January 14, 2005: Headlines: COS - Guatemala: The Herald-Leader, Fitzgerald, Ga: Ruth Bolstridge making a difference as Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Guatemala: Peace Corps Guatemala: The Peace Corps in Guatemala: January 14, 2005: Headlines: COS - Guatemala: The Herald-Leader, Fitzgerald, Ga: Ruth Bolstridge making a difference as Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala

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Ruth Bolstridge making a difference as Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala

Ruth Bolstridge making a difference as Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala

Ruth Bolstridge making a difference as Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala

Feature Front: Bolstridge making a difference as Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala

By Sherri Butler

January 14, 2005

Ruth Bolstridge's young students were so excited by the business class she taught them that they eagerly took to a plan to start a mini-company, creating their own product and marketing it to the public. They even turned up with a small profit at the end.
It could have happened anywhere in the U.S. But it didn't. Ruth is in her second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, and the kids who formed the company live in a village outside Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Their product was a fruit cocktail that they sold in the village market.

Ruth, daughter of Steve and Jeannie Bolstridge of Fitzgerald, is a Peace Corps volunteer, at the midpoint of her two-year stint. There is probably no such thing as a "typical" Peace Corps volunteer, but Ruth fits the image most of us have in our minds - a young, idealistic college student. "I was working and finishing my degree," she says. "I wanted a break."

Her family, she says, was very supportive, which was wonderful. The first step was filling out an application, some 20 pages long, complete with medical history. Next, she had to set up an interview. Then it was a matter of waiting for a nomination. "You're nominated for a region of the world," she explains, "and a program, but you don't know where it is. You wait for an invitation."

The invitation is to a specific country and program and the applicant has a few days to consider the offer. Though volunteers can't choose where they work, they can say what they don't want. "You have to send your resume and during the interview, too, you talk about what you'd like to do." Based on the resume and the applicant's expressed interests, the Peace Corps matches volunteers to appropriate programs.

A volunteer can always decline an invitation, but, if they do, Ruth says, it could be six months before they receive another one. She decided that she would take whatever was offered.

Her first destination in Guatemala was the Peace Corps training center in Santa Lucia Milpas Atlas, about forty minutes from Guatemala City. Here, she and other volunteers underwent several weeks of orientation, learning about the culture, studying Spanish and becoming aware of security and health issues.

One of the benefits for Peace Corps volunteers is often the chance to improve their knowledge of other languages. During orientation, Ruth's knowledge of
Spanish was ranked as "low advanced," which put her among a select few. She stands to leave the volunteer agency with a fluent knowledge of Spanish as well as a good background in some of the Indian dialects.

Adjusting to her new life in Guatemala was "difficult in ways that you wouldn't think of," Ruth says. She set up a website to help friends and family members back home keep in touch with her and see how she is living. In her first entry, she records the most striking thing she has learned about Guatemala: "The poverty is great;" however, it is not the poverty as such that is hard to get used to. It is the fact that the people are very happy living in this condition. This was an eye-opening lesson that has resonated throughout her first year.

During the orientation period, Ruth and the other newcomers were taken out to sites in Guatemala where they could see how volunteers live and work.

Ruth has nothing but praise for the Peace Corps, in terms of taking good care of its volunteers, providing medical insurance and other measures to ensure the health and well being of volunteers.

While in training, she stayed with a host family, who became her adoptive family. She particularly enjoyed her 5-year-old "brother," Jimmy (pronounced "Yimmy"). She taught him to count in English and promised him a gift when she returned from working at a vacation camp in Jalapa - if he could remember his English words.

Jimmy didn't remember them, actually, but he received the gift anyway - a piggy bank. This was in early November of 2003 and Ruth made a little deal with Jimmy that if he wouldn't spend any of his small store of money (12 quetzals) from then until December, she would be his banker and pay him interest every week.

Then, in December, he could buy something he wanted.

As she wrote in her online diary, "He thought this was a great plan for about five minutes then he wanted to buy an ice cream cone." But she and Jimmy's mother encouraged him to stick with the plan by giving him a few cents along the way, if he hadn't spent any money.

In the later stages of her training, Ruth, who earned her MBA from Georgia College and State University, gained experience in making presentations to Guatemalans. At the vacation camp in Jalapa, her group taught five sessions on business topics to a group of sixth graders.

After three months of training, Ruth says, "you get assigned to a site in the county, and you stay there for two years."

The image of a Peace Corps volunteer living in a hut in a remote jungle, working on irrigation projects, has its reality, but it's far from the whole story. The Peace Corps came to Guatemala in 1963. In 31 years, close to 4,000 volunteers have served there. There are ongoing projects in agriculture, environment, health and business development and volunteers serve in urban as well as rural settings.

"Basically, we're trying to help them have a better life," Ruth explains. "We can help them see how they can start a business to make their life better, develop what they have." Change has to be incremental. "You can't have a goal to change their lives, because you'll only discourage yourself."

Ruth was assigned to Quetzaltenango, a city of more than 100,000 people, complete with grocery stores, movie theatres and two malls. Instead of living in a hut, she lives in a house. "I have a flush toilet and hot water. In Guatemala, most volunteers have electricity. Probably 95 percent have running water. But Guatemala is more developed. Not all countries are like that."

At first, she was without a refrigerator, but she managed to get one from an American employed with a non-governmental organization, who was returning to the U.S.

Ruth also signed on for cable TV, which helped her improve her Spanish even more. In the evenings, she watches and writes down unfamiliar words. (In addition to the initial intensive training in Spanish, the Peace Corps provides volunteers in Guatemala with two "Spanish weeks" during their term to further develop their language skills. Watching TV is one of the recognized ways volunteers can increase their proficiency.)

For about six months, Ruth says, she didn't have a lot of work. Some of the projects she has done have been completely on her own initiative and it is one of these that has been the most rewarding.

Although she lives in the city, most of her projects are in the outlying rural areas. She's chosen to work in the surrounding villages because she feels that the people there need help much more than the people in the city do.

She has been teaching business classes at one school and she has worked at an orphanage, giving emotional support to children aged 1-5.

It was some of the kids at the school who wanted to start their own mini-business, to get some experience making and selling things in the village market. First, they went to the market to see what people were selling there. Finding there were no sweet treats to eat, they chose to make fruit cocktails. The boys and girls invested their own money to buy the supplies they needed. They were organized like a real company, with a director, treasurer and other officers, and they sold their product in the market for several weeks, carrying cups of the cocktail to the market in covered baskets.

In her online journal, Ruth wrote that, after the first market day, "When they had the profits in their hands, one of the kids proclaimed, 'We are millionaires!'" The delight she took in their venture is evident in the photos she took to commemorate the occasion.

Before the project ended, the children had to create a notebook summarizing all that they had done. A "clausura" or closing ceremony was held to celebrate the end of the project.

The kids recouped their investment, a total of 90 quetzals (about $11.58 at the current exchange rate), and made a profit of 40 quetzals (about $5.18). It wasn't the amount of profit that mattered, however, it was the experience of running a business for themselves.

The director told Ruth that the treasurer, who was 9 years old, was a stickler about the money and made sure that no one ate or gave away any of their product without paying for it. At the clausura, all the officers of the little company wanted to speak - the president, director of marketing and director of producing, ranging in age from 9-12, each said a few words.

Ruth had gifts for them all - lip glosses for the girls and plastic insects for the boys. She had to show the girls how to use the lip gloss, but the boys had plenty of plans for scaring people with their bugs.

The clausura was a great success, but afterwards, Ruth had to acknowledge thoughts and feelings she had not expected - that most of these children will never leave the aldea, or village, where they live, that the girls will likely be married or pregnant by the time they are 14 or 15. The boys will probably grow vegetables for the market.

But one of the things the Peace Corps experience has taught Ruth is not to look at everything from an American perspective. Leaving their home communities for a larger world might not be best for these children. And while they are very poor by American standards, the people she has come to know in the Guatemalan villages are also very happy. She hopes that her efforts may at least help them to market their goods more successfully. As she wrote in her journal at the time, "I cannot think that the work I do will actually change their lives drastically - but that it will help to better the lives they are destined to have."

Ruth came home to Fitzgerald to visit her family over Christmas. Her main project now is one that she found through the Peace Corps team. She is working with several groups of women who weave traditional Mayan cloth. "I'm helping them to develop and market their products," Ruth elaborates.

The women make their cloth on backstrap looms, so-named because of the strap that goes around the weaver to anchor one end of the loom. The other end is attached to a post or tree. The simple loom is light and portable, made of sticks and strings.

In order to connect better with the women she works with, Ruth is learning their craft, passed down through generations, from them. It has been an interesting experience. The first step, learning to wind the thread into balls, brought Ruth an insight into the local culture. Each time she messed up, five or six of the women would come to her aid, taking the thread from her hands and winding it for her, rather than encouraging her to correct her own mistakes.

Ruth admits she felt homesick a little when she first arrived in Guatemala, but now she feels more at home there and it's an adjustment when she visits the U.S. Though she hasn't decided what she will do when her Peace Corps tour ends, she is glad she made the choice to volunteer.

"The Peace Corps is a journey," she says. "You learn a lot. It broadens your horizons. You have to know yourself very well. It's a good experience."





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Story Source: The Herald-Leader, Fitzgerald, Ga

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

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