Breaking down barriers


Today is my last day in South America. Tomorrow, before the sun rises over Cartagena’s colonial streets I’ll be en route northward, crossing continents and oceans on my way to San Francisco. The important thing here is not that I am going to the U.S., but the fact that I am leaving Latin America, indefinitely.

It’ll come as no surprise to readers that Peace Corps, and everything the experience encompasses, has changed me to the core. I think it’ll be years before I can really understand the full implications, but what I can understand now is my personal connection to the rich cultural heritage inherent in Latin America.

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Goats to the rescue!


This story is also posted on Feed the Future’s blog.

Preparing for and serving in the Peace Corps was a journey I could not have completely prepared for. My decision to serve stemmed from my desire to utilize the skills I had acquired in agriculture and resource economics and animal science at Tuskegee University by assisting individuals to reach personal sustainability in lower-income countries. Unaware of what I was getting myself into but excited about the opportunity to serve, I accepted my invite to serve in Malawi as soon as it arrived. I wasn’t exactly sure where on the map Malawi was (knowing only that it was located somewhere in Africa), but I knew this opportunity closely related to my personal and professional interests.

I arrived in Malawi during rainy season and instantly fell in love. The temperature was warm, the land was lush and green, and the people were welcoming and loving. I learned that I would be placed in Kasungu National Park and subsequently dreamed of animals and paradise, a beautiful landscape with lush surroundings. I imagined befriending one of the elephants and using her as my means of transportation.

What I envisioned — open land teeming with wild animals of all sorts — is nothing like what I encountered: a wildlife park with no wildlife! Continue reading

There is life after pre-service training


About four months ago, I remember staring at the ceiling in my childhood bedroom and letting my mind wander. Up until then, I tried to have no expectations about my Peace Corps experience, have no pre-conceived notions and participate in absolutely no Facebook stalking of my fellow trainees (okay, maybe a little Facebook stalking). But that night – one of my last nights in America – I sat there just mulling over everything I had consciously blocked.

How will I learn the language to a point where I won’t be able to just survive, but to LIVE? What sort of people will be in my group? Will I make any friends? Will my host family like me? Will I make it through the intensity that every RPCV tells me defines Pre-Service Training, or PST? My stomach was churning.

Today, I’m proud and extremely humbled to say “përshëndetje” (hello) from the other side. Continue reading

Music makes meaning


“Music can change the world, because it can change people.” –Bono

It was a cloudy Monday, not unlike any other morning in my mountainous town in northern El Salvador. Students’ voices resonated from every corner of the building, and the school pulsed with vivacity. As the usual pupils from Centro Escolar 22 de Junio stood in compliance in the great hall watching the Semana Civica presentations, more children clad in varied school uniforms shuffled in, eager with anticipation for the competition that was scheduled to take place.

For the previous two weeks, the members of the newly formed choir had been practicing daily for this competition, and the moment had finally arrived when they would perform El Salvador’s National Anthem (in its entirety) in front of representatives from every school in the city. This also meant that they would be competing for the opportunity to sing at the Independence Day Ceremony the following week.

Now, if you had told me a mere three months ago that I would be directing a choir of 30 students in El Salvador, I probably would have scoffed. Continue reading

Global Handwashing Day 2014: Let’s keep it clean

Colombia 2013

Each year on October 15, Peace Corps joins more than 200 million people in over 100 countries around the world to celebrate Global Handwashing Day. Although Global Handwashing Day comes just once a year, Peace Corps Volunteers work year round to promote handwashing in their communities. The theme of Global Handwashing Day this year is Choose Handwashing, Choose Health, which is the focus of Volunteers’ work: helping their communities to make healthy choices through long-term and culturally-adapted behavior change approaches.

Handwashing with soap is the most important and impactful hygiene practice. Soap, when used at key times such as after using the toilet or before touching food, can reduce the risk of diarrheal disease by nearly half and cut the risk of pneumonia by nearly a quarter. These two diseases alone are the cause of 1.7 million child deaths each year, particularly among the poorest communities of the world. In addition, handwashing with soap can prevent skin and eye infections, intestinal worms and influenza.

Unlike many development challenges, handwashing with soap does not require any special skills or equipment, and it’s within the economic reach of households everywhere. Continue reading

International Day of the Girl Child: What’s good for girls?

International Day of the Girl Child

Nearly 20 years ago in Romania, a group of Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts responded to what they together saw as a need in their communities. They wanted to teach girls leadership skills because there were few women in decision making positions, and they wanted to help the girls develop a sense of civic participation and responsibility because they were not being encouraged to do so. Finally, they also aimed to promote cultural awareness and understanding between ethnic Romanians and Hungarians. The Volunteers brought girls together from different parts of the country to get to know each other beyond the stereotypes they had learned. The Camp, called Girls Leading Our World, or GLOW, has continued in its mission of girls’ empowerment and is now implemented in every Peace Corps country in the world.

October 11 marks the third anniversary of International Day of the Girl Child. This year’s theme is “girls’ education,” a topic that resonates with many PCVs who have engaged girls in different activities to build their self-esteem and confidence, increase their self-awareness, and help them develop skills in goal-setting, assertiveness and life-planning. Volunteers have been finding ways to ensure girls’ access to education long before the United Nations recognized this day. Continue reading

Third time’s the charm


“Each one teach one” is a phrase that’s come to govern Jay Thomas’s life. Many PCVs are familiar with its meaning: that everyone is a teacher and you learn as much from your students as they learn from you. When it comes to Peace Corps, Jay comes close to being the agency’s most prolific Volunteer teacher and is currently serving for his third time.

Jay’s relationship with Peace Corps started back in college when he first applied to be a Volunteer. He didn’t get accepted because he lacked experience, but he reapplied after four years of teaching and was sent to Iran in 1973. When he left after two years, he knew he was leaving behind students who would become the next generation of teachers.

Shortly after his return home from Iran, the Shah was overthrown, and the Iranian Revolution set American sentiments towards Iran at an all-time low. Continue reading

How to communicate when you can barely speak a word


I thought I couldn’t communicate with my host Mama and Baba. They didn’t speak English. I didn’t (yet) speak Mandarin. My host sister Lina played translator for most of dinner, but it was a one-way street. Mama and Baba were told everything I was saying but I still was getting very few messages from Mama and Baba.

Lina asked if I wanted to go for a walk with Mama and Baba after dinner. An enthusiastic yes transpired and I then realized we were going to be walking in silence. Mama and I waited at the bottom for Baba after Lina left. She wouldn’t be joining us for the walk.

Straight ahead I gathered from their gesticulations. This is how it’s going to go… Continue reading

Peace Corps changed my life before I was even born


This Piece Originally Appeared on “Returned Peace Corps of Washington, D.C.

When my father was 12 his father died. At the funeral he met a man named Kevin O’Donnell and his wife, who were close friends of his father. My dad told me that he felt an immediate connection to this man and wished he could be his father. I learned this when my father gave Kevin O’Donnell’s eulogy in 2012, almost 40 years after he first had that thought. It turns out that Kevin did become his dad, because just a few months later, his wife died in childbirth. This left my dad’s mom, Ellen, widowed with two kids and his dad-to-be, Kevin, widowed with six kids. Within a year they decided to get married.

At the time, Kevin was the general manager of a steel company but was ready for a new challenge. He saw an article in the newspaper about the Peace Corps and their need for experienced leaders. Kevin applied and within two weeks was offered a job. Before they knew it, Kevin, Ellen and their eight children were moving to Seoul, South Korea, where Kevin would serve as the first Peace Corps Korea Country Director. My dad spent all of high school at Seoul Foreign School (SFS), which at the time was a small school mostly for the children of missionaries.

Twenty-seven years later my father returned to Korea for his high school reunion, and my mother and I went along. I fell in love with the country and started crying on the plane home I asked if we could move to Korea, so I could go to SFS. Continue reading

Ghana adds modern twist to Stomp Out Malaria


For Peace Corps Volunteers, the rate at which we are required to adapt to new situations with creativity and flexibility can at times be overwhelming. The limited stay in our host countries, combined with the speed at which the international community is developing alongside our villages, builds pressure for action. Developments in technology and easier access to various mobile devices have set the stage for a dramatic shift in the way PCVs work with their host countries to disseminate valuable, life-saving information, and one of the greatest beneficiaries of these advances is the fight to end malaria.

With nearly 3.5 million reported cases annually, malaria remains the number one killer in Ghana. Roughly one-third of all reported cases in Ghana are among children under the age of 5. This equates to nearly seven newly diagnosed cases of malaria every minute and almost 40 deaths of children under the age of 5 every day.

In an effort to optimize resources, Peace Corps Ghana’s Standing with Africa to Terminate (SWAT) Malaria Initiative teamed up with Tech Think Tank and an impressive crew of nearly 27 computer programmers to address this burden. The result of this collaboration was a hackathon,with malaria as the sole focus. Continue reading