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Tom and Mary Mechtenberg are Peace Corps volunteers, helping the impoverished residents of St. Lucia island
Tom and Mary Mechtenberg are Peace Corps volunteers, helping the impoverished residents of St. Lucia island
Couple aid poor in paradise
By MIKE CONNELL
At a time when many others would think of retiring, Tom and Mary Mechtenberg are Peace Corps volunteers, helping the impoverished residents of St. Lucia island
Traveling overseas to do charitable work is nothing new for retirees Tom and Mary Mechtenberg, who are serving as Peace Corps volunteers on St. Lucia in the Caribbean.
In 1968 and '69, the Mechtenbergs worked for Catholic Social Services in war-ravaged Vietnam. Tom, who was a priest at the time, helped oversee an orphanage in Saigon. Mary, then a nun known as Sister Mary Durm, worked as a nurse at an orphanage in Hue.
It was only after returning stateside that they met in Detroit, fell in love, left their religious orders and were married. In 1971, they moved to Port Huron, where they raised their three children -- Marty, Molly and Michael.
Tom worked for 24 years as a school social worker, mostly at Garfield Elementary. In 1989, he was recognized as the Michigan Social Worker of the Year.
Mary became involved in politics, and as a Democratic represented Port Huron on the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners for 14 years, four of them as chairperson. She also served a term on the Port Huron City Council.
In 2000, the Mechtenbergs moved to Niles to be closer to Mary's family.
Last year, they joined the Peace Corps.
"We had talked about the Peace Corps for several years," Mary said, "but wanted to get settled in our new home, get the kids out of college and wait till our parents were gone."
Since arriving on St. Lucia, the Mechtenbergs have been sending a lengthy letter to friends each month. They shared those letters with the Times Herald.
Here are excerpts:
Unbelievably, one week ago today we left home to begin our Peace Corps adventure. It seems like at least a month because of all that has happened to us. First, to Miami for staging -- 52 men and women of all ages, genders, colors and personalities, with Tom being oldest and Mary being in third place. ...
We are staying with a widowed woman of 49 who has a 25-year-old nephew and a 21-year-old niece living with her. At first we had a problem with mosquitoes at night because there were no screens on the windows and no fan in the room. But, we soon got a mosquito net from the Peace Corps and our host family came up with a floor fan, so now we are in good shape!
We indicated our preference for attending a Catholic Church and were shown where and when to go -- which we did on Sunday morning. It was an interesting experience with lilting calypso-style music, women and men dressed to a T, and everyone very easy-going -- with the result the service lasted two hours.
Tom (has been assigned) to work with the Ministry of Education, Mary with the AIDS Action Foundation. They took us to a monastery -- really! It's operated by a group of seven Benedictine nuns who support their monastery by taking in guests of all sorts, including tourists, for about $50 U.S. including two meals. ...
I'll mention a little about this island -- one in a string of small islands. St. Lucia is 23 miles long and 14 miles wide. Down the middle there are mountains covered with rainforest, and the outside edges have a number of small fishing villages. The average income is around $2,000 a year U.S. Things are expensive, and I'm not sure how they make it. Their local beer -- Piton -- is $1.25 U.S. It is named after their famous twin Piton mountains. The island may look beautiful, but it is a Third World country. Their roads are narrow with no shoulders or sidewalks -- making driving and walking hazardous. The Peace Corps does not allow us to drive or even ride a bike. We dress rather formally -- skirts or dresses and long pants.
As we approach our four-month anniversary in St. Lucia, we have begun to know and appreciate the people who live here and their way of life. The majority of St. Lucians are descendants of African slaves. The French originally occupied the island, but in the next 150 years the British contested their occupancy and St. Lucia changed flags 14 times. As a result the culture -- language, schools, food, religion, etc. -- is a mixture of French and British influence. The people speak English, but also a unique patois called creole, which is a combination of French and African. We can usually understand the English but not the creole.
We have rented the lower level of a house on the side of a hill. The view from the balcony is awesome -- we see the famous Piton mountains and the Caribbean sea. The owner lives in England, so it is quiet and private. However, the silence is often broken by the calls of roosters, dogs, cows, and goats. ...
The people are very friendly, and we have made some friends already. We are active at the local Catholic church where Tom was a lector last Sunday. ... We look forward to hosting 13 Peace Corps volunteers from the island for Thanksgiving dinner.
We live and work in a rather small village, Soufriere. It has about 10,000 residents including the surrounding villages. Up until 5 to 8 years ago, it was pretty laid back. Then the Japanese came in with boatloads of "used cars" -- and guess what? -- now they have "rush hour" in Castries (the capital) and even some traffic problems here in Soufriere, where people still walk in the once-quiet streets. We use public buses, which are Toyota vans with 15 people packed in.
Our work is falling into place. In Third World countries, life moves at a different pace, and that has been true with our work also. Tom continues to work to establish a special-education program in five schools. In January, Mary begins teaching a series of 22 classes about health, especially HIV/AIDS, in three schools. ...
This has been quite a year for us -- two weddings, a grandchild and adjusting to a new life and culture. We have been blessed and are so grateful for it all.
Things that happen: I'm on the sidewalk making my way from the Infant (K-2) School to the Primary (3-8) School, around 9 a.m. Four mothers standing there, visiting after walking their children to school. As I pass, one says: "Good morning, Father."
I stop short in my tracks, shocked by the greeting. I say: "What did you call me?"
She replies, "I called you Father."
I ask her why, and she tells me because I look like a priest! Well, to say the least, I'm flabbergasted.
A week or so later, I'm talking to another Peace Corps volunteer who has been here a year already, an older guy with some gray hair. He tells me it's a tradition here that older men with gray hair are either priests or doctors. He's been called a priest also! It's a cultural thing -- one more thing to learn.
As your winter rolls on and gives you so much grief, we have enjoyed really nice weather -- 80s in the day and 70s at night. That is why this small island draws tourists.
Tom and I are into our projects in a big way. I am on lesson 10 of 20 classes dealing with self-esteem, behavior change, HIV and AIDS. I teach 120 students from 12 to 15 years old. Because the Caribbean has the second-highest incidence of HIV in the world, these folks get lots of information about HIV. However, it is behavior change that is the real challenge. I teach in three schools. Schools here do not have glass windows, only open louvers without screens. The floors are cement, so the metal chairs and desks scraping on the floor make for some real noise. ...
They say prayers at the beginning of the school day, before and after the noon lunch, and at the end of the day. They haven't gotten into the church/state thing yet! All students wear uniforms -- even those at the two-year junior college in Castries. Some teachers have a two-year teaching certificate, some less education than that, and a few have more. They try hard under difficult circumstances. ...
Actually, they have a demanding curriculum with lots of testing. Second graders do multiplication tables! Only about 60% of students go to high school. There are not enough schools, so admittance is based on an entrance test.
I'll start with a funny story -- at least to me. Mary's not so sure. We have a cleaning lady at the office where I work. She has a 2-year-old son, Lionel, who she sometimes brings along. He calls me "Mr. Tom." Mary and I attended a workshop in Castries last week and were shown on national TV as part of a news broadcast. The next day, Lionel's mother told me he saw us on the screen and came rushing in to tell her: "Mommy, mommy, Mr. Tom and his mommy are on TV!" ...
Well, as you are well aware, the U.S. is "at war" in Iraq. As everywhere in the world, I suppose, it's an issue of concern for the people here. We've met a few people who are "all for it." Most, however, are deeply opposed, some for moral reasons, more because of the economic consequences to their country. (Tourism is the main industry here.) Everybody we talk to is interested in our opinion, which we freely give. After all, we came here with the Peace Corps.
Within a few years they plan to have street names and house numbers. Right now, only a few streets downtown have names -- Bridge Street, Church Street, Port Street, etc. Residential areas have names but, within that area, it is anybody's guess where your house is located. Most houses are near the street, and there are no lawns. There are fences or cement walls around the house. No one has a doorbell -- you just call out who you are looking for -- windows are always open. The house we rent has screens, but many homes do not. No one we know has air conditioning.
Seven new Peace Corps volunteers came a couple weeks ago. We have not met them yet, as they are still in the middle of their seven weeks of training. There are 6,600 Peace Corps volunteers in 69 countries. Since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961 at a speech at the University of Michigan, there have been thousands of volunteers. In the beginning, most volunteers were just out of college, but now 6% are over 50. By the way, the "older volunteer" who came to St. Lucia is only 70, so Tom still claims rank!
A bit about the weather. For the last three months it rained less and less until, during the entire month of May, we had no rain at all. We had a strong wind one day; it got so dusty that the principal closed school in the afternoon. People were telling us June was the beginning of the rainy season, and, sure enough, we've already had several nice showers in the last week. It's like the beginning of spring -- the grass and trees are starting to green up, dust is no longer a problem and I don't have to water my kitchen garden every day.
Of course, the rainy season has its own problems -- it's the beginning of the hurricane season. ... Hurricanes are taken seriously here. A major storm hits the island only once every 10 to 20 years, but when it does, hang on!
The St. Lucia Jazz Fest is over; now the island is preparing for Carnival. It used to be celebrated before Lent, but a few years ago they changed the date to July -- to give tourists another reason to come here other than escaping the cold weather! ... From what we hear, the St. Lucia Carnival rivals all of the better-known ones for wild and crazy behavior. Mary and I will, of course, be right in the middle of it! ...
Mary's throwing a big birthday party for me on June 22. I'm observing my 75th birthday. We've invited a dozen or so of the men and women with whom we work to come to our house on Sunday afternoon. A little rum punch, some reggae music, and we'll be dancing on the balcony!
On Friday afternoon (Aug. 8), 41 new Peace Corps trainees arrived at the airport in Castries. We current volunteers were all there to cheer for them and welcome them to the Eastern Caribbean. They will soon become our colleagues, known as EC71 -- the 71st group to come to the islands since 1961.
That sounds great, but everything is not as great as it may seem. You know that our president proclaimed (in his State of the Union message) that he wants the number of Peace Corps volunteers to double in the next five years, and we already had an extra group of trainees come this year. We are told that, in order to meet the quota, Peace Corps recruiters will be accepting young people with two years of college education instead of holding to the previous standard of having a four-year college degree.
We who are here don't believe this bodes well for the future of the Peace Corps. We are concerned mostly for the younger, less experienced, less well-educated volunteers who will be coming. It is definitely a challenge to be responsible for your life -- on your own -- in a country with living and behavior standards different from your own. Many volunteers -- even older, more experienced people -- find it very difficult to make the adjustment.
Furthermore, it's already difficult to find meaningful work sites with dedicated community partners. More isn't always better, and that could be the case here.
Our long-awaited visit to the U.S. is over. It was a whirlwind trip, but we enjoyed seeing our family and friends again. We had yet another 75th birthday party for Tom; sharing the celebration was Marty on his 30th and Hannah, our granddaughter, her first. ...
Tom is copy editor of our own Peace Corps publication, the Serious Ting, published every three months. His work in the schools will be featured in a fall issue of This Active Life (a magazine for National Education Association retirees).
T-day is the one strictly American holiday we are allowed to observe, and the 20 Peace Corps volunteers on this island are planning to get together at the home of one of our colleagues and have a traditional Turkey Day dinner. Since we all very rarely get together socially, we are looking forward to the day. ...
This year, I am teaching at the secondary school. First I will mention that after the bell rings, the students and teachers linger (and wander) into class 5 to 10 minutes late. Classes last 40 minutes -- but only 30 minutes are left after you get the students settled down! Then there are constant interruptions -- sports days, special-event days, bad-water days, etc. The 24 lessons I had planned to finish this term, which ends in two weeks, are just half over! Fortunately, there are two more terms! The interesting thing is that within the high school setting of almost 800 students and staff, I don't even realize I am the only white person.
Punctuality is a constant problem in this culture. In trying to set up meetings for our grant applications, Tom and I are truly amazed how lackadaisical the participants are about meetings and deadlines -- even with thousands of dollars at stake for projects they requested! One good thing, Sunday Mass always starts on time, although some worshipers come late, of course. Mass lasts from 11/2 to 2 hours.
As we approach the Christmas season, we think about shopping. On this island, the only franchise is Kentucky Fried Chicken in Castries. There are no Sears, J.C. Penney's, McDonald's, or Wal-Marts, etc. Most shopping is done in little shops that are like the old general stores.
Our Christmas this year will be very special. We will be joined by all six of our immediate family for 10 days. Marty, Abigail, and Hannah (15 months) will be here from Ann Arbor, where Marty has started studies at U of M's School of Architecture. Molly and Jerry will come from their country home in northwestern Wisconsin, where they live in a Peace and Justice community and where Molly (who is 6 months pregnant) helps to write and publish a quarterly called Nukewatch Pathfinder. And Mike, who is between jobs and planning to go to graduate school in the fall, will leave his cozy apartment in Minneapolis to make the long trip down.
Here in St. Lucia they are not into the "Santa Claus" thing, but follow some very old traditions. One is the custom of ringing in the Christmas season by "bursting the bamboo." They bring a large bamboo trunk from the rainforest and, by using kerosene and a lighter, cause a cannon-like explosion. To us, it is loud and annoying -- like too many firecrackers on the 4th of July! Also, it's a custom here to fix up and paint up for the holidays. Many people are scurrying to get things done, just like we do before the first frost. ...
Despite the differences in how Mass is celebrated here, we feel very welcome in church. The people allow me (Tom) to be a Lector at the Sunday Mass, which I do once a month, and we get warm handshakes and even hugs from kids and adults at the Kiss of Peace. We are also impressed with how much the people enjoy the Liturgy -- they speak up when they pray, and they put themselves into the music with lots of hand clapping and bobbing and weaving.
As the year comes to a close, we think of 2004 and pray it will bring you many special blessings.
Best wishes, Tom and Mary