November 10, 2004: Headlines: COS - Ecuador: The Weston Town Crier: Peace Corps volunteer Megan Miller returns from Ecuador

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ecuador: Peace Corps Ecuador : The Peace Corps in Ecuador: November 10, 2004: Headlines: COS - Ecuador: The Weston Town Crier: Peace Corps volunteer Megan Miller returns from Ecuador

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Peace Corps volunteer Megan Miller returns from Ecuador

Peace Corps volunteer Megan Miller returns from Ecuador

Peace Corps volunteer Megan Miller returns from Ecuador

Peace Corps volunteer returns

By Cheryl B. Scaparrotta/ Correspondent

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Over 3,000 miles separate Weston from Machala, Ecuador. But Megan Miller, a 1998 graduate of Weston High School, took the chance of a lifetime two years ago, arriving in a teeming Ecuadorean city with little more than a basic grasp of the Spanish language and a desire to make a tangible difference in the global village.

"I had thought about joining the Peace Corps for a long time," explains Miller. "My parents were hesitant about me going, because they knew I would be living such a different lifestyle."

But when Miller graduated from Barnard College in the spring of 2002, she realized, "it was either now or never."

During her college years, the outgoing Weston High alum interned for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and she learned an unexpected lesson.

"I wanted to reach out to the community in a different way from sitting in an office and directing people to aid organizations," she recalls.

So during her last semester at Barnard, she completed the Peace Corps application, and by July of 2002, she was on her way to three months of training in Ecuador, a third-world South American country nestled between Colombia and Peru.

"We learned about language assimilation, cross-cultural assimilation, becoming familiar with projects," she explains.

By the fall of 2002, Miller had completed training and arrived in her new home city of Machala, a southern Ecuadorean city on the Pacific Ocean with a population of 250,000. Known for its shrimp and banana production -the city is the No. 1 exporter of bananas in the world - Mahala would become Miller's home for the next two years.

"We held workshops to teach citizens how to run a bank, how to obtain aid grants, and provided information on AIDS and reproductive health," says Miller. "As a Peace Corps volunteer, our main focus is technical assistance that is sustainable; in other words, the goal is to teach people how to help themselves."

Miller shares one of her earliest success stories.

"A group of 30 neighborhood women came to me and asked how they could afford certain basics, such as sending their children to school. So I set up a meeting with informational posters and handouts, and I taught them how to save money by creating a local bank and earning interest."

According to Miller, well-established financial institutions with a presence in Latin America, such as Citibank, charge high interest rates that poorer families cannot afford.

"The bank became licensed, and the women chose a president and elected board members and a treasurer," she says. "I showed them on a small level how they could save."

With the money the women set aside, Miller says some were able to enroll in a local university, while another started a small chicken farm for her family.

"The bank concept gave them purchasing power they never had before," explains Miller. "Many women in Ecuador get married at a young age and never worked outside the home, so they never had the experience of managing money."

In a nation where only 60 percent of women finish high school and 70 percent of the country lives in poverty, the challenges were many.

"The youth program is the most poverty-stricken in all of Ecuador," points out Miller. "I went into homes that had aluminum walls and no plumbing."

She noticed that some poor families owned cell phones and TVs, "but their wealth isn't measured by what they are able to buy, it comes down to what their government isn't providing for them, such as paved streets, sewage systems, or a public telephone system."

The challenges were personal, too.

"Isolation was one of the hardest things," reveals Miller. "I was living 12 hours by bus from the capital city of Quito, where the Peace Corps headquarters is located, so I didn't go there very often."

Miller says there were two other Peace Corps volunteers in her region, located one hour away from Machala. "We got together once or twice a month, but for all intents and purposes, I was alone."

Working in marginal urban neighborhoods, Miller took basic safety precautions, such as not traveling alone at night.

"I never felt my safety was threatened, though," she says. "I lived in my own studio apartment that was part of a family's larger apartment. What kept me there was all wonderful men and women I worked with, and I became committed to these people."

Since her return to Weston, Miller has been busy applying to law schools that have public policy programs.

"I'm interested in working in government in many different capacities," she says.

Miller is also coaching the women's cross-country team at Weston High School. Every now and then, her cell phone rings with an international call from the friends she made in Ecuador.

"I had a wonderful experience. It was the most challenging job I've ever had!" she reflects.

Miller confirms the Peace Corps' official motto: "They say it's the toughest job you'll ever love, and it's so true. I recommend to anyone who is interested in this experience to apply and go for it. It's only a two-year commitment of what will be a long life."

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Story Source: The Weston Town Crier

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ecuador



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