February 23, 2003: Headlines: COS - Micronesia: PCVs in the Field - Micronesia: Daily Breeze: PCV Neil Mellen learns about a new culture in Micronesia

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Micronesia: Peace Corps Micronesia : The Peace Corps in Micronesia: February 23, 2003: Headlines: COS - Micronesia: PCVs in the Field - Micronesia: Daily Breeze: PCV Neil Mellen learns about a new culture in Micronesia

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PCV Neil Mellen learns about a new culture in Micronesia

PCV Neil Mellen learns about a new culture in Micronesia

A world away from the South Bay

Feb 23, 2003 - Daily Breeze
Author(s): Cohen

y By Sandy Cohen

Neil Mellen went from the cushy comforts of Rancho Palos Verdes to living in a tin shed with no toilet. By choice.

He makes his home on a tiny island in Micronesia, a Pacific archipelago just north of Papua New Guinea. For the next two years, he will live and work among the island natives as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"It is sort of odd really," the 23-year-old said via e-mail. "I reside in a tin shed and do not have any sort of plumbing, but thanks to a dish relay and a satellite link-up, I can surf the World Wide Web when the weather is clear."

That Internet connection _ Mellen's main means of communication with the outside world _ allowed him to coordinate donations of books and supplies from the South Bay to the island of Ulithi, one of hundreds of tiny islands in the Federated States of Micronesia. Surrounded by palm trees and thatch huts, Mellen spends his days teaching local schoolchildren everything from basic math to basketball.

"It really is a two-way street in terms of sharing knowledge and experiences," Mellen said. "The same boy who sits in my class to learn the difference between plural and singular tenses in the morning is teaching me local knot work in the afternoon."

Mellen has had a lifetime of experiences since arriving on the island eight months ago. He tasted dog and whale. He's seen a toddler use a giant machete to open a coconut. He's felt the prejudices of the island's rigid caste system and seen firsthand how American aid impacts developing nations.

"Living in such a foreign culture, speaking a rather uncommon tongue and teaching in a school that has just absolute basic necessities is simply energizing," Mellen said. "It's a very supportive culture and they are eager to have me here."

Mellen's greatest supporter, his mother, Michelle, said she knew her son was destined for public service since he joined the Torrance Civil Air Patrol when he was in eighth grade.

"He's quite an unusual kid," she said. "He was debating between going into the service or joining the Peace Corps. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in May and a week later, he was in Micronesia."

Mellen said he wanted the hands-on involvement offered by the Peace Corps. "I thought (it) would be an exciting way to contribute that was both direct and relatively unstructured," he said. "This has proven very much to be the case!"

Mellen's official assignment was to create an elementary school library on Ulithi _ population 500. At less than two square-miles, it is one of the smallest in the archipelago. But he didn't realize he'd be starting completely from scratch.

"There was a dirty room full of broken glass when I arrived," he said. "Being so far from any sort of supplies, I began to teach as I wrote of soliciting book donations."

The South Bay native, who holds a degree in psychology, teaches eighth grade as well as high school English. But that's only part of his job.

"Beyond the library and classroom instruction, we as volunteers are encouraged to take on side projects," he said. "I am working to piece together a youth sports league and exercise program in the after-school hours."

So when he's not with the children, Mellen e-mails various organizations seeking donations of athletic gear, books and school supplies.

Miles away in Rancho Palos Verdes, Mellen's mom makes it her mission to help. She arranged for a big book donation from Point Vicente Elementary School to her son's library project, and she got the Palos Verdes chapter of AYSO to donate a huge shipment of soccer gear for his sports program. She also regularly sends toys, games and office supplies to her son.

"I'm doing what I can from home," Michelle Mellen said. "It's fun to become involved. Christmas and his birthday are the hardest times to have him so far away, but I feel like I've been Santa Claus for months."

Karen Jaconi, principal of Point Vicente School, said her staff was eager to donate to Mellen's cause, especially since he'd worked at the school as a teen.

"We gave some discarded books that were no longer being used," she said. "We were happy to have such a good place to send them."

Jerry Macfarlane, regional commissioner of the Palos Verdes soccer league, said Michelle Mellen's timing was perfect. The league supports needy sports programs each year, he said, and was looking for a recipient for a Christmastime donation.

"We have funds earmarked to help other areas that need assistance with their soccer programs," Macfarlane said. "This sounded like such a wonderful idea, we ended up sending about 100 soccer balls and 100 uniforms. The only thing we really wanted back was a picture, so we could put it on our Web site."

Though Mellen still needs books and supplies, his library and sports program are beginning to take shape. "The library had an incredibly humble beginning," he said. "But thanks to generous folks in the States who have scraped together boxes of books, it is slowly but steadily growing."

Mellen relishes his assignment with the Peace Corps, which has been active in Micronesia since the 1960s. The service agency was credited with sparking Micronesia's move toward independence after educating residents about their legal and social rights in 1966. Under a compact with the United States implemented 20 years later, Micronesia agreed to allow the U.S. exclusive military access to the islands and control of Micronesian foreign relations in exchange for annual funding. Micronesia now receives the highest per-capita aid of American funds, Mellen said.

"Now I have a better feel of what foreign policy and rural development is all about," he said. "I still believe, perhaps now more than ever, that blindly throwing foreign aid money at the Third World causes more trouble than it solves."

That said, Mellen still celebrates each day of his assignment. He misses the sense of freedom his car provided, and he's dropped a few pounds thanks to a diet free of American junk food, but he's otherwise adjusted to a vastly different way of life.

"People in the South Bay would likely be most surprised at the Internet and cell phones here," he said. "For people who live in thatch and tin, who are mostly subsistence food gatherers, it is simply a little odd."

Mellen wants to spread the word about the Peace Corps, which he describes as "an incredibly diverse organization that provides amazing opportunities for folks who want a unique way to contribute."

Since 1961, more than 168,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 136 countries around the world. President Bush recently increased the organization's federal funding as part of a five-year plan to double its number of volunteers, who must be U.S. citizens at least 18 years old. Peace Corps service is a two-year commitment.

Mellen hasn't decided yet what his post-Peace Corps future will hold.

"I have plenty of time to think about it," he said.

In the meantime, he's preparing for a brief California visit for his sister's wedding in August.

"I am eager," he said, "to see how busy and crazy things will seem at home."

Find out more

- Go to: www.peacecorps.gov; www.visit-fm.org.

- Contribute: Send school supplies, books or sports equipment to: Neil Mellen, Peace Corps Volunteer, Ulithi Post Office, Yap State, FM 96943.

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Daily Breeze

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Micronesia; PCVs in the Field - Micronesia



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