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Forgetting about the Peace Corps (almost)

By Joseph Zuiker
Honolulu, Hawaii

Excuse me but last week I almost forgot it was Peace Corps Week.

For whatever reason I failed to give a shout-out to the Peace Corps and I suspect that many others not only did not remember that it was Peace Corps Week but don’t even know that the “Corps” is still alive, quietly providing volunteers to hundreds of impoverished communities throughout the world.

And make no mistake about it, any lack of recognition of the Peace Corps means that thousands of persons (young and old) might short-change themselves by never taking a chance on a real life experience by becoming Peace Corps volunteers. And short-changed they will be according to my point of view and the view of hundreds of other returned PCVs currently residing in Hawaii.

You see when I was a college student (50 years ago) being a PCV was front and center as my priority in life (not buying a big car, owning a big condo or creating a big bank account). Each week one of my friends would declare that he or she had been accepted into the Peace Corps and were heading off to some far away foreign location to help communities while representing the best interests of the USA.

Oh how I longed to join those fellow-travelers as a volunteer but I had to complete my college courses (including my two below average grades attempting to learn to speak Spanish). Eventually I did get my chance to create on my own “rich life” as a PCV in (you guessed it) a Spanish speaking country (the Dominican Republic).

After a few months of general instruction about being a “community organizer” and additional language training in Puerto Rico my fellow volunteers and I made our way thru the war-torn capitol of the Dominican Republic and headed off to our assigned communities to “make the world better.” My host community was called Santiago de La Cruz and was located in the far northwest corner of the Dominican Republic, several miles from the border with Haiti.

My new home happened to be inhabited by subsistence farmers scratching out their daily existence without good land, without any real tools and without enough regular rain to grow anything remotely resembling a “cash” crop. It was in that small community of wonderful souls that my life as a volunteer was planted, cultivated and blossomed ever so slowly. In the early months of this journey I could barely organize myself since I was nothing more than a very skinny, almost non-Spanish speaking American with a very bad stomach due to an onslaught of potent germs brought to my farmhouse on a daily basis hidden in untreated water from the local stream.

During my entire first year as a PCV I struggled due to my inadequate language skills and my inability to make sense out of a way forward for “my community”. The villages had no water source, no electricity for their homes, rotting one-room school houses and literally no time to do anything other than try and make enough money each morning to pay for a meager supper that same night. And on top of all that the entire country was only beginning to crawl out from the darkness and lack of neighborly trust imposed upon them during the 30-year Trujillo dictatorship.

It is fair to say that during that first year I constantly questioned my seeming lack of success in the community and my feeling that I was just a foreign visitor taking up space until it was time to return home after my two year stint ended. But every time I gave in to my self pity, even a little bit, I thought of the many little kids in the community that affectionately called me the “Americano” and I thought about their hard working parents who openly invited me into their homes each night to dream in the darkness about ways to give their children a few more opportunities in life.

Over and over I realized that even though I was incredibly frustrated with my seeming lack of success as a community organizer I was not willing abandon my new community. And then slowly but surely my patience did pay off. I learned to tell a few jokes in Spanish and the old men of the village taught me to enjoy a good rum and coke at the neighborhood bar after a hard day’s work. And best of all my neighbors agreed to work together to build a six room community school, using my help, their own sweat labor and financial assistance and building from the good old USA.

I did finish out my full two-year term as a PCV. During that time the community school got built and I even helped initiate an investigation into the possibility of damning up a small creek high above the village in an attempt to provide clean water to the villagers. In fact the water system was eventually built by the villagers (and another PCV) using their community building skills developed during our school project.

For over forty years thousands of residents of my community have had access to clean drinking water while their children were educated in a semi-modern school building. Those years have passed much too quickly but that school continues to provide better educational opportunities for the people of the village than their parents ever dreamed of during their lifetimes. In fact that little school produced an attorney now working in Paris, a veterinarian in charge of animal inspection at the international airport at Santo Domingo and a student in the first class of native born Dominican air traffic controllers, among many others successful students.

In my opinion, my two years working as a Peace Corps volunteer were some of the best years of my life. Those years of hard work and constant rededication to a seemingly uncertain task made me the person that I am in this the eighth decade of my life. And best of all, I know for certain that the community that I served came to better know and understand a skinny “Americano” and appreciate the USA who sent them their volunteer. I know that because last week during Peace Corps Week, I got an email informing me that the people of “my” community had decided to name a street after me.

Fancy that! Little Joey Zuiker from the south side of Chicago has a street named after him in the Dominican Republic.

For me the Peace Corps is an unforgettable experience that just keeps getting “richer.”