August 20, 2003 - This Week Online: Second tour in the Peace Corps in Paraguay reunites Denise Kiecker with adopted family

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Paraguay: Peace Corps Paraguay: The Peace Corps in Paraguay: August 20, 2003 - This Week Online: Second tour in the Peace Corps in Paraguay reunites Denise Kiecker with adopted family

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Second tour in the Peace Corps in Paraguay reunites Denise Kiecker with adopted family

Second tour in the Peace Corps in Paraguay reunites Denise Kiecker with adopted family

Second tour in the corps reunites bird handler with adopted family

Posted: 2/7/02

by Brett Andersen
Staff Writer

“I was at work, minding my own business, when this random e-mail shows up,” said Denise Kiecker, bird handler and conductor of the World of Birds show at the Minnesota Zoo.

Within a month that random e-mail would take the Apple Valley native back to Paraguay, were she spent more than two years in the Peace Corps.

The e-mail was from her supervisor during her Paraguay tour and asked if she would be interested in returning as a technical trainer.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a bachelor of science in resource management - environmental education and interpretation, Kiecker left in September 1997 to serve as an environmental education volunteer. The commitment is for two years and three months. The three months is consumed by training in languages, religion, culture, societal protocol and their technical project.

The Peace Corps maintains year-round trainers in culture and societal training, but the agriculture and environmental trainers arrive in Paraguay seasonally.

Her initial reaction was she couldn’t go. She had just moved into an apartment and couldn’t afford to surrender her job.

“I wasn’t ready to lock my stuff up in storage again,” Kiecker said.

She laughed about the offer with co-workers. However, the next day she thought about how to make the trip possible.

Every summer the zoo hires an extra full-time person. That employee was the same person from a year ago and was “just itching” for a position to open.

“If they let me leave, I wonder if he could just stay on,” asked Kiecker.

After all, he was trained and ready to begin doing shows. She ran the idea by her boss and a month later she landed in Paraguay.

“I was completely at home when the plane landed,” said Kiecker.

Kiecker described a scene fit for an old western movie.

“The same old people were sitting in the same old chairs, talking about nothing and watching the horses go by,” she said.

According to the Peace Corps, the people of Paraguay are characterized by their easy-going, friendly nature. Paraguay is among the longest running Peace Corps posts, started in 1967.

During her initial stay, Kiecker formed close bonds with a family of eight. The family’s six children — including a set of twins — ranged in ages from sixth grade to about age 25, according to Kiecker, and she was accepted as one of the kids.

“My Paraguay family had no idea I was coming back,” said Kiecker. “They were shaking and crying. They couldn’t believe I was back.”

She always planned to return, but figured it would be in a few years, after she developed her career, had a home, family and was more “rooted” than her current situation.

“When I was a volunteer,” said Kiecker, “it was a teacher training program.”

Since then the program has evolved to center on the community, not the schools. The environmental education team tackles issues such as deforestation and unsanitary living conditions. Kiecker said most of the people have latrines, wells, free-range livestock roaming unchecked and cooking is done over fires.

She said the program looked to local resources and specialists to solve community problems rather than raising money to import a new system.

“It’s about what do we have and who are the specialists that live here,” said Kiecker.

She said it was fun to go into the schools and do environmental projects and theatre with students during her first trip. While the educational focus certainly made a difference, the new community focus is helping to address locally specific issues.

By addressing local issues, they can answer what the community wants, fears and “how do they want to improve their lives.”

Bird lady

Upon returning from Paraguay in 1999, Kiecker said she found herself living with her parents in Apple Valley without any real direction. She said communicating with others was troublesome since no one really understood what she had experienced.

“No one wanted to hear all my stories over and over again,” she said with a laugh. “And that was okay.”

She started searching for a job. She said something temporary to get her through the season was acceptable and perhaps she’d return to school in the fall.

Kiecker dusted off the resume she hadn’t looked at in more than two years, and applied for the Minnesota Zoo job.

“To me it was all practice,” said Kiecker.

Since she didn’t have any animal-handling experience, she didn’t expect to get an interview. After interviewing, she didn’t expect the phone call offering her a position.

“There was a long silence on the phone,” said Kiecker.

She asked for a few days to think about if she really wanted the position.

Her experience with the closeness of the family in Paraguay helped make the decision to stay close to her Apple Valley home an “easy” decision. If not for that experience, she said she could have easily relocated to another region. Most of the family — including grandparents and some aunts and uncles — lived in the same home.

Kiecker described herself in high school as “one of those hippie kids.” She didn’t really understand animals in captivity and was “kind of anti-zoo.”

She wanted a chance to see the “other side.” She was won over by the zoo’s animal care and concern regarding conservation.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” said Kiecker, “I love my job.”

Working with the birds has been slow going at times, according to Kiecker. Every animal has a unique disposition and level of acceptance. She said it took the eagle three months to stop screaming whenever she entered the room.

“There are a couple of birds I didn’t touch for over a year,” said Kiecker.

At the same time, she was building confidence in her abilities. She said the animals can sense when you’re terrified.

Kiecker began her employment at the zoo in February 2000 and performed her first show about six months later.

She wasn’t sure where life would take her, but mentioned returning to school and potentially pursuing a career in environmental education.

“I’m not going to be a bird show lady the rest of my life,” said Kiecker.

Peace Corps

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by executive order of President John F. Kennedy, and later the same year was authorized by Congress.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee oversees the activities and programs of the corps with help from the House Committee of International Relations.

The Peace Corps’ annual budget is historically about 1 percent of the foreign operations budget and is $275 million for fiscal year 2002.

More information about the Peace Corps and the March 1 Peace Corps Days can be found at

Peace Corps Days encourages all former volunteers to speak in classrooms, libraries, churches and anywhere else they can obtain an audience about their experiences in the Peace Corps.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Paraguay; Bird Handling



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