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Sean Denmark serves in Peace Corps in Cameroon
Sean Denmark serves in Peace Corps in Cameroon
Working for peace
Bay Minette native teaching English in remote West African village
By LESLEY FARREY PACEY
BAY MINETTE -- Baldwin County High School science teacher Jane Denmark beams with pride when she talks about how her son is serving his country, volunteering two years of his life to the Peace Corps.
"He is promoting peace and he really does represent America," Denmark said of her 25-year-old son, Sean, who since June has been teaching English as a second language in a village in West Africa.
Jane Denmark can go on and on about the good her son is doing in the French-speaking village of Bazou in Cameroon. But being a mother, worry also comes easily.
"I either block it out or I get very absorbed in my classes because he is so isolated," she said.
Jane Denmark said she tries not to dwell on the fact that Sean is the only American within an hour's walk of the tiny village. She tries not to think about her son living in a house with no refrigerator and "unreliable" electricity.
She busies herself with work when she pictures her son having to take a taxi two hours to reach a town with Internet access so he can check his e-mail. And she tries to take it in stride when her son's cell phone kicks out as it often does, even after climbing the village's tallest mountain to get the best reception.
"We are very proud of him," she said. "But every once in a while I say, 'What is he doing on the other side of the world?'"
In an e-mail from Cameroon, Sean Denmark said he joined the Peace Corps to fulfill its name.
"One of the goals of the Peace Corps is to promote understanding among people of the world and thereby, to promote peace," he wrote.
And added his mother, "If you understand people, you are not as likely to go to war with them."
Jane Denmark said her son has always been service-oriented and compassionate. Also, he has expressed interest in other cultures and languages since the third grade, she said.
Al Denmark said his son developed a taste for travel and other cultures in large part because he has been exposed to some 17 countries when his father was a civilian working for the U.S. Army.
Al Denmark was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, during the fall of the Berlin Wall. And when Sean Denmark was in college, he spent a semester in Prague, Czech Republic, and also traveled to China to visit a friend two years ago, his father said.
"He really likes to travel," Al Denmark said.
Sean, who attended Baldwin County High School in the ninth and 10th grades, gives much credit to French teacher Katherine Land and English teacher Betty Clemmons. He also feels gratitude for the teachers at the Alabama School of Math and Science in Mobile from which he graduated, especially English teacher Dr. Jeffrey Goodman and French teacher Christa Jones.
Sean Denmark was a National Merit Scholar at the Alabama School of Math and Science.
After graduation, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin in the Plan II Honors Program, and a master's degree in English from the University of Alabama. He taught middle school in west Arizona for a year before entering the Peace Corps.
Sean Denmark completed three months of language and cultural training before being sworn in as an official Peace Corps volunteer this August in Bandjoun, Cameroon, according to a news release.
The training focused on the Cameroon school system, economics and business management, the news release stated. It was also an occasion for volunteers to express their gratitude to the host families, trainers and local officials whose support facilitated their training and integration in Cameroon.
"The training was rather rigorous," said Jane Denmark. "Sean had to go through three months of training and he had to test at a certain level. He also underwent several interviews in Atlanta and in Mobile, various vaccinations and a training session in Philadelphia before he flew out."
Sean Denmark was among 54 new Peace Corps volunteers assigned at the same time to sites throughout Cameroon, according to the Peace Corps statement.
Twenty-two volunteers were posted with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, where they are working to build the capacity of local banks and assist communities in small business development, according to the news release.
In collaboration with the Ministry of National Education, 32 Peace Corps teachers of math, science, English and HIAIDS prevention are working in secondary and teacher training schools throughout the country.
The Peace Corps has been working with the Ministry of Trade and Industry since 2000 and the Ministry of National Education since 1961, according to information provided in the news release.
Since the program's establishment in 1962, more than 2,650 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Cameroon. Currently, 196 Peace Corps volunteers serve in the country to improve Cameroon's quality of education, promote agri-forestry and permanent farming systems and encourage knowledge of the benefits of water sanitation and HIAIDS prevention, according to the news release.
Cameroon also received 40 new Peace Corps trainees in health and agri-forestry programs in September, according to the news release.
Since 1961 more than 170,000 Americans have committed two years of their lives to the Peace Corps, working in such diverse fields as education, health, HIAIDS education and awareness, information technology, business development, the environment and agriculture.
Peace Corps volunteers often find their two years of service to be the most challenging and rewarding of their lives, Cameroon Peace Corps country director Robert Strauss told new volunteers, including Denmark, at the swearing-in ceremony.
So far, Denmark's experience in teaching the students ranging from middle school to about 25 years of age has been both rewarding and challenging, said his parents.
"His reward has been that he is making friends over there, he is learning their culture and showing them a little bit of the American culture," Al Denmark said. "They have about 10 names they call teachers and one of them is 'professor.' Every once in a while, Sean will walk around the village for an hour and talk to people. He really stands out because he is the only white face and they will walk up to him and call him 'professor.'
"Wherever he goes he is the center of attention. But Sean and the villagers are beginning to joke a little bit and make inroads into understanding one another."
One challenge Sean Denmark faces is communicating with the villagers, according to his parents.
In addition to speaking French, the Bay Minette native also encounters "pidgin English" and tribal dialects, his father said. Communicating with the outside world is even more challenging, his mother said.
The village in which Sean Denmark lives is isolated between two mountains, so the Peace Corps volunteer must climb a huge hill to telephone his parents.
"Now that he has a cell phone he just climbs a hill and talks to us," said his mother. "He tells us, 'I just take my Statue of Liberty pose and once I get connected I don't move.'"
Jane and Al Denmark hear from their son every one to two weeks, but returning e-mails can take one week to a month or longer since their son has to travel a couple of hours to the nearest town with Internet access.
"Traveling to town can take a whole day because he has to wait on a small bus for up to three hours because the bus won't leave until it is full," Al Denmark said.
Sean Denmark also has to do without many modern conveniences to which he is accustomed. He lives in a sparse 3-bedroom house with running water. But he has no hot water, he has to flush the toilet with the aid of a bucket and there are no land telephone lines in his village, he has told his parents.
The Denmarks are looking forward to December, when their son will spend 36 hours aboard aircraft to return home for his younger sister's wedding. Sean Denmark will arrive home Dec. 19, just in time for the holidays and to attend 23-year-old Emilie Denmark's wedding Dec. 28.
But before he starts making his way back to Cameroon on Jan. 4, he will be available to speak about his Peace Corps service at civic club meetings or other gatherings, his mother said. "He wants to talk about his experiences," she said.
Al Denmark said his son takes after his mother, who spent much of her life serving her family as a stay-at-home mother. She has now been a science instructor for a decade and has received honors for teaching achievements.
Jane Denmark, however, said her son was raised to care about others.
"We really believe in service and that we should help one another," she said. "I never would have believed my son would have gone around the world to do it."
The Denmarks hope to be able to visit their son in Cameroon next summer.
In the meantime, they have faith that their son is making a difference and they feel confident his future will be bright -- no matter what he chooses to do after his two years in the Peace Corps.
"He would like to write and continue teaching," Jane Denmark said. "I see him getting a Ph.D. But if he wants to write, I'm sure this experience will give him plenty to write about."