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From South America to Evans City: Peace Corps Volunteers Share Experience Abroad

In recognition of the Peace Corps' 50 years of service, Cranberry Patch talks with two former volunteers about life abroad.

Since its inception in 1961, the Peace Corps -- which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year -- has sent more than 200,000 volunteers to serve in 139 countries.

Jason Bell and Jill Perry, an Evans City couple, were two of them.

While the thought of living in a developing country for two years may conjure images of a small tent village with no access to running water or electricity, this couple said their accommodations were relatively modern.

From 2003 to 2005, Bell, 36, lived in Principal, Ecuador -- a small rural village on the outskirts of the Andes Mountains -- where he had access to electricity most of the time  as well as a supply of natural spring water. The biggest challenge, he said, was communication. The town had only seven telephones, he said, and service was spotty at best.

Perry, 40, also served during those years in San Juan Bautista, Paraguay -- the capital city of the Misiones province -- where she, too, had electricity and running water. She also had cellphone service, and she added it was quite common for Paraguayans to own mobile phones.

Although Bell and Perry, who met on a blind date in 2008, have since married and settled in Evans City, they continue to incorporate South American influences in their daily lives, including cooking with Spanish foods and using Spanish words.

Life in the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps grew out of a call from then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 urged students at the University of Michigan to work toward peace by serving in developing countries, according to the Peace Corps website. Its volunteers may work in education, health, business, agriculture or  community development  to provide assistance where they are needed within a community.

Volunteers also must integrate themselves into the community by living there for 27 months and, along the way, learn a new culture, a new language and a new way of life.

The philosophy attracted Bell, now a high school teacher at Lincoln High School in Ellwood City, who thought he could use his experiences in the Peace Corps to educate students. As for Perry, she wanted to better understand the languages and cultures of other countries. At age 31, she quit her job and applied for the Peace Corps.

Like many volunteers, Bell and Perry said they returned to the United States feeling they 'd learned more from the experience than they gave.

“We go in there thinking (the people) will welcome us with open arms,” Perry said. “But we have to learn to live like them.”

Along with learning the respective cultures of Ecuador and Paraguay, each had a job to do. Perry said she worked as a municipal services volunteer and Bell spent time as a health volunteer.

During Bell’s stay in Principal, he said about 200 people moved out of the town, reducing its population to roughly 400 citizens. Part of the Peace Corps' 10-year commitment to Principal, he said, is to keep children and young adults living in the town. The other goal, he said, is to try to turn the area into a tourist destination.

Principal has a strong agricultural background, with almost every family running a farm. Much of Bell's work there was with young people.

“I formed a relationship with the parents, the government and different nongovernmental organizations, but I worked mostly with the kids,” he said. “I tried to give the youth something to aspire to [and stay in the town.]”

Bell created youth groups and a newspaper for high school-age kids. Near the end of his stay, he also began working on a cabin resort for a week and a half before leaving the country.

He also talked with the town's women about how to come up with a fair price structure after they had worked 18 hours daily making a popular item to be exported for sale -- Panama hats.

While Bell said he wasn't sure if more people were staying in the town since he served there, he said plans to attract tourists were becoming successful.

Working together

It is not unusual for Peace Corps volunteers to work on side projects while holding their assigned day-to-day jobs.

That was the case for Perry, who worked in San Juan Batista’s town hall to help the mayor and city officials raise money for different projects, such as building streets or brick ovens. She also created youth clubs and reading clubs, and she said she noticed a “real hunger for education.”

People she met at the clubs or at work would sometimes ask her for additional help at home. At her reading club, Perry said, she met a mother of seven who was working toward her second degree in education. The woman wanted to learn to cook with soy, so Perry taught her. When the woman later gave birth to her eighth child, she named her after Perry.

Volunteers often stand out when they first enter their communities, Perry said, and many locals will try to converse with them by using the little English they know. Perry remembered a little boy would shout “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven” whenever she walked by because those were the only words he knew in English.

The volunteers said eventually they began to fit in and started speaking in the native language -- for Perry it was Guarani, for Bell it was Spanish. Members of the community also began to ask them for help instead of them offering it. Unfortunately, they said, that process didn't begin until they were nearing the end of their second year of their stints.

“You finally find something that interests both parties,” Bell said. “But your service is coming to an end.”

Back in the U.S

Today, Bell said he brings his past experiences into the classroom. Perry, part of Duquesne University’s research faculty, said she relies on the self-confidence she developed while serving as a volunteer to talk to deans and other faculty members about curriculum changes and new ideas.

They recommend others become a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from college -- or whenever they have two years to spare. Both said they hope to serve again in the future -- this time as a married couple.

“For all the wars we have been involved with in the last 10 years, the Peace Corps is a great way for people (of different countries) to get to know American people,” Perry said. “It is one of the best things we have going as a country.” 

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