Thursday, February 6, 2014

27 months - my experience as a peace corps mom - the year before my daughter's service started

Hi friends,

Today is a slightly different post (and a tad bit longer than usual.)  I decided to write about my experience having my daughter be a peace corps volunteer.  For those who follow my craft blog, I thought you may find it interesting to see how the whole thing unfolded in a summary and for others of you, you may stumble upon my blog because your son or daughter is heading off to peace corps and you want to know what to expect.

Welcome whoever you are!  This is the first post of several and today's post focuses on everything that happened before Sarah left for Ukraine in September of 2011.

So my story started about 3 1/2 years ago in the fall of 2010.  My daughter Sarah was home for fall break during her senior year of college and she mentioned that she was considering her post graduation plans and had started looking into the peace corps.  My reaction - F.U.D. - of course.  F.U.D. stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.  I was emotionally intelligent enough at age 47 to realize that this was in incorrect response and decided to wait it out and see if it turned into anything.  But I also started to explore what this was all about through a robust google search.

By Thanksgiving, the idea had grown wings and Sarah was more keen on the idea than ever before so all of us started to research and get information about it.  We learned that a peace corps volunteer is assigned to a region (think continent) when first approved and only gets an individual country assignment within a few months of departure.  We learned that the peace corps is extremely competitive - only the top students in college and those with excellent skills get selected.  We also learned that South American countries are even more competitive than any others and that a peace corps background is highly desired by employers and grad schools.

Sarah spent much of her Thanksgiving break filling out the paperwork to apply and shortly after returning to campus she sent in her application.  At Christmas time she had an interview scheduled and we talked further about the process of applying.  Even at this point when she had submitted her application, my husband and I really only thought this was one of several possible options for her post graduation.  We encouraged her to explore this (and other post grad options) with enthusiasm.

She had her interview in Boston in early January and came away from the interview very confused and discouraged.  She had wanted to do something like economic development in South America but the peace corps person she interviewed with her said that if she wanted that, it may be years before she gets accepted. The peace corps staff told her that there would be immediate opportunities for her to serve if she were to teach english in any region - with a strong probability of being placed in Eastern Europe.  Although Sarah was an english major in college, she never saw a career in teaching.  A funny thing she asked about it was 'do you think teaching really makes a difference?'  In her young mind she really thought that the economic development (and other things like that) were what made a difference in a community and 'just being a teacher' didn't amount to much.  I'm sure I'm paraphrasing hugely here, but she really was torn.  She did not see herself as a teacher and questioned the value of it.  I encouraged her to rethink her motives in serving in the peace corps and I tried to stifle any doubt she had about the value of teaching.  My goodness, teachers are the ones who change the world!!!

So, she slept on it.  and thought about. and talked about it. and she debated the timing.  I talked to her at length and remember advising her 'if this is something you really want to do in your lifetime, you should do it now.  It will never be easier to do than right now (at the conclusion of college) and you should live your life with no regrets.'  After about a week, she decided to go for it.  Oh My word.  Now it felt real to us.  What was once just a possibility was now becoming a probability.  Once she said yes to teaching, her application was forwarded onto Washington for further consideration.  Even at this point (because of the highly competive nature of the peace corps and also because of limited funding) there was still only a probability of her being accepted, not a given.  So we all waited.  And while we waited we read.  The peace corps published some excellent documents for family members to help us as parents (and grandparents) understand the real risks (yes there were plenty) and rewards of having a family member serve.

At this point we learned that if Sarah was selected she would live in a community - probably with a host family in the beginning and would receive no salary, just a stipend to live at the normal life style of the village she served.  We learned that in order for her to be safe and successful it would be critical for her to integrate into the community and follow rules.  We learned an interesting statistic at this point.  At the time 85% of peace corps volunteers meet the person they wind up marrying while serving in the peace corps.  That little factoid stayed in my mind longer than most!  We learned that her service would include 3 months of training/culture integration in the country she would serve, followed by 24 months of service (with 10 days of paid time off per year) and at the conclusion of her successful service she would receive a lump sum payment to re-adjust back into America (her sum total was over $3,000.)

Of course we started talking about it with family and friends.  Not surprisingly we got a mix of reactions.  Many people were excited for her.  All her loved ones were afraid for her.  We forget that we live in a world that carries significant risk in living but somehow when someone considers going far away the risks of life appear greater.  And that was a reality.  Boston is a very safe area of the world to live in and while Sarah took the risk of being attacked or injured her in Boston, if she moved to another part of the world that risk could be higher or lower.  Certainly living in Camden NJ in 2010 held a tremendous risk.  So would living in Syria.  But the peace corps assured us that when she was given her actual assignment, there would be lots of factual data about the crime rates of the area of service and before actually accepting an assignment the pc volunteer could choose to decline based on this data.  Also,  Peace Corps also only sends individuals to areas that are not a threat to U.S. citizens so they wouldn't even offer her an assignment in Syria at this time.

We began to try to react to the concerns of family and friends with facts.  Yes, there were risks, but the risk of being raped existed at home as well.  Again, if Sarah took a job in other parts of the U.S. she could increase her risk as well.     One of my friends had lost her sister, while she was a peace corps volunteer.  This friends sister was 20 something years old and was raped and murdered while serving in the peace corps.  That was hard to hear.  We also were told of a 20/20 expose that had aired recently.  In the 20/20 interview, the reporters followed the stories of several peace corps volunteers who were subject to serious crimes.  The interview pointed out lack of protection by the peace corps to keep volunteers safe.  That was hard to watch also.  We became very aware of the risk that she would undertake and at times that spring the FUD came back strong.  But again, as an emotionally intelligent 47 year old I refused to cave in and tried to focus on facts.

We are Christians and we prayed - fervently.  We prayed that if it was God's will for Sarah to go, that she would be accepted and doors would open, but if it was not God's will for her to go, that God would slam doors shut and stop her from going.  We prayed a lot that spring.  And we all waited.

Sarah graduated from Gordon College summa cum laude in May 2011.  It was a joyful day, but the month of May was difficult for all of us.  At this point Sarah still hadn't heard a final answer.  She moved from campus back home and had no plans.  She didn't know if she should pursue jobs or wait for peace corps.  She questioned whether she even wanted to do peace corps service.  She wondered about where her assignment would be and where she would live.  And she hung around our suburban Boston home in a funk.  All her friends were heading off to jobs or weddings or post graduation backpacking trips to Europe.  And she waited.

Finally in June she got the letter.  She had been approved.  She had 10 days to respond yes or no to the opportunity.  Her assignment was in Eastern Europe teaching English.  She had been selected to go to Ukraine.  And we all started googling Ukraine.   Silly us, we all thought it was 'the ukraine' like 'the baltic islands' but it wasn't, it was just Ukraine, like France or Russia.  We discovered that the climate there is similar to Boston, the language is a combination of Russian and Ukrainian.  We learned that Ukraine had a difficult past - being part of Hungary at times, and Russia at other times before becoming an independent nation.  We read about the local food and learned more about borscht, vodka and potato pancakes.  We also went for one last apple picking session as a family.

And then we started shopping.  As a peace corps volunteer she would get two checked bags (max weight 45 pounds each) so she had to bring everything she would need in those two bags.  First thing on her shopping list was a good winter coat.  There were lots of web posts about what to bring and it was difficult to decide what to bring and what to buy there.  We realized that there would be lower prices and more variety in America, but not many people were selling winter coats and boots in August.  She found a coat on-line and decided to buy boots over there.

And there was a huge mess.  Everywhere in our house.  The packing pile took over her bedroom and most of our dining room.  Funny how much of a mess we all made to pack two bags!  Things went into the pile and then out of the pile.  Even when we were at the airport she was flinging things out of her bag at the last minute because she was afraid her bags would be too cumbersome to manager.

Then we planned a going away party.  She was scheduled to leave on September 17th so on September 10th we hosted a big party to let family and friends say goodbye and wish her well.  It was a bittersweet day.  We were so happy for her, but already anticipating missing her.  We had some fun making some Ukrainian food (potato pancakes are way hard to make from scratch from a crowd.)

We also went for one last apple picking session as a family.

And then it was September 17th.  Bob and I took separate cars and drove her to the airport.  Bob had tears in his eyes and I was sobbing as we watched her walk through security and into the great unknown.  It was the hardest goodbye I ever experienced, even though I was so happy for her for having such courage to do what she was doing.  Both Bob and I knew that the little girl we sent off that day would never return.  We knew her experience would change her and we hoped (and prayed) that her sweet, optimistic attitude toward life would not be crushed.  Not to get too far ahead in the story here but we were all happy to see a more mature, more thoughtful, more confident young lady who still had a sweet, optimistic attitude toward life when she returned.  (-:

So, I'll stop now and continue the story of her time in Ukraine as a peace corps volunteer in a future post.

Below is a link to the official peace corps website.

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