RPCVs continue their volunteer work at Providence House
By Guest Contributor on Thursday, November 17th, 2011
One of the biggest benefits of Peace Corps service is the continuous inspiration and motivation that volunteers receive from each other during their time abroad. Annie Mooser and Jean Cassandra were no strangers to the exchange of ideas, the demands of rural living, and the constant push to do better for their communities during their service in Northern Peru from 2005 – 2007. Separated by a bumpy and cliff-hanging 12-hour overnight bus ride, Jean and Annie stayed in touch frequently in Peru via cell phone. Annie was always excited to hear about the work that Jean accomplished with her desert community of Tierras Blancas, located one hour from the Pacific Coast. In the rural sierra community of Cabracancha at over 9,000 feet, the challenges that Annie faced were different from Jean’s, yet the ladies were bonded in their strong connection to their host families and the sense of community each experienced in their daily work.
A cornerstone of the Peace Corps Peru experience is the host family, a unit that rarely fails to take on volunteers as one of their own. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “It is experience that can give a person a common touch and sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.” Jean and Annie both realized the importance of gaining such an understanding through their host families with whom they lived among dirt floors, latrines, and open-fire cooking. Having developed a working knowledge of Peruvian poverty through the Peace Corps experience, Jean and Annie decided to continue to expand their understanding and develop their compassion for a different community: women and children of New York City’s homeless and parole populations.
Upon their return to the United States, Jean and Annie pursued careers in speech language pathology and medicine, respectively. Despite the complexities of the education required for such professions, both ladies understood that the best education comes from living among those who represent their future client and patient populations. It was obvious that living among a city’s homeless was the best way to understand their problems and begin to form solutions for such vulnerable populations.
Those solutions start at Providence House, a not-for-profit organization founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph that strives to transform and improve the lives of homeless, abused, and formerly incarcerated women and their children in New York City. The task is immense, but Providence House works one family at a time. The organization provides shelter and support through a network of transitional residences, individual apartments, and permanent supportive housing. Jean served as a live-in volunteer at one of Providence House’s locations in Queens from 2008 – 2011, and Annie resided in a Brooklyn residence for 10 months from 2009 – 2010. Providence House has given shelter to over 12,000 women in its years of service; however, it gave a lifetime of experience and memories to Jean and Annie. Just as the Peruvians of Tierras Blancas and Cabracancha showed these RPCVs the value of perseverance in the face of third-world poverty, the women and children of Providence House exemplified the realities of living on the other side of an economically unbalanced society.
In a similar fashion to how their Peruvian host families had taken them in as daughters and sisters, the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the staff and residents of Providence House welcomed Annie and Jean to their residences in Brooklyn and Queens. In Peru, Annie spent late hours at night washing dishes, chopping firewood, or helping her host mother Aurelia peel potatoes, the staple food of all Andean nations. In Brooklyn, Annie found herself out on nightly walks through East Flatbush with residents trying to lose weight. She was also encouraged to help some of the house’s younger residents complete their homework after witnessing that a third grade math level was often beyond their mothers’ capabilities. Her strongest sense of belonging in the house took place every day, after returning from her job at a local Brooklyn hospital, when she shared in nightly meals and dinner table conversation with the residents. Stories ranged from tales about the City’s Department of Homeless Services, to Parent-Teacher meetings, to drug busts. There was never a dull moment in Providence House. Although the tasks in each country were different, the importance of living in community was at the core of these experiences.
As Jean points out, “The cycle of poverty can be broken, but it takes the right environment. I saw it happen with my Peruvian host sister, Yarena who grew up with a dirt floor and limited resources for school. Now she is going to be a pharmacist. I also saw it in Queens where in just a few months, women coming out of prison with no job and no homes were able to completely turn their lives around thanks to the stable environment Providence House gave them.” Annie agrees, adding, “Sometimes people just need the right influence. Other times they just need someone to show them that no matter what their background, their place in the world is just as important as anyone else’s. But in the end, the people of Peru, Queens, and Brooklyn ended up influencing us much more than we could ever benefit them.”
This piece was contributed by Jean Cassandra (Peru 05-07) and Annie Mooser (Peru 05-07).