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Last Update: 9/10/2013 11:20 AM
By Meredith Miller Vostrejs and Lara McLaughlin
As with Peace Corps service itself, a volunteer’s connection to their host site and community after close-of-service is very personal and unique. Many RPCVs may not be able to, or want to, return to their host country for a variety of reasons. Yet some RPCVs choose to and have made it happen – some on a routine basis! What motivates them to return to their site of service? How have their experiences and perspectives changed as a result? Several local RPCVs shared their personal stories about returning to their site of service.
Martha Stein and Family
Martha Stein was a senior volunteer in Esmeraldas, Ecuador from 2001-2003 working with at-risk youth and families. During that time she had an apartment in a family home, enabling her to have daily contact with her host family and become a part of their daily lives. In addition to day-to-day living, Martha bonded with her multi-generational family over life experiences including losses, celebrations, and milestones. The children in her host family became her extended children. Martha stated, “ I have no living relatives and my family is a created family.”
As a result, Martha has returned to Ecuador to visit her family and friends every 1-2 years since completing her service. While she doesn’t think her return visits have changed her personally, they do offer clarity on the varied challenges confronting the local community. As she recalls, a key decision in wanting to serve was an opportunity to stay connected with her site of service throughout her life; Martha has been both dedicated and able to achieve this goal!
In addition to personal ties, work is another significant motivating factor that encourages RPCVs to return to their host country. Ella Harris also served in Ecuador, from 2007-2009, and returns frequently for BECAS, an NGO she created while a PCV in Quito. BECAS provides educational scholarships, health care, and social services to children from kindergarten through high school. Although run by locals, Ella is on the Board of Directors and returns on a regular basis to work with the organization.
Ella stated that every time she returns to her community she feels like she is stepping back into Peace Corps life. “There are so many things that are the same- from greeting all the children with hugs and kiss on the cheek, to the gossip, to the long soccer games. It feels like returning home after being away for a long time.” She also notes many changes have occurred; mostly improvements such as paved roads or new soccer fields. However, Ella concludes, “Most of the changes are on the surface. I find the same troubles and joys that the community had when I was a PCV are still there.”
Perhaps one of the biggest changes is with Ella herself. After Peace Corps she entered a nursing program and now brings her new knowledge of primary care with her when she returns to work in Ecuador. A fresh perspective also accompanies her: “When I was a PCV, I was so close to the daily lifestyle that I did not see everything. Taking a step back has really allowed me to understand the community on a whole new level. “
Changes both in personal life and in your community of service can be significant over time. For example, Bob Heavner (Sierra Leone 1969-1971) wasn’t able to return to his village until 2004. “I had always wanted and intended to return. The civil war and raising a family here delayed me.” Returning 33 years later as part of a group of RPCVs from Friends of Sierra Leone, Bob said, “ We were all eager to re-connect with our service sites and find ways to help the country recover by helping our former village communities in any way we could.”
Upon his return post-civil war, Bob observed that so much had changed yet so much had stayed the same. Population growth, lack of infrastructure, years of corruption and plundering, worsened poverty – evidence of the war was everywhere. Bob returned to his village without anyone knowing he was coming. “I sat with the village elders who did not know me, most were younger than me, but they recalled who I was from the oral tradition. One said I had taught his uncle and relayed stories he had heard. They all said that previous Europeans had said they would come back one day but not one had. They more than appreciated and respected this and when I returned again, this time with my adult children the reception was tremendous.”
In his late 50s when he returned, Bob had strong professional experience and resourcefulness to share with his community. From secondary school teacher as a PCV to clinical psychologist working with African trauma/torture victims here in the Bay Area, Bob has merged his personal and professional interests to support his site of service. He has embarked on a mission to refurbish the school where he taught as a PCV, in partnership with a US-based NGO called Schools for Salone. This work has been so satisfying Bob has returned to Sierra Leone four more times.
In conclusion Bob suggests, “For those wishing to return to their sites I would strongly support their doing so if at all possible. It is a truly meaningful personal experience but more than that it can clarify new work to be done and ways to educate people here on what needs are there.”