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  • Orrin Luc posted an article
    She brought literacy expertise to work in Belize. And has volunteered with FEMA to combat COVID-19. see more

    Judith Jones

    Peace Corps Response

    Volunteer in Belize (2018–20) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer with FEMA in Oregon, United States (2021)

     

    As told to Sarah Steindl

     

    Photo: Teacher and student at work in Belize. Photo courtesy Judith Jones

     

    My Peace Corps journey was a little bit different. I originally applied to be a two-year Volunteer in Jamaica, and I got rejected for medical reasons. I appealed, and I lost that decision. I was devastated because this was something that I really wanted to do in my retirement. Then out of the blue, a month later, a friend who works for USAID wrote me about the literacy support specialist position in Belize for Peace Corps Response: “I think you’d like this.” I looked at it and thought, My gosh, this was written for me! I’ve taught children and adults for 30 years, worked as an ESL teacher and literacy coach. I applied at the beginning of February 2019. They told me toward the end of April that I was going, with five weeks to get ready.

    In Belize we worked with the Ministry of Education. We worked with second-grade teachers to help develop their skills in teaching reading. Belize is a place where they are still using very traditional teaching methods. We had to meet them where they were at. We gave them workshops and courses, and we went on-site in classrooms to help implement strategies: working with a small group of students, designing activities to improve reading levels. 

    We found kids in second grade who couldn’t spell their name, didn’t know the complete alphabet, the sounds that letters make, or how to spell simple words. By second grade, most children should know these things. But classrooms don’t have books. I wanted to get more books in the classroom, but it was important that the teachers take on those projects. My country director, Tracey Hébert-Seck, was a big proponent of not doing things for them, but doing things with them, and teaching them to do it on their own. 

     

    Judith Jones watching teacher and students in Belize

    Literacy at the forefront — and Judith Jones in the background, observing a teacher work with her intervention group of students in Belize. Photo courtesy Judith Jones

     

     

    I think there need to be more 50-plus Volunteers and staff. There need to be more Black and brown Volunteers and staff, more variety in sexuality and gender. Peace Corps needs to reflect America. I don’t see that in recruiting. I don’t see that in staff. It’s hard to get into Peace Corps if you’re 50-plus or 60-plus. To go through the craziness of the medical clearance process, you have to spend so much money — so how are you going to get Volunteers from a lower socioeconomic area? It really needs to be made easier and more diverse. We should be able to participate. 

     

    With Response, I got to do something closer to the work that I love doing. I want to continue to put literacy at the forefront of education. Literacy will improve countries, economies, and social situations. 

     

    With Response, I got to do something closer to the work that I love doing. I want to continue to put literacy at the forefront of education. Literacy will improve countries, economies, and social situations. 

    I enjoy doing this job I’m in right now, supporting the vaccination effort with FEMA. The Oregon Health Authority has been a fantastic counterpart. And it’s interesting working with all these young people. But that’s very different from what Peace Corps Response usually is; typically Volunteers are more mature and used to working. We learned from each other. It was invaluable. 

     

    This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.

     September 12, 2021
  • Orrin Luc posted an article
    The second time in history that Peace Corps Volunteers have been deployed in the United States. see more

    Beginnings. Good sense. And the second time in history that Peace Corps Volunteers have been deployed in the United States.

    By Steven Boyd Saum

    Photo from 1994: A Rwandan refugee camp in eastern Zaire. Photo courtesy CDC

     

    Here’s an instructive but heart-wrenching place to start, if we want to tell the big story at the center of this edition of WorldView. It’s one of crisis and response: April 1994. A plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi is shot down over Kigali. The assassination ignites events that lead to horrific genocide in Rwanda. Over 100 days, 800,000 people are killed. More than 2 million flee to neighboring countries as refugees; another 1.5 million are internally displaced.

    Returned Peace Corps Volunteer John Berry and his then-wife, Carol, were in Rwanda at the time. Carol was working with a human rights group; John was directing training efforts for micro-enterprise development. They were evacuated as the nightmare began to unfold. 

    Back in California, John and Carol were watching news reports on the genocide when they saw a local reporter interview another returned Volunteer, Steven Smith, who was in Zaire — where many Rwandan refugees had fled. Smith was recruiting returned Volunteers to help Rwanda. John called him. And Smith reached out to National Peace Corps Association President Chic Dambach. As WorldView editor emeritus David Arnold wrote in this magazine, “They set in motion grassroots initiatives that became known as the RPCV Rwanda Project.” They also found funding to build NPCA’s Emergency Response Network — “names, contacts, and résumés of hundreds of RPCVs willing to turn their cross-cultural experiences, language, and skill sets to the Rwanda crisis.”

    And they brought together returned Volunteers to work with refugees on the ground.

     

    NOT LONG AFTER, in 1995, Mark Gearan was sworn in as Peace Corps director. He took a page from the Emergency Response Network playbook and launched Crisis Corps, a new Peace Corps program to harness the skills and cross-cultural experience and care returned Volunteers might bring to crisis situations. The program was formally inaugurated in June 1996 at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Among those present for the occasion: Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, and his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, as well as longtime Peace Corps champion Senator Harris Wofford.

     

    “The real gift of the Peace Corps is the gift of the human heart, pulsing with the spirit of civic responsibility that is the core of America’s character. It is forever an antidote to cynicism, a living challenge to intolerance, an enduring promise that the future can be better and that people can live richer lives if we have the faith and strength and compassion and good sense to work together.” 

     

    At that ceremony, President Bill Clinton observed a truth we know well. “The dedicated service of Peace Corps Volunteers does not end when their two-year tour is over,” he said. “So let us always remember that the truest measure of the Peace Corps’ greatness has been more than its impact on development. The real gift of the Peace Corps is the gift of the human heart, pulsing with the spirit of civic responsibility that is the core of America’s character. It is forever an antidote to cynicism, a living challenge to intolerance, an enduring promise that the future can be better and that people can live richer lives if we have the faith and strength and compassion and good sense to work together.” 

     

    AND WHAT OF THAT — compassion and good sense and working together? In 2021, for the second time in history, Peace Corps Response Volunteers have been deployed domestically. The first time was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When Response Volunteers were recruited this past spring, there were more people offering to serve than there were slots available. It seemed that the pandemic was winding down. Just a few months back — but a long time ago. More recently, when one group of Response Volunteers was working with vaccination outreach efforts in underserved communities in Oregon, the sense of this is about over couldn’t have been further from reality. As a reporter for NBC News who had spent time with the Volunteers observed, ICUs in the state were virtually at capacity.

     

    NBC reporter talks with Peace Corps Volunteer

    Peace Corps Response Volunteer Judith Jones talks with NBC News reporter Maura Barrett. Jones was evacuated from Belize in March 2020 and in 2021 has been part of the second domestic deployment of Peace Corps Volunteers. 

     

    So, in service around the country amid this pandemic, we find one answer to another question we ask in this edition: What does it mean to serve now? A question that bears asking as Peace Corps Response marks its 25-year anniversary and the Peace Corps celebrates 60 years. And a question that, for this edition, we put to Mark Gearan in his recent capacity as one of the leaders for the congressionally mandated National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Over several years, that bipartisan commission endeavored, for the first time in the nation’s history, to gain a comprehensive view of what it means to serve — and what the needs and as of yet untapped opportunities are. They sought to answer, in concrete terms: How can we get to 1 million Americans serving every year?

    Sixty years ago, the Peace Corps took wing fueled by JFK’s exhortation “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” In helping to define and inspire service for a new generation, and in reaching a scale this country has never seen, the ideas and the ideals that have shaped Peace Corps have something to bring to the table. Read on.

     

    DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE: David Arnold’s 2013 story on Rwanda and the NPCA Emergency Response Network.


    Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.

     September 12, 2021
  • Orrin Luc posted an article
    She was serving as a health advisor in Malawi. Evacuated to the U.S., she has helped fight COVID-19. see more

    Vishakha Wavde

    Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi (2018–20) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer with FEMA in United States (2021)

     

    As told to Emi Krishnamurthy

     

    Photo: Vishakha Wavde has worked in community outreach efforts with FEMA in the U.S. Photo by Eli Wittum

     

    I have been in the health sector my whole life. I’ve been a physical therapist in Chicago since emigrating to the U.S. from India 27 years ago. In 2020, after being evacuated from Malawi, where I served as a community health advisor, I continued as a physical therapist until I found the opportunity to work with FEMA and the Peace Corps for the COVID vaccination rollout.

    Before my service, I didn’t know where Malawi was on a map. My first friend in Malawi was Jean Kaponda. When I arrived, she took me under her wing — she showed me the marketplace and schools, introduced me to people. We started going to church together and I joined the choir, where every Sunday we would sing in the local language, Chichewa. The pastor lived next door to me; his kids and I would sit outside to play Scrabble. I love to cook. I would make fudge, cookies, cornbread, zucchini bread, mango bread, pumpkin bread, and I’d share those with people in the village. These little things made me feel like I was part of the community. 

     

    Vishakha Wavde holding maize sack in village in Malawi

    Story on a maize sack: In Malawi, Vishakha Wavde teaches malaria prevention to kids. Photo courtesy Vishakha Wavde

     

    In Malawi I set up bed nets and built hand-washing stations for local households. Those projects brought me close to a lot of community members — I was literally stepping in and out of every house in the village. I also did a lot of Grassroot Soccer, which helped educate high school kids about HIV causes and prevention through soccer drills. I worked with a group of women through the SOLID program, which helps teach how to run a business and be financially independent. As I was about to start an agriculture, environment, and health initiative, COVID hit and I was called back.

    To be honest, I really didn’t think COVID was that serious; we were untouched by what was happening. When on March 14 the news arrived that we needed to pack our bags and head to the capital, I was under the impression that I would be there a few days and then things would get better. I packed one suitcase, left the rest of my belongings. When our flight took off from Malawi, a part of me just broke away. I didn’t get to say goodbye — to my neighbors, the woman who would draw water for me, the pastor who lived next door, the grandmother whom I always chatted with, even my counterparts. It was so abrupt. I was numb for a long time.

     

    Even though I still love being a physical therapist, I never believed that I could apply my skills toward some other path outside of my educational background. This journey has brought me to consider what more I can do.

     

    We’ve gotten back into our lives here, but it was a hard breakup. So when I saw a position to help with vaccination rollout, I didn’t hesitate. In Virginia, where our team is working now, we are trying to get the word out about the vaccination clinics we have set up in grocery stores, churches, community halls, and fire departments. The program is a collaboration between FEMA and the Peace Corps, which has thus far been very successful. FEMA’s background is disaster-geared, so they know how to work with the systems and authorities in an area. The Peace Corps knows how to engage in a community and reach out to people, share stories, and connect. The continents, countries, culture, and languages differed, but the biggest thing was that I was serving humankind.

    At the start of my service, I had been in physical therapy for 25 years. One of my biggest lessons from the Peace Corps is that I am capable of doing much more than I think. Even though I still love being a physical therapist, I never believed that I could apply my skills toward some other path outside of my educational background. This journey has brought me to consider what more I can do.

     

    Vishakha Wavde is featured on the cover of the Summer 2021 edition of WorldView. This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.

     September 13, 2021
  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Evacuated Volunteers will put their skills and experience to work at home in a time of crisis see more

    Evacuated Volunteers will put their skills and experience to work at home helping during the pandemic.

    By Glenn Blumhorst


    This week we received very welcome and timely news: Peace Corps Response Volunteers will be deployed to work with FEMA, to assist at vaccination centers across the United States. Not since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have Response Volunteers been deployed domestically.

    From the early days of the pandemic, we’ve seen members of the Peace Corps community step up to help communities across the United States — as contact tracers, working with food banks, making masks, as part of NPCA’s Emergency Response Network in Washington State, and so much more. 

     

    For the past year we’ve supported national legislation that has tried to jump-start formal involvement of returned Volunteers throughout communities here at home. Now it’s happening.

     

    For the past year we’ve supported national legislation that has tried to jump-start formal involvement of returned Volunteers throughout communities here at home. We made the case that Volunteers who were evacuated from around the world in March 2020 can and should be given opportunities to bring their skills and experience to serve at home. That’s exactly what is happening now. As the end of the pandemic is within sight, it’s heartening that Response Volunteers can help at this critical time.

    Those eligible to serve as part of the partnership with FEMA include returned Volunteers evacuated from their overseas posts in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the release from the Peace Corps agency notes:

    Volunteers will work at federally supported Community Vaccination Centers (CVCs) across the country. The agency will soon begin recruiting for this special domestic deployment. Assignments will focus on urgent needs as identified by FEMA, and on communities that have been traditionally underserved. Volunteers will be assigned to language support, administrative, logistical, and other work that supports vaccination centers’ operations. It is anticipated that Peace Corps Volunteers will be deployed into the field by mid-May.

    Peace Corps Response, which was originally established as Crisis Corps 25 years ago with a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, is well positioned to help address the COVID crisis domestically. And in a very timely initiative undertaken two years ago, Peace Corps Response launched the Advancing Health Professionals program, to improve health care education and strengthen health systems on a societal level in resource-limited areas. This is the kind of program that can help lead the way as Volunteers begin to return to the field internationally — to work with communities to address their immediate needs.

    Resilience, commitment, and a sense of working in solidarity with communities defines the Peace Corps experience. We need that more than ever.

     

    Read the full release from Peace Corps here.


    Glenn Blumhorst is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.