BY Bill Walsh
Former volunteer finds rewards and frustrations in Peace Corps’ mission
As it approaches its 46th anniversary this month the Peace Corps has withstood perhaps its most serious assault to date — a relatively new program that was designed to bolster our volunteer Army at the expense critics contended of our volunteer idealists.
A defense budget bill passed in 2003 contained a provision that would have allowed the Pentagon to combine military and Peace Corps service and the initial group of affected soldiers were to have become eligible this year. This was critics insisted a dangerous linkage that likely could put Peace Corps volunteers at grave risk. The critics prevailed and the program was scrapped.
Sara Wakild says she never felt threatened in any way during her two-year stint as a small-business development advisor for the Peace Corps in Benin Africa which ended last summer. “Americans are perceived very well ” the Wrightsville Beach native says. “For the most part I always felt extremely welcome and very safe and was never criticized for being American.”
At the same time that a military linkage was making some nervous there is a renewed recognition of the benefit of having a “peace corps ” in a world increasingly on edge from saber rattling of so many varieties and in 2002 President Bush pledged to double the size of the organization by 2007 up to 14 000 volunteers as a part of the War on Terrorism. Budget constraints conspire against that happening but the Peace Corps seems as strong and vibrant today as when it was established by executive decree during the Kennedy administration in 1961.
Perhaps because the nature of the volunteers hasn’t changed much over the years. They need “to be independent and kind of self-motivated ” Wakild says. “If you are someone who needs a lot of direction and supervision you just won’t get it.” A well-developed spirit of adventure doesn’t hurt either she adds.
Volunteering with the Peace Corps is for “someone who is looking for extremely practical applications of what they have studied ” Wakild notes. “Not everybody uses what they have studied in the Peace Corps but it is very good for those in small-business or technology or the health or environmental areas.” Projects are generally of a scale she says “that lets you see exactly how things work.”
That’s a description shaped by experience.
“I worked a lot with women’s organizations ” Wakild says from her family’s Columbia Street home. “Women’s cooperatives are an old trend in development that has stayed around. You get a group of women from the same community working together to make something often by taking raw agricultural products and turning them into foodstuffs. So instead of having one woman spend hours and hours making a small amount you have a group of women working together.
“I worked with a lot of women’s groups because for one women there are so extremely marginalized and most people don’t take the time to really help them ” Wakild says. “And because they all grow the same food and they don’t have enough access to markets outside the range which they can walk. They are not making much profit because they are all selling the same thing.”
Her goal was to help these groups diversify. One more as a community service than anything else swept up the market streets the hospital grounds collecting mostly biodegradable materials that ended up in makeshift landfills. Wakild helped them turn their sweepings into a fertilizer business.
“They started selling it and they made a lot of money ” she says. “They wanted to start a grain-storing business so we wrote a grant to get some storage rooms built and for some money to buy equipment for the fertilizer business.
“I worked with about 25 groups ” she figures. “About 10 were really successful and motivated; they had several thousand dollars in savings accounts when I left.”
The marriage of pragmatism and idealism that Wakild found is a constant of the Peace Corps experience says Dr. George Wesoloski who now runs a successful consulting business from the Landfall home he shares with his wife Judy; it was just so when he served a tour of Peace Corps duty in Venezuela in the mid-1960s when the Corps and its concept were still very new.
“I was taken up by the wave of idealism of the Kennedy era ” Wesoloski says but he had a practical side too and saw his Corps project through to a successful conclusion. Wesoloski and three other volunteers turned a large tract of jungle on the outskirts of a Valencia slum into a park complete with a first-class baseball field vegetable gardens and much more. More to the point they did so with real community involvement then trained locals in running and maintaining the park so that eventually they could take it over themselves.
“It hasn’t changed an awful lot since the beginning ” Wesoloski says of the Peace Corps. “The goals that were set down in 1961 are still going on today.”
Women’s cooperatives in Benin offered Wakild a perspective on “how things really work” that neither Wake Forest University nor Neiman-Marcus could ever match.
“I am originally from here and I graduated from Cape Fear Academy then went to Wake Forest and majored in business with a minor in communications ” Wakild says. “After I graduated I took my first year off and traveled. I lived in London for a while and I spent about a month in southern Africa in Zimbabwe Botswana and South Africa. I was there on vacation not work and I just really felt that it was someplace I wanted to come back to.
“But I already had a job lined up for when I returned. I worked at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas in the buying offices for two years. All of my work had been in retail and I thought it was what I wanted. It wasn’t. It was a good experience and most of my work there was financially oriented — financial planning and inventory management kinds of things.”
She started thinking about the Peace Corps in college but only “as something that other people do ” Wakild says. “But when I was at Neiman-Marcus I thought you know this isn’t what I want to do and I do want to go back to Africa so I’ll try it.”
There are a handful of women’s cooperatives in East Africa that are glad she did and despite what most of us would consider two years of fairly severe deprivation Wakild is glad she did too.
“I was in training my first three months and with a host family ” she explains. “Then when I was sent to my post I had a concession — kind of like a small compound. They are cement with metal roofs. They are like two little apartment structures facing in to each other so that there are four apartments on one side and four on the other each consisting of two or three rooms. I had a living room a bedroom and a kitchen and in the back a latrine and a place to shower.
“It was definitely one of the nicer houses in town ” she adds even without electricity or telephone.
Wakild’s glad for the experience too in that it may point her to a more gratifying career now that she is home. Wesoloski would be surprised if that did not happen.
“I have yet to meet the returned volunteer who says he regrets going in the Peace Corps ” he says “and I’ve met an awful lot of returned volunteers. For almost everyone you speak with the Peace Corps is a life-changing experience. It is not only an eye-opening experience but it also opens up doors of opportunity that you would never have believed.”
In his case Wesoloski says that is an absolute and he can trace almost everything he has subsequently done — from earning a doctorate in animal nutrition to applying his knowledge to the benefit of Central Soya a major international company to then striking out on his own — to his two and a half years in Venezuela.
Wakild heads this month to Namibia for a short-term assignment with Crisis Corps an offshoot of the Peace Corps but has decided to go back to school. She remains undecided between an MBA and an advanced degree in the public policy/international relations field. It’s apparent that her Peace Corps experience has provided some well-considered opinions about the latter.
“What I would like to be involved in is something that changes development as an industry that would enable people like Peace Corps volunteers like U.N. volunteers to evolve more. I feel like a lot of times we were reinventing the wheel that we were doing things that people have been doing for 40 years or more and that was frustrating. I know that I impacted individuals but in terms of the greater picture I really didn’t do that much. I couldn’t. It’s not the purpose of Peace Corps.”
The larger problem in international development Wakild opines is the projects that go wrong because of failures to understand what the people need. “We say this is what we have and this is good; you need to have it too. Not everybody needs it ” she says.
“There was a project in Benin where nearby villages were offered the option of new school buildings or electricity and this one particular village opted for the school. None of the others did — everybody wanted electricity ” Wakild says.
“I was surprised that they made that decision but very proud of them for making it because they don’t need electricity. They have never had it; they are perfectly equipped to live without it for now. They are not equipped to live without education. The world has changed too much and they are not as isolated as they used to be.
“And the electricity ended up costing them so much ” Wakild adds. “They are going to use it and they have to pay for it and Benin does not make any of its own electricity. They have to import it all mostly from Ghana which is a country away. They’ve already got huge debt to Ghana which they can’t pay. A lot of times the projects that seem designed to help people often make them worse off.”
Which is to say that while the original spirit of the Peace Corps lives on current and future volunteers won’t be running out of challenges any time soon.
To give peace a chance…
The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Today about 7 500 volunteers serve in 71 countries in Central and South America Africa Eastern Europe and the former Soviet-bloc countries Asia and the South Pacific.
The application process can take up to nine months and involves recommendations and an interview. Prospective volunteers can list regions where they would prefer to serve and can refuse an invitation to serve in a country in order to wait for an assignment elsewhere.
Applicants must be American citizens and at least 18 years old. There is no upper age limit a facet of the organization made famous by President Carter’s mother Lillian.
Training takes three months in country and includes language cross-cultural technical and health components.
Assignments are for two years and are in the areas of education health/HIV AIDS environment agriculture and business development.
For more information contact Peace Corps at 800-424-8580 or www.peacecorps.org.
— Bill Walsh