Peace Corps

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    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. 

  • Communications Intern 2 posted an article
    A perspective from Kenya. July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future. see more

    A host country perspective from Kenya. Remarks from the July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future.

    By Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said

     

    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 Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said  — volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels. 

    Below is an edited version of his remarks.

     

    Hi everybody, I’m happy to be given this chance to share with you some experiences. I’ll talk about three episodes regarding the Peace Corps. Peace Corps came at the correct time when many countries just gained their independence; the young people who came as Volunteers were disciplined and they really interacted with the community.

    People in Kenya knew very little about the United States. With the coming of the Peace Corps Volunteers, who worked mainly in rural areas, people came to know more. And that was during during the Cold War. Discussions took place, and people felt at home with the Volunteers — and the Volunteers themselves felt at home. Thus that aim of the Peace Corps was achieved immediately. 

    The majority of the Volunteers were teachers, and I'm happy to say that most of the people who went through those schools — special high schools — and because of the Peace Corps, they did well in school and they have really served the community. That's the main aim of the Peace Corps: to empower the people. 

     

    Watch: Remarks by Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said from July 18

     


    As the years went on, especially in other fields, what Peace Corps Volunteers did was marvelous. In technical terms, whether in agriculture or in otherwise empowering people, they did a good job. The policy of the American government was seen on the ground; to see and talk to people and exchange ideas is when you learn more about the country. And it came as a cultural exchange: We learned technical fields, and we learned more about American culture and American people. 

    After the Cold War came another era — the era of terrorism, which really affected the work done by Volunteers in several countries. In some countries, the Volunteers couldn't go too deep in some areas. And as things change, especially in Kenya, they had to be pulled out; that was very sad. That also interfered with the work of the Peace Corps Volunteers. 

    And now there is a reckoning because of this pandemic. I think this a big a big blow to the Peace Corps itself — especially in Kenya, because we were just planning to bring in new Peace Corps Volunteers. We were ready to receive them, after they were pulled out about seven years ago. They were coming back. And unfortunately, all of a sudden this pandemic came. 

    Now is a very difficult time, especially for the work of the Peace Corps — because the Peace Corps Volunteers work with communities and interact with communities. With this pandemic, we don't know how long it will take. So unfortunately, that interaction is no longer there. Because when people are living together and working together, they learn from each other — and they learn each other's culture, even how to prepare traditional dishes. We shall miss all that. 

    How can the Peace Corps change and work from outside the country they're supposed to be in? How can the Volunteers work? It's a big challenge. And I think this we have to look at very critically. I don't see Volunteers coming back to the countries in the near future. So I think the best thing is to plan and see how we can interact. What we are doing now through Zoom most these days — people have learned to communicate. People are working from home; is it possible to give some technical advice from home? That's one thing we should look at.

     

    I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected. 

    How can we revive or continue with the work that Peace Corps Volunteers were doing? They have left, and I'm sure that local people that are trying to contact them to do some work; it's a continuous train which goes on. 

    How can we survive during this pandemic? We need to look at ourselves and bring our heads together and see how the work can be done. We have seen it at the national conference taking place. And is it possible, at least to some extent, to carry on with the work we are doing in the stations we were through Zoom?

    The other issue is the American situation. Just recently people were really shocked when the [government] said that international students who are there had to come back. I'm very happy that decision was revised. Such decisions sometimes, unfortunately, affect ordinary people who have children there and who are starting their own family; they hope that they will get the education they need in America and then come back. So if all of a sudden they said that "No, because of this pandemic, you have to go back," it becomes difficult. 

    But also, if I can mention what has happened recently in the States — especially the brutality which is going on: That really affected so many people all over the world. I'm glad that things are being worked out, and I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected. 

    People are very sensitive, especially in terms of human rights; people are saying that especially that America, this democracy, is usually the first to talk about and harass other countries when there is abuse of human rights. And here people are looking at especially the security guys and themselves doing such things. As human beings, we should all learn to live with each other and respect each other — and work together.


    Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya is a volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels. He is the 2013 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    In a time of global crisis, Lex Rieffel explores new ways forward for Peace Corps. see more

    COVID-19 upended systems. Now we’re focused on structural racism like never before. So how can Peace Corps help this nation live up to its ideals?

     
    By Lex Rieffel

    Illustration by Sandra Dionsi / Theispot

     

    The COVID-19 pandemic that erupted at the beginning of this year massively disrupted behavior that has for a long time been taken for granted — between people and between nations. Then in May the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman sparked unprecedented demonstrations around the world to end systemic racial discrimination and improve social justice.

    Years will pass before new patterns of home life and work life become normal and before international relations achieve new forms of openness and interaction. Policies, programs, projects, and institutions will have to be adapted to meet this new reality. It will not be easy. It will require political will not seen since World War II, and a reckoning with racism that precedes the founding of the United States.

    As it prepares to celebrate in 2021 its 60th year of working to make the world a better place, the Peace Corps, too, will have to change. Even the three goals announced at its founding will need to be reconsidered:

    1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

    2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

    3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.


    Perhaps the focus should be less on training and more on meeting global challenges like climate change and conflict.

     

    MY PEACE CORPS GROUP, India XVI, served in the mid-1960s. This was the heyday of the Peace Corps. It had blossomed to become a vibrant agency in less than ten years, with almost 16,000 Volunteers serving in scores of countries. Then the Vietnam War and President Nixon crippled both the supply of volunteers and the demand from host countries, reducing the number of serving Volunteers to under 5,000 in the early 1980s.

    A passionate campaign in that decade produced enough bipartisan support in the Congress to stop the decline in the number of Volunteers and begin a slow buildup. However, three successive presidents — Clinton, Bush-43, and Obama — failed to achieve their election campaign pledges to double the number of serving Volunteers from the levels they had inherited; Clinton inherited some 5,400, Obama just over 7,000 — about the number now. There was insufficient support in the Congress for a bigger Peace Corps budget to overcome the opposition of a vocal minority. Voters seemed convinced that U.S. national security depended more on putting boots on the ground overseas than sneakers on the ground.

    Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress has strengthened during the Trump Presidency. A bill was introduced in the House last year to defund the Peace Corps and attracted more than 100 votes. It’s easy to imagine the Peace Corps being defunded in a second Trump Administration. But it’s also possible to imagine a stronger Peace Corps emerging under a new president.
     

    Revolutionary and Inclusive

    Wearing my economist hat, here is my best guess about the supply and demand for Peace Corps Volunteers, regardless of who is elected in November.

    It seems likely that more American men and women will be interested in joining the Peace Corps in the coming years because higher education and the job market in the USA have been so greatly disrupted. Even before the pandemic arrived, the job market was being reshaped by artificial intelligence, robotics, and other factors. The “normal” pattern of getting a full-time job with benefits was no longer the default option for many graduates. The gig economy was expanding visibly.

    The pandemic has delivered a body blow to higher education that will almost certainly lead to dramatic changes. Already we see far more high school graduates exploring gap year options. More fundamentally, financial constraints are likely to reduce residential enrollment substantially for several years. College dropouts and people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, regardless of their age, may find the Peace Corps and other forms of public service to be appealing options.

    The biggest unknown on the supply side is how the current debate on national service will play out. Too few Americans are aware of the existence of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Mandated by the Congress in the authorizing legislation for FY2017, the Commission issued its final report in March 2020, and held its public rollout on June 25. Its recommendations represent “a revolutionary and inclusive approach to service for Americans.”

    The National Commission found compelling reasons “to cultivate a widespread culture of service” in the United States. Its report states that bold action is required, not incremental change. Its recommendations begin with “comprehensive civic education and service learning starting in kindergarten” and extend to making service-year opportunities so ubiquitous that “service becomes a rite of passage for millions of young adults.” If acted upon, the result will enhance national security and strengthen our democratic system.
     

    The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031.


    The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031. Among these, it calls for one million to be supported by federal funding, ten times the number currently supported. The Peace Corps is explicitly included in this vision, though the Commission does not recommend a specific number of Peace Corps Volunteers. It does explicitly call for an expansion of Peace Corps Response, making the program more accessible to older Americans and people with disabilities, with increased opportunities for “virtual” volunteering.

    The pandemic could actually accelerate the idea of creating a voluntary national service norm, for women as well as men. Bipartisan legislation has already been introduced to scale up AmeriCorps and other domestic service programs. Experts and activists have called for establishing new programs for rapid employment of contact tracers and health workers to stop the pandemic in the USA. The ongoing demonstrations against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have brought forth proposals for new community-based service initiatives. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created in the Great Depression of the 1930s has been cited as a model for a form of service program that could emerge to reduce the highest unemployment rate the country has seen in the past 75 years: 14.7 percent at the end of April and 13.3 percent at the end of May.

    The Peace Corps budget is a tiny part of the federal budget. For example, its appropriation of $410.5 million for FY2020 was less than two-tenths of one percent of the Defense Department’s budget request for weapons procurement. It shouldn’t take much political will in the Congress to double or triple the Peace Corps’ budget if there is growing voter support for national service. The crucial question will then become how many of the men and women seeking a service opportunity will be attracted to living in a foreign country. A big part of the answer will depend on evolving perceptions of the health and security risks of working outside the USA. Quite possibly, fewer Americans will want to spend two years in some remote village in a country they couldn’t find on a map, even with a promise of reliable internet access. On the other hand, some of the recently repatriated Peace Corps volunteers are continuing their service online, and forms of virtual service internationally may become more feasible and attractive.

    In short, the supply could conceivably be sufficient to produce a Peace Corps with as many as 100,000 volunteers serving abroad by 2031, but that must be considered a best-case outcome.

    The demand from host countries, by contrast, may be insufficient to even maintain the pre-pandemic level of 7,000 volunteers in the field. There will be an early test of this demand: how many of the 60-odd countries hosting volunteers before the pandemic erupted will welcome them back. The process of renegotiating programs with these countries will undoubtedly be challenging.

     


    Who needs the Peace Corps?

    In the 1960s, the whole world — even countries in the Communist Bloc — looked up to the USA with envy because of its high standard of living, its rich culture (movies, theaters, museums, etc.), its outstanding universities, its technological advances (putting men on the moon), its fight for civil rights, its enduring democratic political system, its international leadership. Few countries still look up to the USA in this comprehensive way. Over the past two decades or more, we have squandered our position of preeminence. 
     

    It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration.


    That’s just the beginning of the problem. The process of globalization led by the United States started slowing down with the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001 and halted with the Global Financial Crisis emanating from the USA in 2007–08. By 2015, globalization was unwinding. That was the year the refugee exodus from the Middle East quickly led most European countries to restrict immigration severely. Another big setback came with the Brexit vote in June 2016, followed a few months later by the election of President Trump on an anti-globalization platform. It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration. Climate change is likely to produce more border closing than border opening.

    In short, in a world where most governments are preoccupied with addressing internal problems and in which internet access is penetrating into the far corners of the globe, few countries are likely to need Peace Corps volunteers or want them.

    At the same time, the rise of China and other countries forces us to reconsider our national security in a world where the U.S. population of 330 million represents barely 4 percent of Earth’s total population of 7.7 billion. Military power cannot possibly be enough to maintain the respect of the rest of the world. To some extent, this power seems to have made the rest fear the USA more than admire it. In this case, America’s national security may depend greatly on how well the rest of the world understands the positive features of our country. Promoting that understanding just happens to be the second goal of the Peace Corps. 

     

    FROM A DEEPER DIVE into the risk of border-related conflict in the coming decades emerges an argument that a “whole world peace corps” is needed more than lots of separate national Peace Corps-like programs. Thus, the most ambitious approach to reinventing the Peace Corps might be to transform the existing UN Volunteer program into a World Peace Corps, with every country establishing an affiliate. The U.S. Peace Corps, for example, would be rebranded as “World Peace Corps - USA.”

    By contrast, the least ambitious vision for the post-pandemic Peace Corps would be to re-establish its recent level of 7,000 serving volunteers, making the adjustments necessary to restore programs with previous host countries and find some new ones. This should be doable — though it’s important not to underestimate the complexities that will arise.

    So, what is the most impactful and politically feasible approach that the large “Peace Corps family” should pursue? A time of crisis like today’s provides an ideal opportunity to assess and debate alternatives. For this reason, the National Peace Corps Association is convening a summit on July 18 to explore the future of Peace Corps — and the broader Peace Corps community.
     

    Among options worth considering: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them.


    There are a number of options worth considering between a World Peace Corps and reverting to the barely visible program of the past 40 years. Most important among them may be two-way service programs: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them. This was part of Sargent Shriver’s vision back in the 1960s, but it was a nonstarter with the U.S. Congress. Now we have to ask ourselves why any country negotiating with the Peace Corps would fail to insist on a two-way program.

    The resistance, sadly, will be within the USA, despite the fact that there is an abundance of service work that men and women from foreign countries could usefully do here. Disaster relief is just one obvious area. Few Americans know that thousands of individuals in Ireland raised more than $3 million for the Navajo nation to help fight the pandemic. Firefighters have come from as far away as Australia to battle wildfires in California and other states.

    Teaching is probably the most interesting area for two-way service. Think of the benefits of having at least one foreign teacher in every middle school and high school in the USA. They could teach foreign languages, geography, music, sports, and more. Their counterparts, Americans serving as volunteer teachers abroad, would do the same.

    This could be the easiest way to build on the Third Goal of the Peace Corps in the post-pandemic world: helping Americans to better understand people in the rest of the world. It would also represent a strong step to counter allegations that the Peace Corps is a manifestation of “white saviorism.”

    Such a two-way teaching program could be established within the State Department (like the Fulbright and the Humphrey programs) or under the Corporation for National and Community Service. But there is one glaring problem here.

    Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress won’t go away in a post-Trump administration. A bigger, better, bolder Peace Corps in its current form as a federal agency may well be a political nonstarter even under a Democratic administration. If so, converting the Peace Corps from a U.S. government agency to an independent, private sector NGO might represent the best chance to build an international service program that continues to be “the best face of America overseas.”

    With a nonpartisan board of trustees composed of eminent personalities, this NGO could be generously funded by individual donors, foundations, and corporations, as well as receiving core grants from the federal budget. Largely freed from government fetters, it could iterate toward an array of programs of international service that contribute materially to a more peaceful and prosperous world. Operating within this organization, the Peace Corps could remain the gold standard of international service.

    Yet now we have a fresh challenge — which is also coming to terms with a very old problem. To remain the gold standard, the Peace Corps will have to become more diverse, more inclusive. The report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service has noted that our existing federal service programs have primarily benefited people from better educated and higher income families. This is true about the Peace Corps as much as other programs.

    I hope readers will not simply “stay tuned” for a report from the National Peace Corps Association following the July 18 summit. I hope they will weigh in with constructive comments. For sure, there will be no consensus on how the Peace Corps should evolve, but I believe that the members of the Peace Corps family — more than 200,000 strong — are in the best position to understand the challenges and find a sensible way forward. 
     


    Lex Rieffel (India 1965–67) is a nonresident fellow with the Stimson Center. He served two years of active duty in the U.S. Navy before joining the Peace Corps. He has been an economist with the Treasury Department and USAID, a senior advisor for the Institute of International Finance, and a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Global evacuation — and friends and communities left behind see more

    Photos from Nepal, Timor  Lesté, Guinea, and Jamaica

    Along with the dozens of stories we’ve shared from Peace Corps Volunteers evacuated from around the world, here are snapshots from more Volunteers. They capture the friendships and communities left behind. And they capture the heartbreak of leaving.


     

    Nepal | Eddie De La Fuente

    When Peace Corps announced the global evacuation, we were actually en route to visit our permanent sites a month early. I, and many of the other agriculture volunteers, never made it to our sites given the distance; I had just finished two all-day bus trips and was still another day-and-a-half away when we got the order to get back to Kathmandu ASAP. 

    We gathered at the Nepal Peace Corps headquarters and effectively had a close of service conference after only two months in the country, and only about four to five days away from being able to swear in as full Volunteers. 

    The Nepal Peace Corps staff was very compassionate though all of this; our Country Director and her partner even brought their brand new puppy and American candy to help comfort us. 

    We are, in my opinion, an extraordinarily cohesive and supportive group of people and I believe that these sentiments — as well as our continued, steady communication and mutual support — is truly exemplified in these photos. 

    Nepal welcomed us so readily and so fully that we were all absolutely heartbroken when we were told we were going home. I even had the good fortune to sit next to a gentleman on the final flight from Qatar to Nepal that served as an language instructor for Peace Corps back in the ‘70s!        

     

    This photo of the gentleman greeting was actually from our first night in Nepal. He was far from the only person that was unabashedly eager to meet us and get to know us — and for us to know them.

     

    Nepal farewell: Training to become Volunteers, Rachel Ramsey, left, and Elyse Paré had to evacuate instead.

     

     


    Timor Lesté | Andre De Mello

    Andre De Mello arrived in Timor-Lesté in late 2019 in the country’s tenth group of Peace Corps volunteers. After training, he settled in with a host family and started teaching. But his two-year commitment was not to be. Read more about his story here.

     

    “This picture was taken after Sunday mass in the Grotto located by the church in Railaco. The person to my left, wearing the white-dotted blue shirt, is my host brother Adi Carvalho.  The person to my right is the son of the Chefe de Suco (sort of like a community leader).”

     


    Guinea | Colt Bradley

    Home: Mooresville, North Carolina

    He served as a Volunteer in Kankan, Guinea, where he taught math and chemistry and served as the head of the Peace Corps Guinea Media Team.

     

     Walk on: Colt Bradley heading home during the dry season in Guinea, West Africa.

     

    Transport for Volunteer Colt Bradley and other visitors to the islands from Conakry.

     


    Jamaica | Kate Rapp

     

     Students at Spring Garden Infant and Primary School, where Volunteer Kate Rapp worked with counterpart Lorraine Clarke.

     

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    First director of the Africa Regional Office for Peace Corps — and counselor to Nelson Mandela see more

    By Jonathan Pearson and Steven Boyd Saum
     

    Richard Paul Thornell was only 24 years old when Sargent Shriver and Harris Wofford sent him to Ghana as director of the Peace Corps Africa Regional Office. “For him, it was a lifelong sense of pride,” his son Paul Thornell told the Washington Post. “The Peace Corps is the thing that has lasted, in a meaningful way, longer than other things, and the fact that my dad had a central role in launching it, that meant a lot to him.”

    Yet that was only one of the groundbreaking roles Richard Paul Thornell played. A graduate of Fisk University, he became the second Black graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Along with Peace Corps, Thornell served in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Agency for International Development. A law degree from Yale University soon led him to Howard University, where he taught hundreds of future lawyers over a 30-year career. With the end of apartheid in South Africa and the election of Nelson Mandela, Thornell helped launch a partnership between Howard University and South Africa. This partnership included counsel to President Mandela and assistance with a new constitution. 

     

    Enduring commitment: Richard Paul Thornell and wife Carolyn Atkinson. Photos courtesy Paul Thornell

     

    Among his many other contributions, Thornell served on the Board of Trustees at Fisk University, general counsel at Howard, special counsel to the Washington bureau of the NAACP, vice chair and counsel of the board of directors of Africare, and member of the board of directors of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.

    He and Carolyn Atkinson Thornell enjoyed nearly half a century of marriage together. He was born in 1936 and died April 28, 2020, at the age of 83 after he contracted COVID-19. The family plans to hold memorial services when people can gather to celebrate his life and legacy.

     

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    He shaped the beginnings of the Peace Corps — and so much more. see more

    He shaped the beginnings of the Peace Corps — and so much more.

    By William Josephson

     

    William F. (Bill) Haddad died on April 30. He was 91. He was the subject of long obituaries in both the Washington Post and New York Times. Bill was an extremely important early Peace Corps person. He created the inspector general position long before inspector generals became ubiquitous in every federal and many state agencies. Bill’s work gave birth to Charlie Peters and his unique Peace Corps evaluation office. Instead of “bean counters,” it employed journalists and lawyers to write down-to-earth evaluations of how well or badly the Peace Corps was doing in each country. 

    Bill’s energy and creativity were extraordinary, literally an idea or a proposed initiative a minute. Unlike many such personalities, Bill’s idea were never flaky, always worthy of consideration. Like many such personalities, Bill was a poor judge of which of his ideas were good and which of his ideas were not. But in his case, that did not matter. The number of ideas worthy of serious consideration far outweighed the number that did not. 

     

    Election night, 1960: William Haddad, right, with John F. Kennedy and family. Photo courtesy Lulie Haddad

     

    Bill served in the Merchant Marine during World War II and attended Columbia University. He joined the staff of Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and helped secure his nomination for vice president in 1956. He was hired by the New York Post, and his reporting on corruption in the city’s housing program helped bring down power broker Robert Moses. He won the George Polk Award, one of journalism’s highest honors.

    In 1961 he took a leave of absence to help Sargent Shriver form the Peace Corps. For two years he served as associate director and as its first inspector general. He ran for Congress and lost. He was marketing director for iconic DeLorean Motor Co. but left when he learned of financial mismanagement.

     

     

    In the closing years of his career, he worked on efforts to lower costs for generic prescription drugs. A lifesaving drug cocktail for HIV/AIDS patients went from $15,000 a year to $350. That made the drugs more widely available in Africa, saving millions of lives.

     


    William Josephson was Founding Counsel for the U.S. Peace Corps, 1961–66.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Longtime Chicago Bears leader, his service in Peace Corps in Ethiopia changed how he saw the world. see more

    Longtime Chicago Bears leader, his service in Peace Corps in Ethiopia changed how he saw the world.

    By Jonathan Pearson and Steven Boyd Saum

    Photo courtesy the Chicago Bears


    Michael McCaskey was the grandson of the legendary George “Papa Bear” Halas and inherited the mantle of leading the Chicago Bears football team for nearly 30 years. He was president and CEO of the Bears 1983–89 and then chairman of the board 1999–2011. The team won their first (and so far only) Super Bowl in 1985. Peers voted McCaskey NFL Executive of the Year.

    He was born in 1943. He earned degrees in philosophy and psychology at Yale, and in 1965 he began two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, teaching science and English in Fiche, a town on the edge of the Rift Valley.

     

    Fiche, 1965: Ethiopian students with teacher Michael McCaskey. Photo courtesy the Chicago Bears

     

    “My students were astounding,” he said. “My days as a teacher in Ethiopia changed my perspective on the rest of the world, for which I am very grateful.”

    He earned a Ph.D. in business from Case Western Reserve in 1972 and taught at UCLA and Harvard Business School. And yet, wrote fellow Ethiopia RPCV John Coyne, he “never really left Ethiopia. He never forgot the people, his students or the country’s ancient greatness.”

     

    “My students were astounding,” he said. “My days as a teacher in Ethiopia changed my perspective on the rest of the world, for which I am very grateful.”

     

    While head of the Bears, McCaskey began supporting and advising the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago. “In 1999, during the long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Mike returned to Africa with four other former Peace Corps volunteers,” Coyne wrote for the Chicago Tribune. “Their mission was to promote peace by talking to the leaders of both countries.” U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a fellow RPCV, was part of the delegation; he recounted the moment when the foreign minister of Ethiopia welcomed his old Peace Corps teacher—Mike McCaskey. The mission did not end conflict, but when peace was signed in 2000, the RPCVs were invited for the signing ceremony in Algiers.

     

    Returning to Ethiopia: Michael McCaskey, left, meets with medical staff. Photo courtesy John Coyne

     

    In 2005, McCaskey co-founded the Bears’ charitable organization, which has given over $21 million to some 100 organizations in Chicagoland to support education, youth athletics, medicine, and health awareness. After McCaskey retired, he devoted time to greater work with Ethiopia: supporting health care, leadership training, and education. Fiche, the village where he taught, is now home to a university; he worked with it to develop a program combining technology and student-directed learning. He died on May 16. 

    “Although Mike is gone,” Coyne writes, “his work, now named The Fiche Project, continues.”

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Founder of RPCVs Serving at Home chronicles work as a Volunteer — in North Macedonia and the U.S. see more

    The founder of RPCVs Serving at Home chronicles her work as a Volunteer — and launching a network to support communities across the United States.

    By Mia Richardson — as told to Cynthia Arata

     

    I had wanted to serve in the Peace Corps since high school. I was really interested in the Cold War, and while learning about that time in history, I learned about the creation of the Peace Corps during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Peace Corps fascinated me.

    Originally I thought about going straight to graduate school after graduating from college, but I decided to put that on pause to pursue my dream of serving in the Peace Corps. I wanted to experience working in another country because of my career path — foreign service. Although being a Peace Corps Volunteer is different than being a diplomat, I knew I could learn and represent my country.

    I was serving in North Macedonia in the Education sector. I was teaching English for students in second to ninth grade. I worked closely with another teacher focusing on improving English language instruction and student engagement.

    I was located in the northwest region of North Macedonia, a country in the Balkan Peninsula, which had previously been Macedonia. The renaming of the country happened early on during my service. Around the time I arrived, the naming dispute was a popular topic of discussion having to do with the history between Macedonia and Greece. It was interesting to listen to different perspectives on such a complicated issue and learn about the history of the region where I was to serve. In January 2019 Macedonia became North Macedonia.

    I lived quite close to the city of Tetovo in the small village of Zherovjan, which is home to less than 900 people. Albanians are the largest minority group in North Macedonia, and Zherovjan is an Albanian, mostly Muslim community. Because of where I was living, I was on a dual language track, learning Macedonian and Albanian.


     

    March 2020: The Evacuation 

    On Tuesday, March 10, I finished teaching in the morning. That same day, in the afternoon, it was announced that schools were going to be closed for two weeks. So things were in limbo on Wednesday. By Thursday Peace Corps determined that we were raised a security level, and staff told us to pack our bags. However, Volunteers were questioning it, not knowing exactly what was going on, not thinking we really needed to pack. But on Friday we were told to prepare to leave the country. Then Saturday, we were instructed to get to the capital. We only had a few hours to grab our things, explain what was going on to our communities, and get to Skopje, where all of us volunteers were consolidated.

    There was very little time to explain to my host family what was happening. I mainly didn’t want to scare them. At the time, volunteers thought the most likely scenario was that we would be put on an administrative hold. We assumed we would be able to return in a month or two.

    “Peace Corps says I have to leave because they don’t want me to be a burden here,” was how I framed it to my host family. But at that point, North Macedonia had not started shutting down, so my host family was totally confused. It was so hard. I had to ask them to take me to the capital immediately.

     

    As if that wasn’t painful enough, I did not have the chance to say anything to my students. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to tell them that I was leaving. I felt like I abandoned them without any explanation.

     

    As if that wasn’t painful enough, I did not have the chance to say anything to my students. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to tell them that I was leaving. I felt like I abandoned them without any explanation.

    I am trying to figure out of there is something I can do to get in contact with my students. I have thought about recording a video of myself explaining and saying goodbye. But since school shut down the students have been distance learning rather than having class, so I don’t know yet how to send something that they will all see.

    I barely had the chance to communicate with my counterpart before leaving. She has two young children, and her husband works in another country, so she was preoccupied with trying to figure out what to do to keep her family safe — whether she and the kids would go or stay put. We only had a moment to just basically wish each other luck.

     
     

    North Macedonia: Unfinished Business

    Early on in my service, my counterpart and I applied for a Small Project Assistance grant to establish an English language resource closet at the school. The goal was to empower teachers to use more communicative activities in the classroom that make education more student-centered. We secured the grant, purchased resources for the school, and planned a training session for educators. The training, however, was scheduled to take place the week of the shutdown and the evacuation. I tried to see if there was a way to do the training online, but I didn’t have enough time to organize before I was pulled from my post. I feel good about getting new materials for the school so that some fun and creativity can be brought into the classroom, but there was no training for teachers on how to implement those materials. I really hope the work will go on. I hope my school will apply for another Volunteer, and students will advocate for continuing some of the work we started.

    At the beginning of the school year I started a spelling bee club for fifth- and sixth-grade students. The club met once per week for the entire school year. We hosted a qualifier spelling bee at our school to determine who would go to the regional spelling bee in Tetovo. The students worked so hard every week. And two students qualified! I was planning on going with them to the city at the end of March for the regional tournament. But that didn’t happen. It’s one of the things I am most sad about because I know how hard my students worked all year long.

    I had requested a shipment of new books for the school’s English language section in the library. Darien Book Aid, a nonprofit organization based in Connecticut that distributes books all over the world, emailed me right when I landed back in the U.S. asking me to confirm that I received the book shipment I requested. Thankfully the director of the school where I was teaching was able to pick them up from the post office.

    My secondary project was helping to coordinate a local Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) club. GLOW provides great development and leadership experiences for youth. Recruitment for GLOW was going to start in March, and a number of PCVs were working as mentors for clubs all over the country. So much hard work went into planning events for the GLOW clubs, but when all of us PCVs were sent home, we left the girls hanging.

    I felt that personally I was getting into the swing of things — I was finding my way. The timing of everything was difficult to accept.

     

    Back Home: Continuing Service 

    When I got back to the U.S. I felt a little bit lost. I committed myself to the full 27 months of service, and I just didn’t feel like I completed that. So as soon as I got back I started looking for things I could do to continue serving. While I was quarantined, I started volunteering with a coalition called Masks NOW to donate masks to essential businesses.

    I started an initiative called RPCVs Serving at Home with some other evacuated volunteers from North Macedonia. We rolled out the program to the rest of the RPCV community in April. The concept is three-fold: to connect the RPCV community, share volunteer opportunities in order to continue service, and reflect values of Peace Corps. We are determined to highlight the strength and impact of Peace Corps to our communities here in the U.S.

    Since we began collecting data in early April, by the end of June 63 volunteers representing 24 states and 22 Peace Corps posts had logged over 2,000 hours of volunteer service. Participating RPCVs have donated nearly 700 fabric face masks, served over 400 hours at local food banks, and at least 16 volunteers donated blood or organized a local blood drive. Our goal is to log 10,000 hours of service by September, so we are working hard to spread the word and get as many RPCVs involved as possible. We believe this shows how much we as the Peace Corps community can do, and although we have dedicated ourselves to work abroad, right now our country needs us here at home.

     

     

    Since being evacuated I have taken on an AmeriCorps VISTA position doing community outreach for the Youth Volunteer Corps in Kansas City. What I am doing is similar to my youth empowerment work with the GLOW club in North Macedonia. My mission is to create service and learning opportunities, so that through civic engagement and skill development, youth not only understand issues in their communities but also feel empowered to address those issues.

    Continuing to serve youth in my home community, helping to provide programs that I would have benefited from when I was growing up, has given me a sense of closure to my Peace Corps service.
     


    For more information about service opportunities check out RPCVs Serving at Home online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

    Cynthia Arata was serving as a Volunteer in Fiji when she was evacuated in March 2020. She lives in Napa, California. 

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Why are you going to the U.S.? colleagues asked. It’s worse there. see more

    Rwanda | Ana Santos

    Home: Atlanta, Georgia


    Ana Santos had been serving as a Volunteer teaching English since September 2018. After hearing about the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Rwanda, Santos started packing that Sunday, before getting the official evacuation order on Monday. And she began the emotionally taxing and logistically challenging process of saying goodbye.

    The government had banned large gatherings and had closed schools. Colleagues had returned to family homes; she couldn’t find many of her students. “I had to go to each of my teachers’ homes individually to greet them and tell them the news. They were as shocked and as upset as I was.”

     

    “Peace Corps is one of the best ideas the United States has ever had.”

     

    Santos coordinated with other nearby Volunteers to hire a bus for the long journey to the capital, Kigali. There they learned the Rwandan government would close the airport in 48 hours. Peace Corps arranged for a charter flight out. 

     

     

    “I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to serve and do my part to make the world a better place,” Santos says. “I was excited by the opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture, to work face-to-face with people who were change-makers in their community.” She had to leave, but she holds to this: “Peace Corps is one of the best ideas the United States has ever had.”

    —Tasha Prados

      


    Rwanda | Diana Bender-Bier

    Home: Washington, D.C. area

    Nishimye kubamenya is how you say “Nice to meet you” in Kinyarwanda, the language Diana Bender-Bier began learning in September 2019. She worked in the Southern Province, teaching English to 4th and 5th graders, training teachers, leading an English club. She lived in a larger market town and walked 40 minutes each day to a smaller village and the school where she taught. Her litany of plans: in April, for grades 5 to 12, a full day of classes with another Volunteer and nearby doctor about safe sex, teen pregnancy, risks of HIV/AIDS. In May, a carnival to educate about malaria. In June, a speaking competition for students. Plans to apply for a grant for science lab materials and playground resources. Fundraising for more desks, since in classes of 70 to 100 kids, many had to sit on the floor. 

     

     

    She says she left her heart there. There’s a moment when we’re talking about her community and she says, “Religion is very big here.” She means there, only she’s not thinking of herself in the Washington, D.C. area but still in Rwanda.

     

    “Most of my colleagues were very confused,” she says. “‘Why are you going there?’ they asked. ‘It’s worse there.’” And it was. 

     

    She got the email that she was being evacuated and had a couple days to say goodbye. Colleagues told her, Oh, she’s not coming back. “I kept saying, ‘No, I’m coming back. I’m coming back. It’s just temporary.’ Though I don’t know how long that is.”

    There was something eerie about evacuating Rwanda, she says — an echo of 25 years before, on the eve of civil war, when Peace Corps and others left and the genocide began. One of her colleagues lost both parents. “I felt connected to the genocide in a different way, given my Jewish heritage,” Bender-Bier says. As for her departure for the States, “Most of my colleagues were very confused,” she says. “‘Why are you going there?’ they asked. ‘It’s worse there.’” And it was. 

     

     

    In Rockville, Maryland, during quarantine she was at her mother’s house while her mother stayed in Florida. With rooms to spare, Bender-Bier provided a home for other evacuated Volunteers.

    —Steven Boyd Saum

     

      


    Rwanda | Levi Rokey

    Home: Washington, D.C. area

     

    Baggage of evacuation: Levi Rokey left his community in Rwanda for a hotel room in Washington, D.C. Now he’s working on contact tracing to help his community at home.

     

     

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    She and son Gideon had their lives cut tragically short in a boating accident. see more

    By Steven Boyd Saum


    She was a mother and wife and human rights attorney. She was granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy and daughter of David Lee Townsend and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. She was a woman of boundless energy and an avid advocate for social justice and human rights, with a focus on issues relating to women, girls, and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

    Her passion to make a difference in the lives of others greatly shaped the remarkable career she established for herself. She served in the Peace Corps in Mozambique, worked with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and taught bioethics and human rights at Georgetown University. She worked with the Obama Administration as the first senior advisor for human rights within the U.S. Department of State’s Global AIDS program, at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Global Affairs, and served as executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiative.

     

    Mother and son: Maeve Kennedy McKean and Gideon. Illustration by Edward Rooks

     

    She was born in 1979 and tragically killed, along with her 8-year-old son Gideon, in a boating accident near a family home in Maryland on April 2. She leaves her husband, David, and children Gabriela and Toby. A virtual memorial was held on April 12, bringing together thousands of people from around the country to celebrate the lives of mother and son.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    The work and people and place that Natalie Somerville left behind. see more

    Tonga | Natalie Somerville

    Home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

     

    Photo: Mangrove forest, Tonga. Photo courtesy Natalie Somerville.

     

    Mālō ‘etau lava. Ko Navi au. Na’a ku nofo i Tonga. On the beautiful island of ‘Eua, where I was serving as a Volunteer, I’m known as Navi. When we were evacuated, here’s what I left behind: coconut trees, fresh papaya every day, a group of women who had just committed to practicing healthy lifestyles, my best friend and dog (Navi Kiti), and an adoring, patient partner, with deep love, whom I can’t wait to reunite with. I left behind a vegetable garden that was beginning to sprout, children who smile with their all, and people who laugh from their core. I left behind the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen, and a mat to lay down upon while I stare at the Milky Way. 

     

     

    I left behind the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen, and a mat to lay down upon while I stare at the Milky Way. 

     

    Here’s the unfinished business I’d like you to know about: Practicing healthy living with the Tongans is crucial because the biggest killers out there are preventable. Diabetes and heart disease can be lessened with movement and strengthening of the mind. I want to continue working with the people to extend their happy lives. There is also a group of artists who came to the island I lived on to do a workshop with my students. The importance of self-expression and creativity is food for the soul and crucial for well-being. I hope the Peace Corps keeps a strong connection between education and the arts. Mālō aupito, ‘ofa atu. Many thanks and love to you. 

     

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    A tiny village on a remote island — where a good day means having fish and a breeze. see more

    Fiji | Cynthia Arata

    Home: Napa, California

     

    Photo: Moala Island — one of the most remote islands that is part of Fiji. Photo by Cynthia Arata

     

    If you type “Moala Island” into Google, a number of misleading images will populate your search. Make no mistake: there is no tourism on Moala Island.

    Despite mislabeled photos online, there is no resort, no hotel, no Airbnb. In fact, there is no paved road. There is no grocery store, market, restaurant or bar. There is no bank, gas station or electricity. It is difficult to illustrate just how remote Moala is, and without visiting, it is unlikely that a person could imagine how pure and peaceful life is there. With extremely limited, infrequent transportation to and from the island, surely, few people will ever travel to Moala.

    For nearly six months, I lived on this pristine, 24-square mile tropical paradise in the islands of Fiji, a nation in the South Pacific comprising more than 300 islands and islets.

    Moala is part of the eastern archipelago of Fiji, called the Lau Province, which is made up of approximately 60 islands, half of which are inhabited. Moala is one of these inhabited islands with a total population of around 1,300 people. There are eight villages on the island, all which are situated along the calm shores of the Koro Sea. From the water’s edge, communities maintain a traditional subsistence livelihood of fishing and farming.

     

    The day that I took my oath was one of the proudest days of my life — a feeling of accomplishment unlike any other I have experienced.” Cynthia Arata on Moala. Photo by Shane Grace

     

    Nestled in one of Moala’s lush, fertile valleys is Cakova Village, a community of 153 people. In October 2019, after two months of cultural and language training on Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, I swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer, committing to spend two years serving in the Youth in Development sector. My placement was one of the most isolated sites in all of Peace Corps Fiji.

     

    Nestled in one of Moala’s lush, fertile valleys is Cakova Village, a community of 153 people. My placement was one of the most isolated sites in all of Peace Corps Fiji.

     

    My specific role was under the Community Youth Empowerment Project — a partnership between the Peace Corps, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which has goals of positive youth development, community engagement and capacity building.

    As a Community Youth Empowerment volunteer, I worked with the Youth Group and the Women’s Group in Cakova Village. My role involved helping to facilitate discussions with community members to identify needs, interests, and sustainable projects. Additionally, I worked as the librarian at Cakova’s primary school, focusing on literacy and library development.

    In Fiji, the term “youth” describes individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 who, essentially, provide the labor force in rural villages to carry out work such as construction, plumbing, and landscaping. The Youth Group in Cakova Village was highly motivated to accomplish community goals. Project ideas proposed by members were reconstruct footbridges, renovating the community hall and expanding the nursing station.

     

    The island and the world: schoolchildren on Moala. Photo by Cynthia Arata

     

    As a team, we were in the process of leveraging support for the Youth Group from the Ministry of Agriculture for farming tools, as well as the Ministry of Forestry for training on tree and mangrove planting for climate change mitigation.

    The Women’s Group had undertaken an economic opportunity plan to generate income in order to rebuild the village canteen, a small business run by the group where basic provisions such as rice, flour, and sugar are sold. A key way for women in Cakova to earn money is by cutting, cooking and drying wild pandanus, weaving the stocks into traditional mats and sending these Fijian handicrafts to merchants in Suva, Fiji’s capital, to be sold in the municipal market.

    A passion that I hoped to bring into my service is my love of reading. At the beginning of the year, the teachers at Cakova Village School expressed the need for a new library with more resources and services, a project I felt especially enthusiastic about. The existing library occupied a corner in the administration building, which was also the teachers’ lounge, battery room, and storage space. As such, the library provided a small, outdated book collection, only one computer, and little space for students to explore. Together, we began drafting the library development project, advocating for a new library building, books, shelving, worktables, laptop computers, and solar panels.

    In February, as a school staff, we submitted a grant application to the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives detailing a blueprint for an upgraded water station at the school. The project aligned with national development priorities, in particular, the implementation of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in Fiji’s schools, standards that are generally achieved with the help of non-governmental organizations non-profit organizations, and volunteers. The concept called for new sinks, faucets, soap dispensers, drinking fountains, drainage systems, and roofing in order to improve water efficiency, sanitary conditions and hygiene.

    Five months into my service in Fiji, a number of these projects with the Youth Group, Women’s Group, and primary school in Cakova Village were gaining traction. Though in the early project design stages, there was undeniable excitement and engagement around addressing these community needs.

     

     Weaver at work — one of the ways women in Cakova earn money for their community. Photo by Cynthia Arata

     

    Just as I had begun establishing my own rhythms and routines as a volunteer, the director of the Peace Corps sent an email to volunteers around the world saying that due to the global pandemic posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, she had made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend Peace Corps operations and evacuate all volunteers back to the United States.

    What was more shocking than the news of being evacuated, however, was receiving a second email from the country director in Fiji, determining that my Peace Corps service, along with thousands of other current volunteers in countries all over the world, was being ended by issuing the Close of Service— meaning I was no longer a volunteer.

    More messages followed with instructions to pack my bags, grab my passport, and say goodbye and thank you to my community. In a state of shock, my mind raced with questions and concerns — from my outstanding projects and reports to the threat of the virus. My main concern was how to communicate this order, suddenly passed down from the agency, to members of my community that might see me as abandoning them and all of our work together.

    Moreover, at that point, Fiji did not have any cases of COVID-19; and certainly, Moala Island is exceptionally isolated geographically with almost no incoming transit. Explaining to members of my community in Cakova that I was leaving, and why, was devastating and confusing for all of us. Questions of when I would return were impossible to answer for the village and for myself.

    Ironically, the first Core Expectation of a Peace Corps volunteer is to “prepare your personal and professional life to make a commitment to serve abroad for a full term of 27 months.” The day that I took my oath was one of the proudest days of my life — a feeling of accomplishment unlike any other I have experienced. I know in my heart that I was determined, no matter the challenges, to see through my commitment to Cakova Village, Peace Corps, and my country. However, this health crisis leaves Peace Corps volunteers and staff with no idea of when the agency will be able to resume operations. Furthermore, on the morning that I left Moala Island the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Fiji, a secondary concern as the South Pacific battles the end of this year’s cyclone season.

     

    For me, the hardest part, amid all of this not knowing, is hearing the voices of the village children asking me as I was leaving, “Madam, what about the library?”

     

    Although I had been keenly aware of how special my time in Moala was while I was there, now that I am back in the U.S., I have time to reflect more deeply on my experiences.

    Quarantined in Napa at my family’s home and bombarded not just with culture shock but also coronavirus chaos, I find refuge in my memories of the simplicity of life in Cakova, a place where a good day means having fish and a breeze. In Cakova, a day’s work is fishing on the reef or crabbing in the low tide, neighbors always have pots of warm food and tea to offer, and children swim in the village creek using mango pulp as body wash for their evening baths.

    Without electricity, internet access or cell service, I spent my evenings watering my garden, watching sunsets from my hammock, and reading books late into the night under the stars. And although the pace of things was slow, each day was full of more meaning, purpose, growth and learning about what quality of life means.

    For me, the hardest part, amid all of this not knowing, is hearing the voices of the village children asking me as I was leaving, “Madam, what about the library?”

     


    This article originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register under the title “Memories of Moala.” Read it here.

    It was also published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Communications Intern 2 posted an article
    Quinton Eklund Overholser had dreamed of serving as a Volunteer in Myanmar for years. see more

    Nobody wanted it to happen this way. 
Evacuation stories and the unfinished business of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world.

    Schwedagon Pavilion, Yangon. Photo by Dharma from Sadao, Thailand
     

    Myanmar | Quinton Eklund Overholser

    Home: Elko, Nevada

    “Hours before our flight, at our Close of Service conference, my country director asked me how I was feeling,” Quinton Eklund Overholser says. “Only then did I muster a single word: heartbroken.”

    Overholser had dreamed of serving as a Volunteer in Myanmar since his first year of high school—before Peace Corps operated in Myanmar. A first-generation college student, he got his Peace Corps acceptance the day of his commencement ceremony at the University of Nevada at Reno.

     

    Head of 100 Households: Quinton Overholser with his host family. Photo courtesy Quinton Overholser.

     

    He loved every day in Myanmar: learning to read, write, and speak Myanma, and spending as much time as he could with the local family who hosted him. He went to meetings with his local father, the “Head of 100 Households” (mayor). He learned about Myanma music from his sister and played games with his brother. He was in training in Myanmar when the evacuation order came. The hardest part was leaving that family. 

    Though he was happy to reunite with family in Nevada,  returning home under quarantine felt like a defeat. Overholser is still committed to returning to Myanmar as a Volunteer. The question is if and when that will be possible.

    —Tasha Prados

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    “I hope and pray that they’re staying safe. We volunteers are grieving…missing friends and family.” see more

    Panama | Danielle Shulkin

    Home: Sharon, Massachusetts

    Photo: Mangrove reforestation, Los Santos, Panamá — the community where Volunteer Bailey Rosen served and took time to high-five with one of the students taking part. Photo by Eli Wittum

     

    Köbö kuin dere! Ti kä Mechi Sulia Kwatabü amne ti sribire Cuerpo de Paz ben. I served in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, in a mountainous part of an indigenous reservation. The language that I introduced myself in is Ngäbere, which has about 200,000 speakers throughout Panama and Costa Rica. I was a TELLS volunteer — Teaching English, Leadership, and Life Skills, helping teachers improve English language skills and teaching methodologies. I also worked with the guidance counselor at my school to do sexual health education and provide resources for parents.

    I had about one hour to pack and say goodbye. A leader of the comarca helped find someone with a car who drove me two hours out of the mountains to the main road — and picked up a few other Volunteers. When we tried to pay, he said, “That’s not my custom.” The night before I left, I had coffee with this man, and we were talking about the possibility of Peace Corps evacuating. He expressed how much the comarca enjoyed having the Peace Corps presence there — and how much they had helped.

    As far as what I left behind: material possessions — clothes, a french press, a solar panel, food I had bought when I was anticipating a long shelter-in-place. None of those things matter as much as the connections and the potential left unrealized. 

     

     

    The new school year had just begun. I had set up a meetings with the guidance counselor and the Padres de Familia — like a PTA. I had a new counterpart who was excited to start new extracurricular opportunities. And I worked as a special education teacher in New York City before joining Peace Corps; special ed is a big need in Panama. I was thinking about extending for a third year to help schools come up with ways to support all students — especially those who need extra help, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not.

    One thing that weighs on me is the people to whom I didn’t get to say goodbye. One family I got close to were kind of outsiders in the community. The husband was studying English at a university extension; he needed help. He had dropped out of school as a teenager and earned his diploma through night school. Now he was studying English with hopes of being an English teacher. We worked for hours in his home — made of zinc panels, held up by tree branches, with a dirt floor. His daughter would hold a flashlight over our work while he wrote essays. I often ended up eating dinner with them, and their daughter would braid my hair and watch videos on my phone. His wife made me a nakwa, the traditional dress in my community. They were the first people to bring me into their home and make me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. 

     

    I hope and pray that they’re staying safe. We volunteers are grieving, and missing friends and family so much.

     

    The day that I left, I ran to their house with a bag of food and random things to give to them. Both parents were at work. I left the bag with the daughters, but I never got to say goodbye.

    I hope and pray that they’re staying safe. We volunteers are grieving, and missing friends and family so much. A lot of us are hoping to come back one day, and we can sit on your porches and listen to La Patrona and drink the finca-grown coffee and watch the sunset and continue to work hombro a hombro, or shoulder to shoulder. Until that day, we will be here thinking of you and trying to move forward. So, que Dios les bendiga, y que le vaya bien.

     

    See more from Danielle's service

     


    Panama | Eli Wittum

    Home: Cleveland, North Carolina

    I served as a community environmental conservation extension agent in Panama 2016–18. I collaborated with host country nationals assessing environmental concerns, focused on the increasing deforestation of the Panama Canal watershed. I facilitated environmental trainings on reforestation and acquired a grant to implement new sustainable cook-stove alternatives, which will greatly reduce environmental and health concerns. 

     

    Schoolgirl in Bajo Corral, Los Santos, Panamá. The mural was painted years ago by Volunteers at a site where evacuated PCV Kiera Morrill served. Photo by Eli Wittum.
     

    Since summer 2018, I’ve carried the title of multimedia specialist for Peace Corps Panama. I document work being done by the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative and bring scientific information to audiences in a form they can understand. I capture the story of this work in photographs and videos. The visual medium has the power to illuminate both damage and progress in the environment, to speak to us intellectually and emotionally.

     

     Mangrove reforestation: Tito and work well done — more than 6,000 trees planted. Photo by Eli Wittum

     

    Working in poor rural communities, I have also photographed people young and old who had never possessed a picture of themselves. When I travel back to those places, I’ll bring a print — something I hope shows them in their dignity and grace and humanity.

    This is what I have left behind. It’s work that remains unfinished.


     Mother and child. Photo by Eli Wittum

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Don’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.

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.