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Changing the world one life at a time by Botswana RPCV Dana Hinders
Changing the world one life at a time by Botswana RPCV Dana Hinders
Changing the world one life at a time
Kefhilwe wanted to be a writer. She was an excellent English student and a voracious reader. She adored mystery novels, especially those in the "Nancy Drew" and "Hardy Boys" series. But in her country--in Botswana, Africa--literary expression wasn't valued. Especially not for a sixteen-year-old girl.
However, Kefhilwe wasn't going to let that get in the way of her dream. She told her English teacher, Peace Corps volunteer Shelby Contreras, that she was going to write a book. Contreras, impressed with her ambition, promised to teach her how to use the broken-down computer in their classroom if she finished writing it.
Soon after, Kefhilwe came to class with a handwritten manuscript. Contreras worked with her each day after school to finish the book. Contreras and Kefhilwe typed and formatted the manuscript. Then, as a reward for all of Kefhilwe's hard work, Contreras had the manuscript bound to look like a finished book that a child in the United States might find in a library.
"I'll never forget the look on Kefhilwe's face when I presented her with her book," Contreras said. "She was so proud. She took it to her classmates, to her mother, to everyone she knew. She just couldn't wait to show them her book."
Later, after Contreras completed her two-year term in Botswana, she received a letter from Kefhilwe. The girl thanked Contreras for teaching her how to use the computer and encouraging her writing. She told Contreras that she had shown the book to her new English teacher. The teacher was going to try to contact a South African publisher that she thought might be interested in Kefhilwe’s book. Kefhilwe was a writer after all.
"I went into the Peace Corps expecting to change the world," Contreras said. "Now I realize that it's the small victories that mean the most--that being able to help one person at a time is how you change the world."
Today, brightly colored stickpins mark the map on the wall of Contreras' office. The pins point to exotic countries with names that most people her age can't even pronounce. Piles of informational brochures lie stacked beneath a poster bearing the slogan "Peace Corps: The toughest job you'll ever love." The phone rings--it's an elementary school teacher wanting information on Africa for her students. Contreras is more than happy to oblige--for her this is just another day at the office as The University of Iowa campus Peace Corps representative.
The Peace Corps program was established in 1961 and has had over 161,000 volunteers in 134 countries. The Peace Corps currently has 7,000 volunteers, 61 percent of which are female. As a campus Peace Corps representative, Contreras is a liaison between The University of Iowa community and the regional Peace Corps office in Minneapolis.
Her position involves speaking about the Peace Corps and her experience with the program to the Iowa City community. In the past month, she has given presentations to places such as City High, Hoover Elementary, and The University of Iowa Honors Program. Every other week, she staffs an information booth at the IMU--speaking to as many as fifty college students in one session, several of whom later visit her office for additional information. It's a demanding job for someone who is also a full-time UI graduate student--but if there's one thing Contreras learned in the Peace Corps, it's the value of determination.
"A lot of my job involves addressing the misconceptions and dispelling the fears people have about the Peace Corps," Contreras said. "I talk with interested people about what it means to be Peace Corps material. I try to reassure them about the time commitment--two years seems like a long time until you get there. I tell them that the first few months were hard for me, but that the time flew by once I got involved in my project."
As a child in Southern California, Contreras loved the movies "Born Free" and "Volunteer." When she watched those movies, she dreamed of two things: visiting Africa and making a difference in the world. The Peace Corps helped her make both of those dreams come true.
The Peace Corps has three goals: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. Volunteers serve their host country for two years. They receive intensive language and cross-cultural instruction in order to adapt to life in a foreign community. While in the Peace Corps, they are provided with a stipend to pay for their basic needs. However, the stipend only allows them to live a lifestyle comparable to that of the community they are serving.
After she graduated from college, Contreras was considering attending several graduate teaching programs at different universities in the United States. However, she was also speaking to the Peace Corps recruiters in her area. “I wanted to make sure that teaching was what I really wanted to do with my life,” Contreras said. “I thought that if I could teach in the Peace Corps and make a difference to students there, I would be able to teach anywhere.”
Contreras was a part of the last team of education volunteers to be sent to Botswana. She volunteered for the Peace Corps from 1995 to 1997. After she returned to the United States, the Peace Corps program decided future volunteers would be most needed in other developing countries.
While in Botswana, Contreras taught English to elementary and junior high school students. Education volunteers make up forty percent of the Peace Corps. Other popular areas for volunteers include environment, health, business, and agriculture. After her stay in Botswana, Contreras has no patience for those who tell her the Peace Corps experience is a way of avoiding the real world. "Peace Corps isn't a way of escaping the real world--it's the most real job you'll ever have," Contreras said. "You'll learn things there that you won't ever learn in a textbook or an office."
Contreras still keeps in touch with the other Peace Corps volunteers from her time in Botswana. Several of those volunteers are now affiliated with the Iowa City area. In fact, while in Botswana Contreras met Dan Sprague, another education volunteer. Sprague and Contreras were married on July 16, 2000. "I tell people that he is my ultimate souvenir," Contreras said.
Contreras and Sprague, who recently applied to the UI medical school, hope to someday have a family of volunteers. "Dan and I want to have a Peace Corps family," Contreras said. "We both want to volunteer again after we retire. I also hope that when we have children, they will be interested in the Peace Corps. I would be really excited to see them off making a difference in the world."
Contreras encourages college juniors, seniors, and graduate students interested in the Peace Corps to learn more about the program. Contreras' office is located in room N224 of the Linquist Center. Her fall office hours are 12:30 to 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday and 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday. She can be contacted by calling 335-6447 or via e-mail at email@example.com. Those wishing to learn more about the Peace Corps program can also visit the UI Peace Corps website at http://www.uiowa.edu/~pcorps.
This article was orginally written as part of a Fall 2000 Journalistic Reporting and Writing course. The purpose of the assignment was to explore the use of narrative storytelling techniques.