Bringing something back about RPCV John Barnhart

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, November 21, 2001 - 9:17 am: Edit Post

Bringing Something Back by Dominican Republic RPCV John Barnhart

Bringing Something Back by Dominican Republic RPCV John Barnhart


John Barnhart has a living, breathing piece of the Dominican Republic on his back porch.

"Last year I was going through stuff and I found this prescription bottle," said Barnhart, who served in the Dominican Republic from 1986 to 1988. "Inside it was a seed. I thought, 'I'll give it a try.'" He soaked the tiny pellet in water and planted it in a pot of Ohio soil, where it took root. Since then he's repotted it twice, and the thriving legume is now threatening to outgrow its caretaker. In the Dominican Republic, the plant's leaves, feathery like a fern's, serve as feed for cattle, birds and deer and return much-needed nitrogen to the soil. Here on Barnhart's North Olmsted screen porch, they're a constant, welcome reminder of his two years abroad.

"It takes a certain kind of person," he said of the Peace Corps. "You have to be flexible and live with a lot of things you don't find here."

He'd always harbored a desire to serve in another country. "Kids want to be firemen, policemen. I wanted to be a missionary," said Barnhart, a compact, silver-haired Cleveland native who's slow to warm up to the subject. Once he does, however, there's no stopping him. "When my wife died and I retired, I thought if I didn't do it then I wouldn't do it." At age 61, the former driver for the Millbrook Bakery who had a lifelong interest in horticulture packed his bags for a sunnier climate. In the Dominican Republic, he learned to ride a motorcycle to get around, taught his neighbors agricultural skills and became one of them. "You go to their weddings, their funerals, their fiestas. Most of the time you're just part of the group."

He became fond of the coffee - a Dominican staple - and of the people themselves, who he said are full of friendship and respect for the elderly. Like Americans, Dominicans are also baseball crazy. Lacking equipment, players would use sticks for bats and dolls' heads for balls (to which Barnhart attributes their phenomenal skill). The town where he lived had electricity only two or three hours each day but knew how to use it. "The rest of the town might be black," he said, "but the baseball field was light."

Barnhart's work was guided by a crucial Peace Corps belief, that you must teach skills and initiate programs the natives can maintain after the volunteer leaves. The idea is to improve the quality of life and foster independence. "You never give them something for nothing," Barnhart said. "When they had to pay for something, they valued it more and took better care of it."

In addition to planting trees, building a windmill and shepherding sick children to surgery in the big city, Barnhart was a de facto goodwill ambassador. "Where the tourists are, that's the Ugly American," he said. "Up in the hills, those people will tell you a different story about the Americans."

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