In service to the world

These local volunteers illustrate the value of the Peace Corps after 50 years

Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps, the agency whereby Americans could fulfill his famous inaugural-speech exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

The new program’s mission was to provide assistance to interested countries, help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served, and help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

It well may be the most successful foreign-aid program in American history. More than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries, bringing much-needed expertise to developing nations. Just as important, what they have brought to those countries is more than matched by what those countries and their peoples have given them.

Currently there are 8,655 volunteers working in 77 countries—a 40-year high, reports Nathan Sargent, a public-affairs specialist with the Peace Corps regional office in Oakland.

Over the years the work Peace Corps volunteers do has changed. Education has always been a strong component of the program, and today 37 percent of volunteers are teachers, but 22 percent work in the health and HIV/AIDS arena and 14 percent are in business and information and communications technology.

That’s because the program’s policy is to “do what the country wants,” Sargent said. As needs have changed, so have the volunteers and the work they do.

The Corps’ annual budget is $400 million, about the cost of two F-35 fighter jets. As Sargent said, “it’s a lot of bang for the buck.”

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, we located several local people who served as volunteers and, in the case of one remarkable 69-year-old woman, are preparing for a stint overseas. We wanted to find out what motivated them, what they gained or expected to gain from the program, and most of all what adventures they had during their two years away from home.

These are their stories.

Peace Corps pioneer
Jon Ebeling

Jon Ebeling reminisces about his time in Ethiopia.

Photo By frederica schockley

Jon Ebeling had just graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in modern European history and a minor in Spanish and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next when his sister suggested he sign up for the recently created Peace Corps. It was 1962.

He figured, given his minor and his several courses in Latin American history and culture, that he’d be sent to a Spanish-speaking country. Instead he went to Ethiopia, a nation in North Africa about which he knew almost nothing.

Now a retired Chico State University professor of political science, Ebeling looks back and says enthusiastically, “It was a hell of an experience. It changed my life.”

He trained at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., before being sent to Ethiopia, where the 275 volunteers were split into small teams and dispersed to towns around the country to teach and offer assistance to local educators. Their arrival effectively doubled the number of high-school teachers in the country, Ebeling says.

Although this was the second year of the Peace Corps program, it was the first year in Ethiopia, so Ebeling and his fellow volunteers were breaking new ground.

He initially was stationed in the town of Debre Markos, halfway between the capital, Addis Ababa, and the Sudanese border. He taught geography, history, English, even astronomy. Fortunately, English was taught in Ethiopian schools beginning in the early grades, so communication was good.

He tells a story about a time when he was teaching a class and saw Harris Wofford peering in the window. Wofford was at the time Peace Corps director of operations in Ethiopia (he later would become a senator from Pennsylvania). “Hey, Jon, do you want to meet your boss?” Wofford asked. He was referring to Sargent Shriver, the program’s first director, who was then touring the Ethiopia program.

The Cuban missile crisis had recently occurred, so Ebeling asked his students whether they’d like to learn more about it—directly “from the president’s brother-in-law.” They did, of course, and Ebeling ended up spending the afternoon with Shriver, drinking beer and swapping stories.

After a year, he transferred to the city of Dire Dawa, on the edge of the eastern desert near Somalia. It was “quite different,” he says: His students were half Somalis and half Amhara (one of the principal tribal groups of Ethiopia), “and boy did they fight.”

When he returned Stateside, Ebeling earned a master’s degree at UCLA, then took a job as the Peace Corps’ associate director in Ethiopia, which he held for two years, stationed in Addis Ababa.

By then, he says, the program was already changing. It had added legal and health-care expertise and teaching at the country’s one university. Of the seven volunteers in the legal arena, six were from Harvard. One, an orthodox Jew, wound up as a consultant and speech writer for Haile Selassie, the country’s ruler. In that role he reorganized the country’s law library and helped recodify Ethiopian law.

“These programs produced a lot of unexpected outcomes,” Ebeling says. “And you find out you can do things you didn’t think you could do.”

—Robert Speer

Sowing a better future
Chelsea Willett

Chelsea Willett has spent the past 16 months in El Salvador, where she helps the locals plant ojushte, a tree whose seeds are chock full of vitamins.

PHOTO courtesy of cheslea willett

“When you pray, move your feet.”

That’s one mantra Chelsea Willett, a 24-year-old Auburn, Calif., native, lives out in her daily life. The Butte College and Chico State graduate has spent the past 16 months working to change the way individuals think, farm and eat in Chalatenago, a city located in the northern part of El Salvador.

There, she lives with a host family in a rural community of 55 adobe houses, most of which have electricity. Villagers gather water at a community well, and most are subsistence farmers who rely on growing corn and catching fish.

“Life is simple, but it is hard work,” said Willett, who likewise has worked hard throughout her stay. She is currently in charge of a project called Casas Saludables: Investing in Community Wellness, a large-scale effort in which she is working to reincorporate the planting, farming and harvesting of a seed-producing tree called ojushte, which is native to the South American country and whose seeds contain high levels of iron, calcium and other nutrients many community members lack in their normal diet of fish and corn.

Last week (June 10), Willett handed out 100 ojushte trees to the 20 members of the women’s group with which she has spent the past nine months learning about the seed. It is just one example of the seemingly small but monumental actions she has taken to move the community toward food security and a more healthful diet.

“One of the women’s husbands came by to pick the trees up, and as he left, he told me, ‘I am excited that in the future we won’t have to worry as much about the corn harvest,’ ” Willett recalled. “ ‘If something happens to the corn, we will always have the ojushte.’ ”

By June’s end, Willett and the women will have planted the ojushte trees in a way that will protect the community from landslides and deforestation.

On top of that project, Willett also has a youth art group and an environmental group in the local school, and she works alongside a local community-development agency.

“This experience has helped me find my roots, from where I draw my strength,” said Willett, a pretty blonde who majored in international relations at Chico State and who, in 2006, was crowned Miss Butte County. “My faith has grown deeper, and it has taught me the difference between what I can and cannot control. It has shown me how fragile life is, and how important interconnectedness and community are.”

In her remaining nine months in El Salvador, Willett would like to successfully harvest a batch of ojushte seeds alongside her women’s group, help replace the school’s leaky roof, provide electricity to three houses in town, accumulate 25 stoves for 25 families, build benches for the soccer field, and travel with her youth softball team.

“My Peace Corps experience is more accurately described by my small triumphs,” said Willett, whose biggest struggle has been working with a population that became accustomed to receiving handouts when the country’s civil war ended in the early 1990s.

The experience has taught her flexibility and perseverance, she said. She has also learned to appreciate how limited her world perspective would be had she not enlisted in the Peace Corps.

“The world is not a textbook case with one homogenous solution. I need [these community members] as much as they need me,” she said. “It is not about lifting them up as much as it is about living with them and raising ourselves up together.”

—Stacey Kennelly

Married and volunteering together
Lau and Nancy Ackerman

Lau and Nancy Ackerman spent 27 months volunteering in Paraguay in the 1990s.

PHOTO courtesy of the ackermans

Along with noticing many other cultural differences, Lau and Nancy Ackerman found that in Paraguay nobody shows up on time—in fact, Paraguayans did not understand why Americans showed up when they said they would.

“Coming from American culture, the flexible, free-floating sense of time was hard to understand,” Nancy said.

The Ackermans met while attending Chico State in the early ’90s. After marrying, they embarked on the process of becoming Peace Corps volunteers, leaving for Paraguay in 1993. Paraguay is a landlocked nation of about 6 million people bordered by Argentina to the south, Brazil to the east and Bolivia to the north.

The Ackermans were the first volunteers in the village of Pindo-i, which had no running water or electricity. “It was a very rustic situation,” Nancy said.

Lau, who now works for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., helped farmers learn about aspects of farming, such as cover crops and soil conservation. Nancy, now a personal trainer and fitness instructor at Chico Sports Club, assisted teachers in new methodologies. Their first year challenged the couple in many ways, and Lau said whenever he had a good day, Nancy had a bad one. “It was never an even keel,” he said.

“But it made us stronger,” Nancy added.

Living in Paraguay meant they had to learn both Spanish and the indigenous language, Guaraní, which is widely spoken throughout much of the country. “That was a struggle,” Nancy noted.

They also had to master riding the buses, as in Paraguay everyone either rode the bus or walked. “There, your life revolves around the bus,” Nancy said. She explained people on the bus are “jammed in like sardines,” and some would have live pigs or chickens in bags. Also, Paraguayans had no notion of waiting in line. “You learned pretty quickly that when the bus pulled up you ran to the bus.”

Food had its own challenges. People in Paraguay grow and eat mandioca, known more widely as cassava, a flavorless, fibrous tuber. Nancy said everyone “cooked everything to death,” and the food generally was quite bland. An especially memorable experience was during a solar eclipse, which they were able to turn into an educational event, complete with a potluck party.

Nancy said they came away from their time in Paraguay with “a better, bigger sense of what’s important in life. The United States is a great country, but it’s not the end-all, be-all.” She also emphasized that while there were challenges to embrace, the experience was fun, and she and Lau appreciated the relationships they made.

After three years out of the States, it took them a while, Nancy said, to “get back into the swing of things.” When asked by potential Peace Corps volunteers about living and working in another country, Nancy said she replies, “This is something you should do—it really made a big impact on my life.”

—Shannon Rooney

Putting things into perspective
Karen Altier

Karen Altier and her husband, Lee, traveled to Nepal together early in their marriage in the 1980s.

Photo By christine g.k. Lapado

Karen Altier and her husband, Lee, joined the Peace Corps as a married couple.

“We probably married a lot quicker than we would have,” said Karen recently. “We both had this goal to join the Peace Corps, and if we were married, we could go to the same place.”

Karen, who teaches in the CARD after-school gardening program at Parkview Elementary School, and Lee, a Chico State agriculture professor, spent their three Peace Corps years, from 1982 to 1985, in Nepal.

“I was 24 or 25 when I joined,” said Karen. “Lee was about 28.” Karen had a bachelor’s degree in recreation, while Lee had a B.S. in horticulture.

“I wanted to have that opportunity to really be immersed in a culture, learn the language, learn how to ‘be’ in that culture—and certainly to contribute what I could.

“Both Lee and I were assigned to a horticulture program,” she said. “Our job was to work with [Nepalese] farmers to encourage them to plant mango trees for market. And pineapple.”

Trouble was, the people the Altiers worked with had never grown food for market, only staple crops such as rice and potatoes for their own subsistence.

“They looked at us like we were crazy,” said Karen. “It was not a very workable program. We struggled; we gave it a good six months. Then we just abandoned that whole project.”

With the Peace Corps’ blessing, the Altiers began to work with a local orphanage for “over 200 boys, girls and handicapped adults. It was bad,” she said. “It was so bad. No toilets, no running water. Very, very needy. So we just took that over as a project.”

Karen said she and her husband had to make sure they left the orphanage “before dark” each day—otherwise they might slip and fall on the unseen feces lying both inside and outside the facility.

The Altiers facilitated connections between the orphanage and such international-aid agencies as UNICEF to have toilets and a water system installed during their time in Panchkal.

Karen also advised local women on the use of birth control.

“I talked with a lot of women about birth control—that was huge!” said Karen. She recalled a time when “all these women” in the village walked into her house and “charged upstairs to see where [Lee and I] slept. They saw our cotton mat and said, ‘You sleep together? How can you do that and not have babies?’ I said, ‘Well, let me tell you how we do that.’ It was pretty hysterical.”

The Altiers spents their last year of their Peace Corps service in the high-altitude village of Solu Salleri, near Mount Everest, where they worked in a Tibetan refugee camp and “with the local folks with income-generating projects.” One of Karen’s jobs was to help locals secure bank loans for such things as starting a carpet-making business or putting in an orchard.

“It was like stepping back three or four centuries. We [in the United States] have it extremely easy,” said Karen, before adding that “there’s so much about their life that is so much richer, more grounded, more real” than life in an industrialized, first-world nation.

—Christine G.K. LaPado

Ready, after all these years
Sophia Gray

Sophia Gray packs her things in preparation for her first Peace Corps experience.

Photo By meredith j. Graham

Sophia Gray sat on the porch of her Oroville home, basking in the warmth of early summer. She could hardly wipe the smile off her face as she discussed her impending move to Nicaragua, where she will spend 27 months teaching English to students and helping their teachers as well.

“I’ve wanted to join the Peace Corps since it started in 1961,” she said. “I caught the travel bug early.”

That’s putting things mildly. Gray, now 69, left the United States for the first time during high school, when she spent a summer in Switzerland. That led to time spent during college abroad, in Switzerland and France. She lived in Zurich for four years, took a two-year trip through India and Asia—“I got into Afghanistan when it was still open,” she said. She’s spent time in Egypt and Ecuador, teaching English.

Interestingly, she even has a tale about Nicaragua—she was there, traveling in a VW land cruiser, after the large quake in 1972. Because she had a vehicle, she was able to make a few trips to bring aid to the refugees there. Since then, she’s taken a course on Central America, during which she chose to focus on Nicaragua.

“I’m really primed,” she said.

In the 50 years she’s dreamt of joining the Peace Corps, family—she has two grown children, now living in Southern California—kept her roots planted here (relatively speaking). Several years ago, a near-fatal car accident threw a major wrench in her plans. She’s been rehabilitating ever since, and still walks with the aid of a cane. Clearly nothing’s stopping her, though, from realizing that dream formed so long ago.

“I just mastered the two-wheel bike,” she said happily. “The 4-year-old in me is overjoyed!”

Gray has also spent the past few years taking all the classes she can at Chico State’s Elder College, which she describes as “heaven.” She was taking a Spanish class at the university several years ago to prepare for her trip to Ecuador when she met Chelsea Willit (see her story on page 21), who had recently returned from there, and they became friends.

As for her upcoming stay in Nicaragua, Gray says her family is really excited for her, and the biggest challenge she sees before her is “keeping up with everything.”

“I’m not used to going out to the bars after a day of work,” she laughed. “They make a big deal that it is possible,” she added about joining the Peace Corps later in life.

“The Peace Corps isn’t the same animal as when it first started,” she said. Technology has changed a lot, in that cell phones and the Internet have moved into many remote areas, which changes the dynamics of what volunteers are there to do.

“I’m hoping there will still be some of the old-fashioned stuff left,” she said. “That’s how my dream was formed.”

—Meredith J. Graham