Former volunteers tell stories
Stories from local residents who formerly served as Peace Corps volunteers follow:
Bill Southworth joined the Peace Corps in 1962 and spent two years in Nigeria to teach a variety of different subjects there, including history, health and science, and basketball.
After joining, he learned not only about the United States but also about himself.
Southworth said being in another country for two years gave him a different perspective — from the eyes of another country.
During his down time, he tried to get other Peace Corps volunteers to teach African history to the people since this was their history, but mentioned he was sent to Nigeria to teach English there.
Southworth said he would have liked to stay, but the policy back then only allowed volunteers to spend two years.
“It was probably one of the highlights of my life,” he said.
Geof Byerly, who now teaches at Southwest Open School, taught English as a second language to students in Mauritania in West Africa and Gabon in Central Africa, was a member of the Peace Corps in 1990-91.
After graduating from college with a bachelor’s in French education, Byerly decided he did not want to go straight into the teaching profession. He thought he could improve his French speaking skills if he want to an area where French was the primary language.
Living in Africa was a culture shock, and getting through that shock was challenging, Byerly said. Making friends there was a slow process, but once he accomplished this the bonds he created became more meaningful.
Byerly didn’t realize how much respect African students and communities gave teachers until he began teaching in Cortez.
“Teachers over there are held in a prestige place,” he said. “There is an honor. The role of a teacher in Africa is very important.”
School in Africa is considered the social center and a place students valued because they wanted to go on to college, Byerly said.
The punishment that African school administrators doled out to misbehaving students surprised Byerly. While he never heard about corporal punishment being used by administrators at the schools, humiliation tactics were used for punishment.
Byerly reiterated that serving in the Peace Corps was an experience he would not give up for almost anything.
“Serving oneself is an opportunity, and to encourage (others to serve) is also an honor,” he said.
Nancy Lee served in the Peace Corps from 1963 to 1965 in Peru, where she taught the basics.
Volunteering for the Peace Corps in the early 1960s was huge, and the experience opened Lee’s eyes to how some people in other countries live.
During the 1960s, Peruvian residents were still living like settlers did in the 1500s, Lee said. Everything used was handmade, and people didn’t have to purchase anything.
“That is how they were living when I was there,” she said. “I realized how phenomenal these people were.”
The elevation where Lee volunteered was at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level, and she remembered how cold the nights were with no good camping gear to fend off the weather elements.
Although residents in the small Peruvian town where Lee volunteered owned little, the old saying that the less people have the more generous they are was true.
When her two years were up, she cried on the flight back home. Visiting a grocery store back in the United States after her time in Peru seemed frivolous.
She also said she wanted to thank Ernie Zaremba and Helene Biegel for letting them tell their stories and posting them for the world to see.
“It is so invaluable,” she said and added that for some reason the Peace Corps has no record of her ever serving, so this recording is something she could point to as tangible proof of her time in Peru.
She added that she has lived in Montezuma County for 14 years, and decided after living in Peru that she had to live close to mountains.
Robby Henes served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987 in Sierra Leone in West Africa.
After graduating from college, she received an internship and soon realized she was pursuing a career she didn’t want. The internship convinced her to pursue something else.
Henes has a background in agriculture, so it seemed logical to work in this area during her time in the Peace Corps.
She realized the community in which she was stationed had stopped growing swamp rice because it was difficult to grow and did not taste as good as other types of rice. As a result, the community was not growing enough rice.
With assistance from several groups, Henes started planting and cultivating rice.
She also helped build a health clinic, and she helped build a bridge so residents in a nearby village could travel to Sierra Leone during the rainy season. Before the bridge was built, village residents were cut off and isolated for months at a time.
The Peace Corps’ motto that this will be the toughest job people will end up loving was absolutely true in Henes’ case.
“It opened my life to endless possibilities of this world,” she said.
Henes added the idea to have the former volunteers tell their experiences to the general public is a wonderful thing.
Terri Helm served in the Peace Corps from 1979 to 1981 in Thailand.
During her first year, she taught English as a second language in a school with about 3,000 students. She had already been a teacher for seven years.
Helm had been interested in the Peace Corps since she was 12 years old — after President John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps. She said she believed in his dreams.
“It was good for my soul,” she said. “It sounded like a wonderful, wonderful thing to do.”
Helm said there was nothing to keep her in the states at the time, so she was ready to go, and was extremely grateful she was chosen.
“It was wonderful because Thailand students respect their teachers and they want to learn,” she said.
The most difficult thing she had to adjust to was Thailand’s belief in corporal punishment.
Helm said at the beginning of the school day, students who had fallen into trouble the day before were called out before the student body to be caned. The punishment was usually two to 10 strokes, depending on the infraction.
She said the infractions were not that serious by American standards, like dropping a pencil numerous times, stealing a smoke or speaking without first raising their hand in class.
“Corporal punishment was the in thing,” she said, but added she is not sure if this type of punishment is still used where she taught.
She remembered how difficult it was to come back to the states from Thailand, where she had lived for two years.
“Coming home was overwhelming,” she said, adding that she first spent a month in England to help her ease back into the United States.
Helm said her experience with the Peace Corps was amazing and that she would return if she could afford to.
She said she was happy someone was telling their volunteer experiences to the masses.
“I was thrilled someone was doing it,” she said. “The Peace Corps was a huge part of our history.”
David Blaine, a Mancos resident, served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1975 to 1979 in Chad, Africa, and later served as an assistant Peace Corps director from 1985 to 1988 in Nigeria.
He said his experience in his first stint as a volunteer had a lot to do with why he decided to return for a second time.
Blaine made a lot of friends and enjoyed helping people. The experience gave him job fulfillment, cultural fulfillment and social fulfillment.
While in Chad, Blaine worked as a forester with Chad Forestry and also did some gardening.
He managed tree nurseries that provided 80,000 seedlings a year that were used for land conservation and also provided shade and fruit.
Blaine also worked for the United Nations Greenbelt for the capital of Chad and learned how to protect the natural growth of trees.
When he returned as an assistant director, Blaine was in charge of setting up programming for new Peace Corps volunteers. The programs included forestry, fisheries, wildlife and energy conservation.
Zaremba’s mission is a great idea that puts out a lot of good information, Blaine said. If not for this endeavor, those memories could be lost forever someday.
Blaine said the recordings could be used as a tool for future Peace Corps volunteers as well as other people who have interests in the services that were provided.
Blaine, a Mancos resident, served twice for the Peace Corps. She was first stationed in Niger from 1979 to 1981 and then worked in the American Cultural Center with the American Embassy from 1984 to 1988 in Niamey.
Blaine helped track the Tuareg and Fulani nomads of West Africa who lived just south of the Sahara Desert. She said the tracking included how the nomads were migrating, their cattle and health.
She helped set up a small research center to gauge work on the cattle and rangeland.
Blaine said the wonderful experience convinced her to volunteer again because she wanted to provide more help. She worked with gardening, water wells and a lot of trees, and she learned to speak the market language of Hausa, though French was the main language.
The social fulfillments and learning about different cultures while learning how to help in a distant foreign country are things Blaine will always remember.
She was always interested in the health field, and her work as a Peace Corps volunteer prompted her to pursue a degree in nursing. Now, she’s a nurse for the Mancos School District.
“I would encourage anyone wanting to go into the Peace Corps to pursue it,” she said. “It’s a great experience.”
Michael Maresh can be reached at email@example.com.