Peace Corps aids many cultures - Stephen Graham, RPCV Benin, 1974 - 76

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By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, July 02, 2001 - 12:34 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps aids many cultures - Stephen Graham, RPCV Benin, 1974 - 76

Peace Corps aids many cultures - Stephen Graham, RPCV Benin, 1974 - 76

Teaching people how to raise food for their families and occasionally avoiding deadly spirits is just part of the job for the more than 6,500 Peace Corps volunteers.

Ever since President John F. Kennedy began the program in 1961, 150,000 people have served in the Peace Corps, including many Manhattan residents.

The aforementioned deadly spirits were part of a late-night voodoo ceremony witnessed by Steven Graham, assistant to the dean of agriculture and Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, Africa, from 1974 to 1976. The ceremony featured a man, or "spirit," completely covered by a giant grass skirt and wearing a mask containing coals. Somehow, air was forced though the mask, blowing a stream of fire into the air.

"We were in the middle of nowhere with beating drums. Supposedly, if the spirit touched you, you would die. So this spirit is rushing around at people, and they're all screaming and trying to stay out of his way," Graham said. "I'm thinking, 'Nobody knows I'm here. I'm the only white person around. If someone wanted to do me in, I'd be dead.'"

The people all were nice, however, Graham said.

"They had a saying if you showed up at meal time, 'If enough for one, enough for two.' It was very humbling. These people had nothing, but they shared what they had," Graham said.

The chance to experience this culture and in return teach communities ways to make life better or easier is the drawing card for many volunteers. One possible volunteer is Dena Peterson, senior in horticulture therapy, who has applied for the corps.

"It will be a great experience to see how other cultures are," Peterson said. "I'm not going over thinking I'm going to save the world. If I can help a small group of people, I'll be very happy."

For people like Peterson who are interested in volunteer organizations and international cultures, Peace Corps might become a more important part of their future plans due to an increase in government funding. Congress recently added $18 million to the Peace Corps budget, allowing the agency to increase its volunteers from about 6,500 to 10,000. Peace Corps representative Lisa Wandke, who had a booth in the K-State Student Union and at the All- University Career Fair, said many K-State students have expressed interest in the agency.

"Many students who consider Peace Corps are not sure if they want to go to grad school or they just want a break from homework," Wandke said.

Prospective volunteers should realize that, along with the cultural experiences, Peace Corps requires a lot of work. It is a 27-month program, and volunteers will live in the same conditions as the people they are helping.

"You're on call 24 hours a day, and have to be a jack of all trades," said Wandke, who volunteered in Micronesia from 1993 to 1995. "I lived day by day for food. If nobody caught any fish one day, you didn't eat that night."

Peace Corps offers many rewarding experiences to counter the hardships of daily life, though. Volunteers are encouraged to use their talents to develop a secondary project. Wandke said she used her swimming talents to coach the island swim team. Eventually, she was able to take the team to the South Pacific Olympic Games in Guam.

In addition to the trials and rewards, the feeling many volunteers bring back to the United States is an appreciation for the conveniences America provides.

"I learned to slow down and be less materialistic," Wandke said. "You learn to appreciate what people here take for granted."

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