February 29, 2004 - The Enterprise: Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is not without challenges. Health and security risks often exist. But Peace Corps stands the test of time

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: February 2004 Peace Corps Headlines: February 29, 2004 - The Enterprise: Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is not without challenges. Health and security risks often exist. But Peace Corps stands the test of time

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Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is not without challenges. Health and security risks often exist. But Peace Corps stands the test of time

Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is not without challenges. Health and security risks often exist. But Peace Corps stands the test of time

Peace Corps stands the test of time
By Maria Papadopoulos, Enterprise crrespondent

Carol Chapuis of Bridgewater knows how the other half lives.

Fed up with her job in the high-tech industry four years ago, Chapuis, 62, did what few people do:

She joined the Peace Corps.

Her assignment was the rural village of Sighet in northern Romania, where long winters are as cold as if not colder than those here.

"The people there are living in villages the way they did 200 years ago," said Chapuis, whose only heat in her Romanian apartment was a stove fueled by firewood. "It was just astonishing."

Then there were floods, which damaged the area's water purification system.

"We didn't have water for weeks," said Chapuis.

For more than 40 years, thousands of Americans have traded their jobs, free time and standard conveniences to work as a volunteer in a developing country.

Currently more than 7,500 people serve in 71 countries, according to the agency.

Peace Corps Awareness week, which begins Monday, honors the agency that was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship.

Volunteers, including many from this area, come from all walks of American life and range from college students to retirees. They work in areas of education, youth outreach, and community development, health, the environment, business development and information technology.

Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is not without challenges. Health and security risks often exist.

This month, the Peace Corps program in Haiti was suspended due to violent political uprisings there, with all 76 volunteers safely leaving the country.

"There is an inherent risk to some of this," said James Arena-DeRosa, regional director for Peace Corps in Boston.

When a country's climate becomes dangerous, he said, "We get our people out."

After Sept. 11, the Peace Corps evacuated volunteers from some countries including Uzbekistan and Kurdistan. In several other countries, volunteers were put in "stand down," a phrase used when volunteers stay at their work site and do not travel.

Before establishing a program in a foreign country, he said, the Peace Corps sends assessment teams to determine health and safety conditions for volunteers. The Peace Corps does not have programs in zones of armed conflict, like Afghanistan or Iraq, said Arena-DeRosa.

"There won't even be a discussion about countries like that; they are too dangerous," he said.

Access to medical care, transportation, suitable housing and other essential services for volunteers are also considered.

Interest on the rise

Applications from New England have increased 18 percent this year over 2003, said Arena-DeRosa. Applicants undergo a medical screening and are matched up with programs based on their professional skills.

The Peace Corps also maintains a medical unit in each country of service to provide volunteers with the basic medical supplies and vaccinations. If a volunteer becomes ill and cannot get proper treatment, the Peace Corps will transport them to an appropriate facility in a nearby country or back to the United States.

That's what happened when Robert Tocci of Pembroke, 53, became sick during his service in the Ivory Coast in West Africa between 1976 and 1978.

Tocci said he had an infection in 1977 after being treated for an abscess in his leg. He was then sent to a hospital in Washington, D.C. by the Peace Corps, returning after five weeks to complete his assignment

Tocci, an English teacher at Brockton High School, recalled his time teaching English to middle school students in the town of Dabou, which is about 25 miles west of the Ivory Coast capital, Abijan.

"When they found out you were a teacher, there was a built-in respect. It was nirvana," said Tocci. "I would walk in and (the students) would stand up and say, 'Good morning, sir.' There were never any discipline problems."

Tocci said while he learned French, the spoken language, he taught completely in English. The Peace Corps, he said, taught him ways to use illustrations, diagrams, and pantomimes to communicate with natives.

"I never once felt that I was unwelcome," said Tocci. "I felt completely comfortable, going where I wanted to go and nobody really bothered us."

In addition to teaching, Tocci said he established a library in the school where he worked.

Of his Peace Corps experience, he said, "It was John Kennedy's inspiration: 'Ask not what your country could do for you, but what you could do for your country.' That was the impetus. Peace Corps was the way to do it. I wanted to serve. I had the skills. And that was it."

Peace Corps volunteers do not have to go it alone. Currently, 369 married couples about 10 percent of all volunteers serve in the Peace Corps, according to the agency, with a 26 percent increase in the number of married couples serving from last year.

Margaret and Timothy Martin of Plymouth served as volunteers together in the Solomon Islands from 1992 to 1994.

"We wanted to go out there before we settled down and had children," said Margaret Martin, 39, a mother of two. "They had a great program and a great emphasis on sustainable development. We were able to do it together."

She and her husband participated in rural community development with the Kwaio tribe, working in a small village on the water that had no electricity and no roads.

"To get out and in, you had to go by boat," said Martin, who was also flown to Hawaii during her service to treat a kidney stone.

The couple helped local women create small enterprise and taught them how to sell supplies from canteens in their homes. In addition, they built a kindergarten and trained teachers.

While various local languages were spoken by natives, Martin said, she and her husband communicated mainly with villagers who spoke "pidgeon" English, a limited form of the language.

"The hardest part for us was just the cultural differences," said Martin. "The men had such control of the village. I had a man tell me once that we were there to corrupt the women."

Martin encourages others to live outside of the United States in order to realize cultural and socioeconomic differences.

"You really do appreciate how much we have," said Martin. "You have no clue how lucky you have it. It would be a great thing for everybody to get the opportunity to go."

Paid work

While remuneration is minimal, volunteers receive some financial benefits. Each volunteer gets a living allowance comparable to local people in their community of service for instance, a teacher's monthly salary in addition to medical and dental care.

Transportation costs to and from the country of service are covered, and volunteers also get a $6,000 stipend after completion of service to allow them to transition to life back home.

Volunteers may also defer repayment of student loans under several federal programs. College graduates with Perkins loans are eligible for a 15 percent cancellation of their outstanding balance for each year of Peace Corps service.

For Charles Ericson of Middleboro, however, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bogota, Colombia, was not about money.

It was, he said, about an ultimate life experience.

A communications major in college, Ericson, 63, volunteered with the Colombia Educational Television project in 1963 and worked as a technician in small community schools. He and other volunteers traveled by foot to nearby cities, he said, to videotape educational programs that were later used by local teachers as instructional tools.

"I always look back on it as a very strong contribution to the country," said Ericson. "We really helped carry their educational system. It was quite an undertaking. That was a very new project, with the technology. We were teaching people how to utilize television as a teaching tool."

Of his volunteer service, he said, "The community kind of absorbs you and accepts you. You try to help them and they in turn help you. It's the bond. You learn 10 times as much as what you give."

Ericson's interest in the Peace Corps, he said, resurfaced after he saw a local display on the war in Iraq. With a cousin currently serving as a helicopter pilot there, Ericson said, he was inspired once again to make a difference.

"You need to make, somehow, a positive contribution so you don't get overwhelmed by the anxiety," said Ericson, who currently promotes the Peace Corps by setting up displays in area libraries and speaking to local college students about his volunteer experience.

"The whole geographic climate has totally changed. I don't remember as much tumult as there is today. But we're still making a contribution," said Ericson. "They're sending people to China. Some of the Russian republics are taking volunteers. The Peace Corps is still going on and will weather the storm in terms of where we are at this point in our history."

A good part of that tenacity and the ability to weather storms stems from the volunteers.

Now a director of operations for an art gallery in Boston, Chapuis recalled her two years of volunteer work with people who lived under the Romanian dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

When in power, among other human rights violations, Ceausescu forbade Romanians from learning English.

So Chapuis, who lived in France, communicated with villagers who spoke French. She helped develop business plans for local citizens and taught English at the local high school and university.

Chapuis said, initially, she had given the Peace Corps no country or assignment preference.

"They said, 'Where do you want to go?' " said Chapuis, a divorced mother of two.

"I said, 'Wherever you want to send me.' "

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Story Source: The Enterprise

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Recruitment; Speaking Out; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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