hoping to start a master’s degree through Wayland’s Virtual Campus, focusing on education and English as a Second Language.

Her work in the Balkans has not been much different than when she first visited several years earlier while on a trip with Wayland religion professor Dr. Rick Shaw and other students. The focus has always been on building relationships, sharing cultures and providing help and hope for the people there.

“I’ve always known that God loves all people, but not everyone has the chance to know and understand His call for them,” said Vasquez. “When an opportunity came my way, I took it.”

That first opportunity was to Mexico, then she visited the Balkans the next summer. Her world was transformed and she knew where she wanted to go the next time a trip came up. In fact, she was so sure of the seeds being planted there that she opted to spend not only her summer there but the following fall semester of 2009.

I fell in love with the people there and just felt like there was a need there for English education, a need for hope and for the people to see something different and know something different,” she said. “The people need to see that it’s a bigger world."

After returning to Wayland, she completed her last semester of college and headed back to the Balkans just a few weeks after earning her degree. Her intent was to stay another six months, then return to the High Plains of Texas to work and do community development.

But something told her things weren’t finished, and she plans to head back in February to pick up where she left off. First Baptist Church in Tulia has funded her effort in full, having helped significantly for the last trip, and she’s using her home visit to make some connections that will help an effort she began in the European nation before she left.

In an effort to provide economic development and enrichment for the women, Vasquez started a group that knit various products including doilies and handbags, using brightly colored yarns and knitted floral decorations as well.

Since most women in the Balkans do not work outside the home, many families rely on the husband’s salary alone to survive and it often means financial hardships. By using a skill they already possess – Vasquez said most of the women know how to knit quite well and often create things for themselves – she hoped to find connections with vendors that could sell those handcrafts in America and other nations and provide additional income for the families.

“Other people like Americans don’t normally do these things; they’d rather buy them instead, and to know they are handmade from these ladies on the other side of the world is great,” Vasquez said. “We are hoping that we can show the women that they do have a skill that can help provide for their families.

"This also helps with their self-esteem as they see the team effort and how it will help them all. I tell them that God loves all people, and He expects us to help each other out. No one is above anyone else in the group.” 

Vasquez said while the effort has taken time to get underway, she is confident that a vendor will emerge to help the women sell their wares.

“The challenge is to help them sustain that help for themselves over the long term. If we’re going to make a difference we want to make one that lasts,” she said. “I’m a problem solver but I’m learning that I can’t solve everything and that’s been hard.”

The work, the classes and the other tasks she’s been called upon to do have all opened doors for Vasquez to do her favorite thing: get to know people and the culture that is so different than her own.

“I’ve made some really good friends and had some great conversations about religion and my own culture. I’ve been able to share my culture and my religion in lots of different ways,” she said. “I’ve always been a people person and get along with everybody. It felt much the same there. They’re just people like me, and I’m interested in knowing about them too. I connect with the people and enjoy just sitting and having coffee with people.”

Through the community center’s various programs – which include a coffee house, open microphone nights, English classes and community development resources for families – Vasquez said the doors are open wide to meeting even more people and forming relationships.

“It’s weird… It’s like home now. My home is here but it is there too. I cannot even fathom not being there and doing what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s always been hard to come back because America is so different than most cultures. America is such a rich country compared to others, and other countries follow us."