January 15, 2006: Headlines: Speaking Out: Rapid City Journal: Volunteers never the same after Peace Corps

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Volunteers never the same after Peace Corps

Volunteers never the same after Peace Corps

"The Peace Corps experience is so strong for the vast majority of us that often we’re closer to our fellow volunteers than we might be to someone we went to high school or college with."

Volunteers never the same after Peace Corps

Life-altering service: Volunteers never the same after Peace Corps
By Mary Garrigan, Journal Staff Writer

Whether they served 45 years ago on the plains of Tanzania or just last year in the desert of Mauritania, former Peace Corps volunteers from Rapid City say the experience was a life-changing one.

About 100 former Peace Corps volunteers live and work in the Black Hills region today, according to Tom Katus of Rapid City. Katus is one of the 182,000 Americans who have given two or more years of service to Peace Corps since its inception in 1961.

It was 45 years ago that Katus was part of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers sent abroad. He spent two years in what is today Tanzania on the southeastern edge of Africa but back then was called Tanganyika.

In March, Katus and other Peace Corps recruits who stood in the Rose Garden and helped President Kennedy launch the fledging social program at a White House ceremony will gather at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston to commemorate the 45th anniversary of its founding.

Flush with the idealism of Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” inaugural speech, Katus left his engineering studies at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology between his junior and senior year to volunteer.

His Tanganyika I group of civil engineers and surveyors were the first Peace Corps volunteers on the ground, beating the Ghana I group to Africa by one day, Katus said.

One of Rapid City’s most recent Peace Corps returnees is Erin Pettigrew, 24, who served in the west Africa country of Mauritania as an English teacher from June of 2003 through August of 2005.

Pettigrew is also a second-generation Peace Corps volunteer. She followed in the footsteps of her mother, Karen, who spent two years in the Peace Corps working as a nurse in Malaysia in 1964-66.

“Probably because of my mom, I always felt like it was something I would do,” she said.

The younger Pettigrew joins a select group of 525 current South Dakota residents who are former Peace Corps volunteers, according to Gary Lore, Peace Corps spokesman. Other members of that club include Rapid City Police Chief Craig Tiezen, former state senator Fred Whiting, counselor Terry Stuck and attorney John Murphy. Returned Peace Corps volunteers with a national profile include author Paul Theroux, television commentator Chris Matthews, film director Taylor Hackford and numerous congressmen and governors.

Currently, there are 7,797 people serving in more than 70 countries, according to Lore. That’s the highest number of Peace Corps participants in many years, proving that the program is as vital today as it was 45 years ago. Twenty-seven current volunteers are from South Dakota, including Emily Lefholz of Rapid City and Mary Sebert of Spearfish. Sebert is a nurse who extended and is now completing her third year in Romania. Lefholz is in training in Lesotho, a tiny country in southern Africa.

Katus isn’t surprised by the numbers of past and current volunteers who call South Dakota home. The two Dakotas and Minnesota have always had a high per capita participation in the Peace Corps, he said.

The local returnees get together as a group about once a year, Katus said. Their shared experience, regardless of where or when they served, makes for a close-knit group, Katus said.

“The Peace Corps experience is so strong for the vast majority of us that often we’re closer to our fellow volunteers than we might be to someone we went to high school or college with,” he said.

For Katus, two years of working on water and flood control projects in Tanzania was a “fantastic experience.” He learned to speak fluent Swahili and lived some scenes “right out of ‘The African Queen.’”

Katus and his Peace Corps partner, Jerry Parson, got more than their fair share of publicity when Life magazine featured Parson as the first African American to volunteer for the Peace Corps.

The national media played up the idea of a Peace Corps duo named Tom and Jerry, one black and one white, who were solving the problems of poverty around the world, Katus said.

Pettigrew’s memories of Mauritania are just as fond but much fresher.

She vividly recalls her adjustment to the Sahara Desert’s temperatures, which soared to more than 120 degrees during the day.

“My first six months were horrible,” she said, recalling the heat, the strange foods and the living conditions she encountered.

There were other adjustments, too, for a young, single American woman living in an Islamic Republic. Women of the village wore veils over their faces, but Pettigrew opted instead for modest long skirts and sleeves and occasionally a simple headscarf.

Pettigrew faced some social, cultural and religious bias, as well as criticism of America’s foreign policy that was often seen as anti-Arab. But she also felt welcomed, accepted and befriended by the people she served. “By the end, I felt like I was part of the village,” Pettigrew said. “I have really good friends there.”

Because she speaks French (she has an undergraduate degree in French from Hollins University in Virginia), there was never any doubt that Pettigrew would serve in Africa, where many of the modern nations were once French colonies.

“In the Peace Corps, the joke is that if you know what a french fry is, you’re going to Africa.”

Pettigrew also learned Arabic, the national language of Mauritania, and she spoke the local Hassaniya dialect of her village, too. Her Peace Corps service changed her immeasurably, Pettigrew said. It led to her decision to attend graduate school in African studies, and she hopes to teach at the university level someday.

Katus said his Peace Corps experience altered his life, too.

He never returned to engineering school, building a career as a consultant for small business development, instead.

Katus grew up amid the poverty of Standing Rock Indian Reservation. “I got my interest in social activism from my parents, but the Peace Corps gave me a whole international perspective. I saw really serious poverty of the Third World kind for the first time, and I saw the broad ramifications of that poverty,” he said.

He and the rest of the Tanganyika I and II groups are planning a 45th anniversary trip to Tanzania in October.

Pettigrew hopes to go back to Mauritania some day.

Hopefully, it won’t take her as long to get there as it took her mother to return to Malaysia.

Forty years after she left, the elder Pettigrew, who now works as a nurse/midwife in Rapid City, is going back. She plans to visit her former Peace Corps village in November, when she attends an obstetrics conference in Malaysia.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8410 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

On the Web: http://www.peacecorps.gov

When this story was posted in January 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Rapid City Journal

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