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Peace Corps Volunteers reflect on time spent helping others
Peace Corps Volunteers reflect on time spent helping others
Volunteers reflect on time spent helping others
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January 25, 2004
Twice a day, Kenyan children as young as 3 lined up with old tin cans in front of 23-year-old Frank Shea in the tiny village of Lodwar, waiting for a cup of mashed corn, a meal that kept them from starvation.
Thirty years later, the memories of the children Shea met during his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer linger in his mind.
"We cooked up a big pot of corn meal mash and served it to them," Shea said of the children who came from poor nomadic families. "We couldn't afford to feed all the parents so we only fed the children," he said.
"Initially I was like 'Oh my God. What else can I do to help them?' But you can't change the country in a day, you have to do what you can."
Shea, a former Victorian now living in Mansfield, was only a year out of college in 1973 when he took the long journey to Kenya.
Since 1961, when President John F. Kennedy formed the Peace Corps, 170,000 Americans, including 1,136 Texans, have joined, and helped people in 136 countries. Today, 299 Texans are among the 7,600 volunteers serving in 69 countries - the largest Peace Corps group since 1974.
The number of volunteers continues to rise. Applicants increased by 27 percent between 2002 and 2003, according to the Peace Corps Web site, www.peacecorps.gov
Most of the Victoria area's 22 returned volunteers served in the '60s, '70s or '80s and, while times change with each passing year and decade, the lasting impact of the experience on Peace Corps volunteers remains the same.
Volunteers over the years have included state representatives, U.S. ambassadors to foreign countries and top university officials.
Some notable returned volunteers are television personality Bob Vila (Panama, 1969-70), Donald J. Putrimas, vice president of Warner Bros. (Brazil, 1976-78), journalist Christopher Matthews (Swaziland, 1968-70), Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibarguen (Venezuela, 1967-68; Colombia, 1970-71), Robert Haas, chairman of the board, Levi Strauss (Ivory Coast, 1964-66) and Samuel Gillespie III, senior vice president of Exxon Mobile Corp. (Kenya, 1967-69).
But most volunteers are ordinary citizens like Shea, looking to make a difference in the lives of others.
Like many other volunteers, the role Kennedy played in the Peace Corps also attracted him. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, and that's what I wanted to do," he said.
Shea was initially sent to the state's capital of Nairobi, where he taught high school chemistry, physics and math, but a visit to the northern village of Lodwar, where a high school teacher was a missionary, provided some of the most rewarding moments of the journey. In Lodwar, near the Sudan border, Shea taught at an all-boys boarding school run by Irish priests.
Lodwar had less than 1,000 people when he was there, and the closest asphalt road was eight hours away.
One of Shea's biggest missions was to help students pass an eighth-grade exit-level test they needed to enter high school. If they didn't pass, they had to "work on the farm or find something else to do," he said.
"They are 10 times more motivated over there than here. They all wanted to learn," Shea said.
Turkana tribe members lived in Lodwar, and Shea taught many of them, but it took time to adjust to their customs and way of life.
"When I first started teaching in Lodwar, a number of students got up and walked out of class," he said. "They were wanderers and herders. In their language they would say, 'My feet had the urge to wander.' They just couldn't sit still for two or three hours at a time. It wasn't disrespectful."
Shea learned to take breaks more frequently. "You have to learn to roll with the punches."
He also found out while teaching a chemistry lab that his students couldn't identify colors. They were testing different substances and the results were based on what colors were made. "I was flabbergasted. I had to put a color chart up on the wall. They would take their test tube and compare it to the chart."
Shea said the Turkana mainly saw brown, blue and occasionally green.
Living conditions were rustic, but they did have running water. Shea lived in a one-room, 200-square-foot concrete hut, which was considered nicer than the grass huts the rest of the villagers lived in.
In Lodwar, food mostly consisted of canned vegetables. "It was very rare to get meat. Occasionally we would buy a goat and kill it and eat it."
Food was sent in from Kitale, the nearest city eight hours away. "In some cases the food didn't get through, because the rivers flooded and the trucks couldn't get through. We came close to running out."
Shea was the first Peace Corps volunteer in Lodwar and the volunteer stationed farthest north in Kenya.
Today, Shea is the process engineer manager at Solvay Polymers in Mansfield. He lived in Victoria from 1990-2000 when he worked at the Union Carbide Seadrift facility.
John Meitzen, of Port Lavaca was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Sri Lanka. He was there in 1962-64, and the country was known as Ceylon.
Meitzen was 34 when he left to teach at Tholangamuwa Central College in Kegalla, a small village in the southwest part of the island. He already had experience teaching high school in Del Rio when he joined. "I decided I wasn't going to get rich teaching school so I might as well have a good time."
He chose Sri Lanka because it was halfway around the world. The island country is off the coast of India.
In Kegalla, Meitzen taught math to older students and English to younger students in grades six through 14. Before he went to Sri Lanka, he went through a four-month intensive language training class at the University of Pennsylvania, where he learned Sinhala, the main national language of the country, spoken by about 74 percent of the people. The Sinhalese are the major ethnic group in the country. The other national language is Tamil, spoken by 18 percent of the population. Tamil is also the second most common ethnic group.
For the most part, Meitzen said, he didn't have any problems speaking Sinhalese. "I had a hard time getting them to speak Sinhalese, because they wanted to speak English."
The Peace Corps is no longer in Sri Lanka because of instability in the government and tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil. The two groups began fighting in the mid-1980s and, since then, tens of thousands have died in a war that continues today.
During Meitzen's two years there, he didn't experience any of the violence. Every weekend he traveled to surrounding villages and did carpentry work and other chores for people.
"I helped plant rice or just visited with people," he said. "They gave us so many coconuts I got sick of it."
Meitzen said coconut juice and tea were the most common drinks, and rice was eaten for almost every meal. The motto he lived by in dealing with food was, "If you can't peel it or cook it, don't eat it. I ate mostly rice and curry with chili peppers. They were Buddhist so they didn't kill anything. I dropped about 20 pounds when I first got there."
He lost so much weight because the Sinhalese at first gave him a big spoon to eat with and the big gulps of chili pepper gave him the hiccups so he didn't eat as much.
"Everyone else ate with their fingers, so I started eating with my fingers, too, so I could get enough food in my stomach."
Meitzen wasn't the only volunteer in Kegalla. Another man taught biology and, together with Meitzen, started a physical education class at the school. Meitzen taught boxing and track. "We started something new there. It gave the kids something to do."
Meitzen remembers the children were very serious students and nothing distracted them. "They didn't get off the subject, because an education meant the difference between working in the rice paddies or doing government service."
He taught the younger students in a thatched-roof, open-air room. It was called "the fish bowl" because everyone came to watch how Meitzen spoke and taught English.
Meitzen said his true passion is the water, and every chance he got he headed toward the ocean, where he taught locals how to body surf. There was also a lagoon he liked to swim in until one day when he ran into a large pair of crocodile eyes.
In his free time, Meitzen met with students and even provided first aid. "I sewed up a few cuts. Everybody ran around barefoot."
He also traveled frequently to the country's capital of Colombo and did work at the Colombo Technical College.
When he moved back to Texas, Meitzen settled in Port Lavaca because his older brother was there. He continued his teaching career at Crockett Middle School, where he taught for 28 years.
While Meitzen was in Sri Lanka, fellow Texan Doris Rangel was settling into life in the Philippines. She grew up in Kingsville and was just 20 when she went into the Peace Corps in 1962 with dreams of making a difference. She was sent to a small town called Sinawingan in Mindanao - the largest of the Philippines' 7,000 islands.
She was a teaching assistant who helped elementary students with English.
"I went into the Peace Corps to save the world," Rangel said. "I wanted everybody to have the wonders and delights of the American lifestyle, and my biggest realization was the world and the people out there were just fine."
The experience changed Rangel's life and way of thinking in many ways. "It was a real wake-up experience. It was finding out how living in a place so very, very different from Kingsville, Texas, could be in many ways so similar," she said. "You always want to think a place where people live so close to the land, and are not as advanced (technologically), are somehow simpler. But people, regardless of their level of education, are never simple," Rangel said. "There was as much politicking in schools and as much gossip, and that came as a real shock to me.
"Those are the negatives, but you also find out people love their children as much, they want the best for their children, they want to be happy, they want enough food," she said. "Just because someone only has rice to eat doesn't mean that's all they want; it's just all they have."
Today, Rangel is a reading specialist at The Victoria College, and the diversity of the city and state is one of the things she appreciates most after her Peace Corps experience.
"It's totally impossible for me to live in a monoculture. If I lived somewhere where you only saw white faces and heard English, I couldn't do it," she said. "I can never think in terms of us and them ever again. I can never see myself as separate from the rest of the world. I learned acceptance."
# Tara Sparks is a reporter for the Advocate. Contact her at 361-580-6527 or email@example.com.
|By Mary Belle Meitzen (vic-1-37.tisd.net - 126.96.36.199) on Sunday, January 01, 2006 - 1:19 am: Edit Post|
Shea's stepson, David Danials and John Meitzen's son, John were roommates at the University of Texas in Austin without either being aware of the Peace Corps connection between their fathers.