My husband was in the Peace Corps in India 45 years ago, but we were surprised when our second son announced he was applying. Spinal meningitis at 17 months had left our son severely hearing impaired. Despite his normal speech and college graduation, we privately wondered if he would be accepted and could successfully learn another language, as well as adapt to another culture.
During our trip to visit Justin at his Peace Corps site in the Dominican Republic at Christmas 2011, we learned how wrong we were and gained a new appreciation of today’s Peace Corps. Meeting us at the airport, he spoke fluent Spanish, and he escorted us to Santo Domingo to meet other volunteers and tour the old colonial part of the city. Then it was a six-hour drive along the breathtaking southern coast to his site, Pedernales, a small town on the border with Haiti. I’m not sure we were prepared for the cows, emaciated dogs, and motos (motorbikes) in the streets at all hours — or for his small apartment with the bucket-flush toilet that didn’t flush, cold-water bucket showers, no refrigeration, the roosters on either side of us that began calling to each other beginning at 3 a.m. daily, and the giant roaches that came out at night.
However, we loved the parade of young people and neighbors who were eager to meet us and talk to our son. Among them was Mario, a 19-year-old Haitian who lives alone in a shack and goes to high school in Pedernales. He often goes hungry, and our son shares food with him. There was José, a shy 18-year-old who practices English with our son and dreams of going to the United States one day. And Hektor, an 11-year-old who has difficulty reading and writing and could not find the Dominican Republic on a map of the world. Frequently, young people do not graduate from high school until they are 21.
Peace Corps projects are as varied as the volunteers, and not all are successful. We toured the playground made out of old tires that our son had helped the community to make. Sadly, it is being torn down now because the mayor of the city was unhappy with Haitian street kids climbing the fence at night.
We went to the Haitian market on the border and saw the piles of mostly donated American goods. You can get just about anything there — including an Eagles hat. We walked across the border to Haiti. A motorbike ran over my husband’s foot, I got whacked in the head with a bag of rice, and the glimpse we saw of the even deeper poverty in Haiti was sobering.
We came home absolutely exhausted, but humbled by the young men and women who volunteer. They don’t expect to change a country or a village, but they can and do change individual lives, as well as being forever changed themselves.
Leslie Swezey writes from Delaware County. She is working hard to learn Spanish for her next trip to visit son Justin, who has decided to extend his Peace Corps service and will be doing a project with schools for the deaf in Santo Domingo.
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