A perspective from Guatemala — at the NPCA global ideas summit July 18, 2020 see more
A host country perspective from Guatemala. Remarks from the July 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
By Luis Argueta
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited three winners of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award to share their perspectives. Here are remarks delivered by Luis Argueta — film director and producer whose work helps audiences better understand people on the margins — including “The Silence of Neto,” Guatemala’s first Oscar submission.
Below is an edited version of his remarks.
We are at an unprecedented situation worldwide because of this pandemic. It is a perfect time to ask some very basic questions about humanity in general and about the Peace Corps in particular.
From what I have seen here in Guatemala, the pandemic has revealed the vast differences between a small group of people who have a lot and the large majority who have very little. It has also revealed in its stark nakedness the structural deficiencies of states like Guatemala, where the economic disparities are tremendous. But also where the neglect of the large population for many, many years has caused the current critical situation where, for over 50 years, people's basic needs like education — and today, it's obvious health — have been not addressed.
Watch: Luis Argueta’s remarks at Peace Corps Connect to the Future
The response in Guatemala has been to create hospitals and to augment the number of beds that can be occupied by people who are ill with the COVID-19. That looks like a great solution. But in a system where we don't have basic access to minimal healthcare, this is not the solution.
By addressing this particular need, and by the Peace Corps focusing on the basic health needs of rural communities, we can start focusing on the future. Because when you need to go to a hospital to treat a minor illness that could be treated by a local health post — when there’s not even a clinic in the rural areas — I think we would be serving the communities in a very different way.
The same way that in the streets of the U.S. and in other countries — but especially in the U.S. — people are protesting racial inequality and people are coming to terms with our own privileges, it is a time for the Peace Corps to realize that every Volunteer who comes to a host country comes with great privilege.
Something that I have been particularly focusing my work on for the past 12-plus years is migration. And these structural deficiencies — these major differences in the country — have provoked what, to me, is one of the most crucial issues of our times: forced displacement, forced migration and asylum seeking.
The current situation is not making those things better. And even if borders today are closed, once they open — and we hope that will be sooner than later — people will be forced again to leave their homes. So, again, what is the Peace Corps to do at a time like this? I think it is to go and work at the very basic community level and helping better these conditions that are making it impossible for people to stay at home and be with their family and prosper and be healthy.
I don't think that this is a time to be shy about our common links and our historical connections. The same way that in the streets of the U.S. and in other countries — but especially in the U.S. — people are protesting racial inequality and people are coming to terms with our own privileges, it is a time for the Peace Corps to realize that every Volunteer who comes to a host country comes with great privilege. And it is to the betterment of everybody we self-reflect on our position in these communities.
At the same time that we self-reflect on our role and our privileges, and the privileges of Volunteers, we should look at the historical ties between the host countries and the U.S. It is a time of many contradictions.
Guatemalan immigrants, and immigrants from many other countries, are today in the U.S. working — and are considered, in many instances, essential workers. However, they also are risking being detained and deported. They're also suffering the effects of the pandemic in larger numbers, as are other minorities and more vulnerable populations in the U.S. We must recognize this.
We must recognize that the Peace Corps does not operate in a vacuum. It operates as part of a larger government structure — and that, yes, it represents the best America can offer. But it also has to be very conscious of the current image of the U.S. around the world.
We must recognize that the Peace Corps does not operate in a vacuum. It operates as part of a larger government structure — and that, yes, it represents the best America can offer. But it also has to be very conscious of the current image of the U.S. around the world, because of very unfortunate isolationist policies.
So at the same time that we're reaching out to host countries — and hopefully, we will be receiving many more Peace Corps volunteers in the future — they're not issuing visas for my fellow Guatemalans to travel to the U.S. There is the threat of cutting visas even for exchange students who pay full tuition at U.S. universities, let alone temporary workers who go pick the crops in the fields of the U.S. So we must be conscious of these contradictions. And we must relearn the history between our countries.
One of the privileges that we should look at is the fact that, as the pandemic was declared, Peace Corps Volunteers were sent home. Fortunately, they were able to go home and are now with their families. However, this took them away from a place where they had committed to work — and where people without that privilege, that choice, had to remain in a more vulnerable position.
Definitely to me, this is a time of meditation, of self-reflection, and self-analysis — and, as hard as it might seem, to look forward to the future with hope. I wish everybody the best now and in the days to come.
Luis Argueta of Guatemala is a film director and producer whose work helps audiences better understand people on the margins — including “The Silence of Neto,” Guatemala’s first Oscar submission. He is the 2019 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
Steven Saum posted an articleLetters Winter 2021: Readers write see more
Letters, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram comments: Readers respond to the stories in words and images in our fall 2020 edition. We’re happy to continue the conversation.Write us: email@example.com
Renew, retool, return?
I suspect the Peace Corps will see a renewal following the Biden administration. Service to our country and promoting peace, prosperity, and democracy will take on new importance. It should be a promising future for the Peace Corps.
I struggle to see how it is ethical to send PCVs into different countries considering that America has no control over the virus right now, a huge number of Americans have the virus, and Volunteers will likely be sent to areas that may not have the best health facilities. My concern is for the host countries and people living in the communities where the PCVs will be stationed.
“How many of you…?” JFK at the Union (and the Cow Palace)
I used to pass by a plaque in the University of Michigan Student Union steps marking this spot twice a day. One day there was a sign taped to it announcing a Peace Corps recruiting session in the International Center. There were RPCVs in attendance to share their personal experiences ... and four awesome years later I was back in the same room, doing the same.
Assuming the Peace Corps survives, as I approach retirement I’m considering going back for another round.
I’ve heard about this speech for years. This is the first time I’ve actually heard it. Entertaining and inspiring!
I was working in the oil fields of eastern Venezuela when Jack Kennedy was killed. It made a deep impression on me; especially moving was the reaction of the Venezuelan people who considered him as one of their own. I subsequently resigned my job, went to Washington, walked into Peace Corps and was hired on the spot to become desk officer for Venezuela. Later I was sent to Brazil as associate director. Years later I ended up as Peace Country Director in Tunisia. The Peace Corps years were rich in experience and without doubt were the most challenging and rewarding years of my life.
Associate Country Director, Brazil 1966–68; Country Director, Tunisia 1981–83
I was inspired by that very speech and 20 years later served as a Volunteer in the Philippines. Over the years since then, I’ve given many presentations in schools on my Peace Corps experience and promoted Peace Corps service.
The Philippines 1981
I always liked Kennedy’s sense of humor … like when he said “I graduated from Harvard … the Michigan of the East” and “This is the longest short speech I ever gave.”
South Africa 2016–18
I am grateful for the Peace Corps services rendered to my birth country, Malaysia. I benefited much academically and personally. Diane was my maths teacher then at Penang Technical Institute in 1968. Thank you and God bless America.
Allen Ong via Facebook
I taught for two years in a beautiful country that was full of hope and progress. The people in Charikar made me feel like their daughter, their sister, their friend.
Without doubt the establishment of the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Program are the most important public and international policy in the history of the United States.
Sami Jamil Jadallah
Founder and Executive Director at New Initiatives Foundation
Today I was asked by a vendor wanting to find me a discount whether I served in the military. I responded as I usually do to that question, “No, but I served my country in the Peace Corps.” I think for the first time I heard from a vendor, “Thank you for your service.”
I joined because I thought I could make the world a better place. I came back a better person.
When I served in Guatemala in the 1980s it was dangerous to even teach indigenous people to read, let alone foster democratic involvement and economic and environmental justice. Well done, Mateo Paneitz.
Long Way Home is a great organization. Congratulations, Mateo!
In Memoriam: John Lewis
John Lewis: When I first met John Lewis, it was in the late 1970s, when I worked at ACTION, Nixon’s attempt to hide JFK’s agency called Peace Corps, which under ACTION became International Operations, with VISTA and other volunteer programs under Domestic Operations. He was associate director when I met him. He and his work have made the world a better place. We will miss him!
Nigeria 1966–68, Liberia 1968
May his soul rest in perfect peace.
In Memoriam: Joseph Blatchford
He was director when I was the training center director in Puerto Rico in 1970–72. Also a very good tennis player. Sad news that he has left us.
K. Richard Pyle
He was a good man who helped Peace Corps survive during a politically difficult period. Rest in peace.
Staff, Belize 1974–76; Country Director, Honduras 1976–79
Pandemic Lessons: A nurse in the nation’s capital see more
Pandemic Lessons: A nurse in the nation’s capital
By Rose Conklin
Illustration by Maria Carluccio
The end of March, April, we were getting hit hard with COVID in Washington, D.C. It was really still an unknown illness, but it was everywhere. I had started a float position as a registered nurse at George Washington University Hospital, working on the medical surgical units and in the ER, sometimes helping out ICU nurses, wherever they needed me most. I was on the COVID medical surgical floor a lot of shifts in those months. A lot of nurses were scared in the beginning — having to put on the PPE and wear a mask the whole day, not something we were used to doing before the pandemic.
Like many working with COVID patients, I was worried about my family — my partner and our daughter, who was three at the time. We were living in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment. A doctor I worked with told me about someone with Airbnb in our neighborhood; she hadn’t been able to rent it out, and she wanted to help. Another nurse and I took her up on it. Deciding to move away from one’s family during a time like this is a very personal decision. We were there for five weeks.
I didn’t really see my family much during that time — because of concern that we could get COVID and be asymptomatic, then pass it on. It was hard, not seeing my daughter except through FaceTime and in a socially distant way. She couldn’t hug me, and I couldn’t hug her.
It was hard, not seeing my daughter except through FaceTime and in a socially distant way. She couldn’t hug me, and I couldn’t hug her.
By the end of those five weeks, I had gotten tested several times: nasally, through saliva, and through a study in the ER for antibodies. I came back negative for all. In May, my family moved together into a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment.
We were learning more about COVID, even though we were getting mixed signals from the CDC. That is frustrating, because the hospital makes changes based on those guidelines. For patients who were alone and not allowed visitors, it was hard. Some were depressed. In general, even before the pandemic, as hospital nurses, we spend most of the time with patients, and that was similar during the pandemic.
We were the main ones going in while on contact and airborne precautions. Doctors make decisions based on daily or as-needed in-person evaluations, and on the vital signs, blood work, and clinical observations that are obtained from nurses and techs. COVID patients can decompensate really quickly. You have to be aware of that. We had patients on continuous cardiac monitoring and continuous pulse ox. The concern for COVID is oxygen level going down too quickly. We were able to monitor that.
The ICU is where COVID patients were intubated. When a patient was really decompensating, they did the Hail Marys — including the meds like President Trump got, but also tPA, tissue plasminogen activator — a med for patients who have ischemic strokes, because COVID can produce clotting. There were patients getting 100 percent oxygen on ventilators, yet the patients’ oxygen level would be in the 60s or 70s for days. At that point, staff start to talk with the family; letting them come and look at the patient through the window in the door while a nurse puts a phone to the patient’s ear, even though they’re intubated and sedated.
What you need to get through it
Before the pandemic, I would talk to loved ones about the importance of hygiene. They would say, “Oh, that’s Rose — she’s a nurse, and she’s all about the hand washing!” Now they’re all about it.
I served with Peace Corps in Guatemala 2008–11, as a Healthy Schools Volunteer and then a Volunteer leader. We would travel to smaller schools to help with healthy habits: getting access to clean water, and education with teachers and mothers. The director and founder of the program was Sergio Mack, a pediatrician and public health specialist. He planted the seed of this public health community program some 10 years prior and saw it grow.
Right now this pandemic seems never-ending, but it is very temporary in the grand scheme of things.
Working with Peace Corps and interpreting with medical missions deepened my interest in healthcare. Back in D.C. I got a job working with a nonprofit organization focused on early intervention: visiting families with children under 3 who were getting physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. Often they were Spanish-speaking. It was like I had taken my world experience home. And I went to nursing school at Johns Hopkins, thanks in part to a Coverdell Fellowship.
I talked to my site mate from Peace Corps when the COVID pandemic was starting to ramp up. I told her that it was strange, but the isolation when I left my family kind of felt similar to the Peace Corps experience. It’s very different in another sense, being socially distant within the community. But similar in the sense of what you need to get through it: to be resilient, tenacious, hardworking, patient.
The months ahead
Right now this pandemic seems never-ending, but it is very temporary in the grand scheme of things. Just like Peace Corps, it’s one to two years of your life — depending on how it’s managed — and then it’s over. We can take away from that experience how to live a healthier lifestyle; it’s knowledge-building.
I got the first dose of the vaccine on January 4, and I plan to get the second dose on January 27. At the same time, after the holidays, we’re bracing ourselves for infections that might come before the vaccine kicks in. If it hits, what are we going to do?
Pandemic Lessons: A vaccine trial participant see more
Pandemic Lessons: A vaccine trial participant
By Tia Huggins
Illustration by Maria Carluccio
For the past six years I’ve served as director of care coordination at Imperial Beach Community Clinic, south of San Diego. Last year one provider at the clinic put out an email about the trial for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. I thought, I want to do that. It’s a contribution to your community, and participants were paid. A lot of people think it must be scary to do this. I wasn’t worried. To put it in stark terms, I’ve worked in hospice, and I think suffering is a lot worse than death.
I was sure I got the vaccine; I had side effects for about three days after both times — headache and fatigue. Two weeks after the first vaccine in October, I had diarrhea all day. After the second one I felt nauseated. I don’t have that good of an imagination.
First time I went in, one doctor asked, “When are we going to find out whether we got the vaccine or the placebo?”
The vaccine administration took place at the California Research Foundation. It’s sort of like an assembly line; there are a lot of people, and they ask if you’re having symptoms. The first time they draw blood, the second time you come in just for the vaccine. I go back for a visit in February. In between, we have an app where we register once a week. If you are having symptoms, they call.
A lot of doctors came in to do it. First time I went in, one doctor asked, “When are we going to find out whether we got the vaccine or the placebo?” Two years, they said, when our part of the trial would be done. “I’m withdrawing,” that doctor said, “if that means that when the vaccine comes on the market, and I don’t know whether I got it or not, and that I won’t be able to get it.” They said hold on; they checked, then said when a vaccine comes on the market, we’ll tell everybody. At the end of December they told me: I had received the vaccine.
Peace Corps and the pandemic
I was an older Volunteer when I went into the Peace Corps in 2007. For years I taught Spanish at Iowa State University. I turned 50 in Guatemala, working with the Healthy Schools program. Rose Conkin was in the group that followed me, and I thought she did a wonderful job. After serving in Peace Corps, both Rose and I became nurses.
In 2020, for about four months, my daughter wouldn’t let me get near the grandchildren because she was afraid I would give them COVID from somebody at the clinic. Mostly I’m working from home, though at our clinic, anybody who goes in has to get tested.
Taking the vaccine was a volunteer opportunity, too, which is just the mentality that you take into everything that you do after Peace Corps, that sense of shared humanity as you go through the rest of your life.
In terms of day-to-day living, the pandemic hasn’t seemed so hard. Peace Corps was more difficult. We learned key coping skills. Taking the vaccine was a volunteer opportunity, too, which is just the mentality that you take into everything that you do after Peace Corps, that sense of shared humanity as you go through the rest of your life.
Bring the solution
Community clinics are part of the safety net for people in need. Our providers are dedicated; they want to take care of people. During the pandemic, most of our providers go in once a week to see patients in person. A couple providers who are older have not gone in; they’re trying to see patients over the phone. Medicare won’t pay for virtual visits unless it’s video — but those patients are often older and can barely use a phone, much less video. Our providers said, We don’t care whether we get enough money or not.
But you can’t give a vaccine over the phone, take blood pressure over the phone. One thing we have been doing, especially for people diagnosed as positive for COVID: ordering pulse oximeters, which will monitor oxygen saturation level, and home blood pressure monitors. We have a drive-by area, tarps out in the parking lot, for COVID testing. We’re going to continue to be part of this important work taking care of people. We’ll be giving out the vaccine. I’d like to be part of the system that will bring the solution.
Ana Victoria Cruz posted an articleAnnouncing the Winner of the 2020 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service: Matthew PaneitzThe founder of Long Way Home, helping the people of Comalapa, Guatemala see more
For nearly two decades he has partnered with Guatemalans to address injustices against indigenous peoples.
By NPCA Staff
Photo of Matthew Paneitz courtesy Long Way Home
National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is pleased to announce the winner of the 2020 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service: Matthew Paneitz.
The Shriver Award is presented annually by NPCA to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who continue to make a sustained and distinguished contribution to humanitarian causes at home or abroad, or who are innovative social entrepreneurs who bring about significant long-term change. The award is named in honor of the first Peace Corps Director, Sargent Shriver, who founded and developed Peace Corps.
For 18 years, Matthew “Mateo” Paneitz has devoted his life to the redress of ethnic violence and systemic oppression perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. He has been doing this while living and working in San Juan Comalapa, a town of 40,000 primarily indigenous Kaqchikel Maya, located in Guatemala’s Western highlands.
In Comalapa, Paneitz was exposed first-hand to the brutal aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War, a colonialism-driven conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives — primarily indigenous people.
The Peace Corps brought Paneitz to Guatemala in 2002 and shifted his trajectory away from a middle-income career in the U.S. life to a life of unwavering dedication to equitable development in Comalapa and Guatemala. In Comalapa, Paneitz was exposed first-hand to the brutal aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War, a colonialism-driven conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives — primarily indigenous people.
Throughout Guatemala, extreme environmental challenges and inequality, as well as high rates of unemployment and illiteracy, currently stymie equitable and sustainable development. To address these issues and to provide better living conditions for Comalapans, Mateo founded Long Way Home, a 501(c)3 non-profit, in 2005. Led by Mateo, Long Way Home utilizes green building, employment, and education to mobilize people to actively participate in democracy and create innovative pathways to economic and environmental justice.
Green building as a pathway to learning
In 2009, LWH began the construction of Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot (CETC), a grade school and vocational school that uses green building as a pathway for teaching principles of environmental stewardship and active democratic participation. The school itself serves as a model for the effectiveness of green building and is constructed using 500 tons of repurposed waste and over 15,000 used tires. School walls are built from eco-bricks (plastic bottles stuffed with unrecyclable soft plastics) and car tires rammed with trash and earth. Skylights are made from recycled glass bottles. And roof shingles are made from aluminum cans and liter-sized soda bottles.
In the CETC classrooms, students are taught to assess and address local opportunities and challenges through a nationally accredited, project-based curriculum. As part of their learning, students conduct surveys to identify key development issues in surrounding communities: poor smoke ventilation, access to clean water and sanitation, and earthquake-resilient infrastructure. Using these results as a guide, students work with teachers to build stoves, water tanks, latrines, and retaining walls for families identified in the survey. To reflect the work of their students, Paneitz gave this curriculum the apt name “Hero School.” Since the implementation of the curriculum in Grades 7 through 11 in 2017, students have constructed 39 smoke-efficient stoves, 25 water tanks, four compost latrines, and two tire retaining walls. Students at CETC are forming a new generation of entrepreneurs uniquely equipped to lead their communities with innovative solutions to complex local and global challenges.
Since the implementation of the curriculum in Grades 7 through 11 in 2017, students have constructed 39 smoke-efficient stoves, 25 water tanks, four compost latrines, and two tire retaining walls.
In 2021, CETC will refine and expand this curriculum to all grade levels, K–11, and begin to build the infrastructure to deliver the Hero School model at partner schools in Livingston, Guatemala and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Through Long Way Home’s international volunteer program, volunteers also receive an immersive education focused on cultivating real democratic participation skills — assessing local challenges and opportunities, partnering across disciplines and context, assembling resources, and implementing a plan for development that uplifts all.
On a global scale, Long Way Home has engaged more than 2,000 volunteers through its constantly evolving volunteer program. Collaborations with established volunteer organizations such as Engineers Without Borders have secured access to clean water for more than 1,000 families across Guatemala.
To ensure the global impact of the principles at work in Comalapa, Paneitz collaborated with green building experts to publish A Guide to Green Building. He also developed a hands-on, month-long companion course, The Green Building Academy, to teach students from around the world how to directly apply green building principles in the real world. Deepening his contributions to the green building sector, Paneitz has contributed to humanitarian green construction projects in Colombia, Venezuela, South Africa, Sierra Leone, and the United States.
Nominations for the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service are accepted year-round. To nominate an individual, please download the Shriver Award nomination packet, and submit all nomination materials to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steven Saum posted an articleDon’t have shame, Anna Zauner's host family told her. But in leaving, she does. see more
Guatemala | Anna Zauner
Home: Skillman, New Jersey
Photo: Dressed in traditional Mayan traje, as is custom for Sunday Mass. Anna Zauner, left, with friend Jackelyn Saquic.
We received the evacuation notice at 10 p.m., just hours after the Guatemalan government announced that all school would be canceled for 21 days. Forty-six minutes later I received the follow-up email with my departure date: Tuesday. A full day to say goodbyes and pack.
I started Monday by telling my host family and what friends I could find the news. I ran into some of my students along the trail to school and told one group of girls that I would be leaving. One of my work partners scheduled a meeting in the town center for me to tell colleagues. My return was uncertain. A follow-up email instructed us to give away all belongings we could not bring.
My colleague Patty Saquic hosted me for a last lunch in her home. Troubling news kept coming. Volunteers scheduled to leave that morning were on their way to the airport and had their buses turned back. No planes were leaving. The border with Mexico was scheduled to close at 8 p.m.
As I was finishing lunch, I received an update: “Have all of your things packed and ready in an hour to go to your consolidation point.” I was 30 minutes from home with nothing packed.
Class of first-year secondary school students preparing Jocón. They learned budgeting by saving up for weeks to purchase ingredients for the recipe. Photo by Anna Zauner
As I was finishing lunch, I received an update: “Have all of your things packed and ready in an hour to go to your consolidation point.” I was 30 minutes from home with nothing packed. I ran through the town center to catch a bus. A friend flagged me down: Be careful, she said. Guatemalans were becoming hostile towards “tourists.” I shouldn’t be walking around alone.
At home, I packed a few things, hoisted them into a tuk-tuk, headed for the nearest neighbor with a car.
A flight was chartered for us, departing Tuesday 9 a.m. Then canceled; the plane had not been granted airspace. Negotiations with the government were still in progress. Wednesday, airspace was granted. To keep local police from stopping us, we headed for the airport with an embassy and police escort — multiple vehicles and 20 motorcycles, sirens blaring, lights flashing.
Hours later we touched down in Miami. The entire plane erupted with applause for the hard work our post administration put into bring us home.
As for home: What about the one I left behind?
When I told my host family in Guatemala and tried to explain through tears that I was hoping to come back but unsure if I would be able to, they said to me, “No tenga pena.” Don’t have shame. “We will keep your room for you — this room is yours.”
Though I do have shame — for the lack of proper goodbyes, for leaving the community I pledged to serve for two years. The students I was teaching have been spending their time at home, leaving quiet fútbol courts and classrooms bereft of laughter. I hope the lectures I gave on positive youth development through life skills will propel students forward. There was so much more that I did not get the chance to address: substance abuse, reproductive health, and mental health for starters.
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