Pioneers of Peace

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, September 26, 2001 - 6:05 pm: Edit Post

Here is part of an article from the Rock-Hill Herald in South Carolina about Peace Corps Volunteers who had planned to come to Washington last weekend for the 40th Peace Corps Anniversary.

Pioneers of peace

Sep 23, 2001 - Herald Rock-Hill SC Author(s): Karen Bair / The Herald

Katherine Feltes knows how it feels to bathe a newborn baby in a rice field amid stillness and moonlight.

She knows the bittersweet joy of 20 Thai orphans scurrying to the door, blocking her simply because she was about to leave the room.

"To the day I die, I believe the Peace Corps will be the best thing I ever did," says Feltes, 42, an English-as-a-second-language teacher for the Clover school district.

She had intended to join thousands of volunteers in Washington, D.C., this weekend for the 40th Peace Corps Anniversary celebration. In the wake of the Sept. 11 horror, the celebration was canceled and a candlelight vigil at the Washington Monument was planned instead.

As Americans who endured two years of hardship forging bonds with people in Third World nations, the acts of terrorism hold unique irony for Peace Corps volunteers. They bring special insight to how people in poverty around the world view the United States.

"The Peace Corps opened up a whole way of looking at things from the viewpoint of people from outside the U.S.," said Robert Halyburton of Fort Mill, who helped Brazilians increase rice production from 1970 to 1973. He now is 54 and owner of a Charlotte executive search firm.

"You saw how what we do affects jobs overseas, economy," Halyburton said from the viewpoint of Third World people. "If you put yourself in their shoes, it looks like we may be using up all the resources. We generate 60 percent of the pollution and are 20 percent of the people."

In fact, readapting to the United States was one of his most difficult adjustments.

"The biggest thing that shocked me was that nobody knew or cared about anything that happened outside of their own little town," he said. "I would look at the news to see the world situation. My family would rather watch a sitcom. I would talk to friends about it, and my friends would say, 'Yeah, but what about the football game?' "

Fostering an understanding

Their mission as volunteers was three-faceted: to forge a better future for the people in their village; to learn their culture and help them understand ours; and to share what they learned with Americans.

Not all volunteers succeeded. Of the 10,000 people who apply each year, only 3,500 are sent abroad, though some join a waiting list, according to Peace Corps officials in the nation's capitol.

Of those who go, about 28 percent do not complete their 27-month contract for various reasons, and many do not persevere more than a few weeks or months. Those who persist are special.

"A couple of people left after the first day or two in-country," said Gene Daniel, 48, golf course superintendent at River Hills who taught English in Zaire from 1974 to 1976.

"I saw it as their country and tried not to do anything offensive to their cultural values. Luxuries aren't all that important. It molded me. Set my values. Established what is important. It's not all material things."

John Eaves, manager of the regional recruiting office in Atlanta, says successful volunteers are typically "adventuresome, risk takers, compassionate, resourceful, desirous of helping others, open-minded and adaptable."

"Adaptability is key," he said.

Feltes served in an orphanage, weighing newborn babies in the middle of an "indescribably beautiful" rice field in southern Thailand from 1985 to 1987. She encountered cobras, disease, adjusted to community bathing in her sarong and became close to villagers.

She and volunteers she met there remain close, reuniting every October, and Feltes is active in regional and national Peace Corps organizations. Seven fellow-volunteers became physicians.

"When you meet someone who was a volunteer, there are so many things you don't need to say," she explained. "You know that person."

Annette Jones Chinchilla, principal of Fort Mill's Riverview Elementary School, said the Peace Corps instilled an empathy for the less fortunate. When she spent 1988 and 1989 as a health worker in Costa Rica, she lived as one destitute. She taught villagers to plant and eat more vegetables, to move the latrine away from the water supply, that malaria-bearing mosquitoes live in stagnate water.

"I lived in poverty, and some people in the village had a telephone and a washing machine," she recalls. "I was jealous of that.

"It also gave me a much better understanding of handicapped people. I was handicapped. When I arrived, I didn't know how to ask where is the bathroom. I couldn't communicate. As a school principal, I remember that."

Changing the myth

They did not bring peace to the world, but the volunteers believe that in every remote village where a volunteer became one with the people, the myth of Americans as monsters was exploded.

"The legacy of the Peace Corps lies in the individual relationships with the people," says Alice Burmeister, assistant professor of art history at Winthrop University who introduced a hybrid seed to hungry people in Niger from 1987 to 1990.

"I was so inspired by them. They may eat only one meal a day, but they maintain rich human relationships. They are rich in human resources and their understanding of human connections. We are lacking a lot of that in our culture. They don't worry about acquiring a lot of stuff. Here I get bogged down by details of life. There I can experience things more intensely and deeply."

In fact, African art later became her specialty when she earned her Ph.D. on a Fulbright scholarship. She returns every few years to the village she loved, and sees the children of former students still playing the "ring around the rosie" game she taught.

Her first stop is usually with Maria, a Niger woman about her age who lived in the hut next door, mentoring her on customs, listening when she needed to talk, sharing tears. As other female volunteers, she believes she offered a role model to women in Third World countries where the gentle sex works the hardest and is treated third- class. Most had never imagined women could be teachers before volunteers arrived.

Continuing contact

Maria has seven or eight children now and has grown thin. Her husband has taken a co-wife, a topic about which she commiserated with Burmeister.

"I was amazed at how hard she worked," Burmeister said. "Sometimes she would pound grain and breast feed at the same time.

"We continue to share our lives. We communicate in simple, but meaningful ways. We don't need a lot of words. We identified with one another as women and supported one another."

Burmeister continues her Peace Corps ambassadorship in the classroom, as does Chincilla and Feltes. Burmeister helped sponsor the current African toy exhibit at the Museum of York County. Chincilla met her husband in Costa Rica. She stayed after her Peace Corps tour ended, and the couple frequently returns.

The jungle has since overcome Halyburton's village near the Amazon River, but he still visits. He became involved in a program with Brazilian exchange students and is active in cultural exchange, including serving on the board of directors of Friendship Force.

Feltes participates in international efforts through her Peace Corps liaisons.

"I believe in the Peace Corps 100 percent," she said. "I don't think there is a better organization to promote understanding and peace."

Read the full story here:

Pioneers of peace

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