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RPCV Paul Kealey: Reflections on a Path to Service
RPCV Paul Kealey: Reflections on a Path to Service
In 1986, my wife, Marta, and I interrupted our professional careers – hers as an HMO dietitian, mine as a corporate training consultant – at the ages of 27 and 29, respectively, and became Peace Corps Volunteers. After three months of training, we were assigned as health extension educators, serving about a dozen very low-income Mayan Quiche communities in the highlands of Guatemala. For me, the decision would dramatically change my career and my life. The two years of Volunteer service would launch me on a path of service – at Peace Corps, World Wildlife Fund, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and, now, Neighborhood Reinvestment. Collectively, these experiences form a coherent – and indelible – sum of lessons, challenges and personal commitments. Marta also dedicated herself to a similar path. She currently is a nutritionist, working for the Food and Nutrition Service’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Little did I know when I signed up for a two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer that I would even- tually dedicate nearly 11 years of my life to Peace Corps. After two years in Guatemala, I served for another eight and a half in management and lead- ership positions, as chief of field operations, programming and training officer, and country director in Washington, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. The most important lesson Peace Corps taught me by far was humility – through the direct and poignant exposure to poverty.
While in Guatemala, for example, Marta and I lived in a one-room adobe hut, with no running water and few amenities, on a stipend of about $80 a month. But, even so, we were so privileged compared to our Quiche friends and neighbors. Most Quiche families lived on less than $300 a year. Health care was woefully lacking; many Guatemalans would go their whole lives without ever seeing a doctor. Seven out of 10 children under the age of five were seriously malnourished. And one in five infants died before reaching their first birthday, often of dysentery from unsanitary conditions.
In later years, as Peace Corps programming and training officer and country director in Paraguay and Costa Rica, I oversaw antipoverty efforts in urban slums, where families of 10 lived in makeshift homes of corrugated tin and cardboard, where filth and pestilence were common, where nine-year-old children survived on prostitution and street crime. But Peace Corps also taught me about the power of participatory development, community organizing, capacity-building, and working with resident assets. The premise of Peace Corps – like Neighborhood Reinvestment – is that local commu- nities, when organized and empowered, can achieve powerful and sustainable solutions to poverty. Respecting Local Cultures,
By respecting host communities and appreciating their strengths, needs and desires, we helped residents develop their own cooperatives, women- and youth-owned microenterprises, neighborhood- run preschools and health clinics, and local job- training programs. Working with organizations like the Cooperative Housing Foundation, Plan International, and mortgage-lending institutions, we assisted communities to build and rehabilitate homes for low-income families.
In the finest Peace Corps tradition, we worked with host communities – not doing for them or to them – and we learned so much from them. In 1997, I left Peace Corps and served as director of operations for Latin America and the Caribbean for World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The focus of WWF was like that of Peace Corps: respecting local cultural contexts, appreciating assets, and working with communities and partner organizations to help them achieve environmentally sustainable economic and social development. Overseeing strategic planning, organiza- tional development, and training programs were some of my core responsibilities. In 2000, I was hired by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to head up training for the AmeriCorps*VISTA program. AmeriCorps*VISTA is often referred to as the domestic Peace Corps. Its mission since 1965 has been to help communities and organizations in low-income areas build their capacity to effect changes that help people move out of poverty – not just to make poverty more tolerable. At VISTA, I worked with such national organi- zations as the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, ACCION, the Welfare-to-Work Partnership, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Habitat for Humanity. With these and other partners, we trained and placed more than 6,000 AmeriCorps*VISTA members a year to work with some 1,100 local community- based organizations – including many NeighborWorks organizations.
These VISTA members helped start or strengthen welfare-to-work job training programs, Head Start centers, individual development account (IDA) initiatives, and housing rehab efforts. They organized tenant groups, raised funds for literacy programs, and helped integrate programs for the homeless. Given my career and personal commitments, when Ellen Lazar, Neighborhood Reinvest- tment’s executive director, asked me last year to direct its outstanding community devel- opment training programs, she offered me the perfect opportunity. Neighborhood Reinvestment epitomizes the best of all my previous experiences combined: strengthening communities and trans- forming lives through collaboration and part- nership; building the capacity of active residents and local organizations to achieve sustainable community change; upholding the dignity of every individual; and demonstrating that each person can contribute to positive personal and social change. I am so honored to serve as director of training for Neighborhood Reinvestment. The Neighborhood Reinvestment Training Institute is recognized nationally as the premier community development training program in the country. It offers the most comprehensive curriculum of more than 120 courses each year in home-ownership development, community building, neighborhood revitalization, community economic development, affordable housing, production management, and leadership. More than 5,000 individuals from around the nation attend Training Institute state-of-the-art courses every year and then return to make real differences in their communities – educating low- income and minority homebuyers, combating predatory lending, launching small businesses, capi- talizing rehabilitation projects, planning mixed- income housing developments, and so much more. By collaborating with others, we help them achieve the changes they want to see in their own commu- nities.
"Find a path with a heart, and dare to follow it," says the Don Juan character in one of Carlos Castaneda’s books. I consider myself so fortunate – and humbled – to have been offered this path. Paul Kealey (email@example.com) is Neighborhood Reinvestment’s director of training.