Returned volunteers in Columbia further Peace Corps' goals

Friday, February 1, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:52 a.m. CST, Friday, February 1, 2013
Karen Davis, president of the Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, answers questions for her students Tuesday at Columbia Independent School.

COLUMBIA — When Karen Davis was a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Guatemala from 1992 to 1994, she paid a woman named Clarisa to wash her clothes every week.

For the first couple of months, Davis tried to do her own laundry. Then she realized that the women around her were experts with an outdoor sink and a washboard.

If you go

What: Third Goal International Film Festival

When: Films show at 1, 3:30, 4:45, 6:15 and 7:15 p.m. Saturday.

Where: MU Student Center, Chamber Auditorium

Cost: Free

Additional event: Filmmaker workshop with director Alrick Brown at 6 p.m. Friday at Columbia Access Television's Studio A on the Stephens College campus

For more information about the films, see the event's Web page.

To learn more about the Peace Corps

These information sessions will be held on campus during the spring.

  • 7 p.m. Feb. 20, Student Success Center basement
  • 7 p.m. March 21, Student Success Center basement
  • 7 p.m. April 16, Student Success Center basement

Clarisa washed and made clothes for a living. She didn't have a formal education, but she found ways to fit classes in baking and sewing into her spare time. She wanted to improve life for herself and her children.

Davis keeps a picture of Clarisa in her guest room to this day, alongside pictures of her own family.

Clarisa's story keeps Davis grounded. She comes to mind when Davis becomes frustrated with "First World problems"  — a missed phone call, a poor Wi-Fi signal, a satellite dish that drops her TV show.

Clarisa reminds her of the people she met in Central America who seem to face difficult circumstances with courage and determination.

"That is one thing that I think people going into the Peace Corps don’t often realize," she said. "The greatest change they will experience is a change within themselves."

A need to tell stories about her service in the Peace Corps has driven Davis, now 43, to remain involved long after her adventure ended. When she moved to Columbia in 1999, she joined the Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and is now the organization’s president.

"They don’t have a platform to tell their stories, but I can be their mouthpiece," she said. 

On Saturday, the group will hold the Third Goal International Film Festival at the MU Student Center with five films about regions where the organization has sent volunteers.

The feature film, "Kinyarwanda," is based on Rwandan genocide survivors, and Director Alrick Brown — another former volunteer — will talk about it. Other films take a look at the commercial lobster diving industry in Nicaragua and Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia.

After each film, former volunteers or community members from the featured regions will share their experiences.

"We always have to cut it off," Davis said. "The conversation is rich with many different points of view and a genuine curiosity and will, if allowed, go on and on and on and on."

Making the ultimate impact

The Peace Corps, founded under President John F. Kennedy in 1961, has recruited more than 210,000 American volunteers. More than 3,100 of them have come from Missouri.

The average volunteer is 28 years old, and more than 60 percent serve in either Africa or Latin America. About 30 MU graduates are currently serving in the Peace Corps, said Claire Lea, MU's recruiter.

Davis admits that her motive for joining the Peace Corps was a bit self-serving.

“In school, I studied to be a Spanish teacher and figured I had no business teaching Spanish in the classroom unless I had talked the talk and walked the walk, quite literally,” she said. 

She began looking for ways to go overseas and landed on the Peace Corps. In 1992, she traveled to the highlands of Guatemala, where she worked to raise nutrition levels in the area.

Part of the problem was rooted in the economy. Guatemalan farmers grew produce like broccoli, green beans, peas and cauliflower to sell to large vegetable companies. The country's year-round spring climate made it an ideal location for these crops.

But if the produce wasn't grade A, the companies wouldn't buy it. Because they were cash crops, farmers would typically dump the surplus.

"It was not uncommon to go through the highlands of Guatemala and see huge piles of grade B broccoli being eaten by the cows," Davis said. "Meanwhile, the farmer’s children could very well be suffering from malnutrition."

Her job was to figure out how to integrate these discarded vegetables into the local diet.

The job was rewarding, but she found the lasting value of her Peace Corps experience to be more personal — adapting to a village where people don't have the privileges Americans take for granted.

In the end, the relationships she forged would have the biggest impact.

Returning, connecting, sharing

In Guatemala, Davis and other volunteers wore T-shirts with lyrics based on the Grateful Dead song "Box of Rain" printed on the back — "Such a long, long time to be gone, such a short time to be there."

Her 26 months in the Peace Corps seemed like a sprint.

"It's a two-year service, and you think 'Oh my goodness, that sounds like a huge, long time to be gone.' But when you're there, and you're in the midst of it, it goes by very, very quickly," she said.

Coming back to the United States was difficult for her.

"The Peace Corps tries to prepare you for the end of your service," Davis said, "but nothing can adequately prepare you for the reverse culture shock of coming back to your own country."

So when Davis moved to Columbia after her husband's job transfer, she decided to connect with people who had similar experiences. She happened upon the Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers shortly after she arrived.

"We get great joy from sharing our stories with each other, but it’s like preaching to the choir. It’s the experiences of serving on a speakers’ panel or coordinating a film festival that offer an opportunity to open up the dialogue with community," she said.

The group was founded in 1996 by a returned volunteer living in Jefferson City, and another volunteer named Don Spiers was leading the group when Davis joined. Spiers, who had served in Venezuela, would co-lead with her for several years before she became president four years ago.

"When Karen took over, it was great," he said. "It brought a lot more people into the organization, and it just kind of blossomed into really what it is today, which is huge."  

At least 200 former volunteers are on the organization's email list. Between 25 and 30 people make up the core of the group, plus a few more who consistently come to specific group events, said Lindsey Smith, vice president of the group, who served in Armenia as an English language teacher trainer from 2001 to 2003.

Members come with a mix of experiences — a teacher trainer in South Africa, a volunteer who helped organize a trash collection system for a town in Honduras and another who helped start a goat cheese factory in Cape Verde.

Spiers said the experience sticks with returned volunteers because it throws them into situations where they need to adapt and work with people they might never see again.

"There’s before Peace Corps, and there’s after Peace Corps," said Tim Wall, who volunteered in Honduras from 2005 to 2007. Those are two distinctly different periods, he said.

Spiers likens the nostalgia of volunteers to the memories of war veterans.

His father fought in World War II and spent the last 20 years of his life telling stories about being a mortar operator in the Philippines, he said. With other veterans, it was an inevitable topic of conversation.

He also likens it to a religious conversion.

"Karen and I have discussed this at times, that it’s almost like being born again," Spiers  said. "It’s almost like an evangelical experience."

'Responsible for the rest of your life'

The Peace Corps mission includes three goals that guide its operation, according to the agency's website.

The first is providing practical assistance to countries that ask for help. The second is promoting a better understanding of Americans among the people served.

The third refers to the obligation among volunteers to share their Peace Corps experience after they return home.

"Like, you’re sort of responsible the rest of your life for the third goal," Smith said.

Mike Burden, who is coordinating the Third Goal International Film Festival this year, credits Davis' enthusiasm for helping the community understand the Peace Corps experience.

"She’s got a real passion for pushing the third goal," he said, "and through the third goal comes the first goal."

The first goal depends on inspiring others to serve in the Peace Corps.

Davis calls Burden and his wife, Ashley, "full-circle volunteers." The group of returned volunteers sent the Burdens into Peace Corps service, stayed connected while they were overseas and welcomed them back when their tour of duty was over. 

At the film festival on Saturday, Davis said she hopes to attract an audience of at least 400.

"We’re gaining some traction within the community; it’s becoming more recognizable within the community, and that only opens more doors for us to be able to have the dialogue that brings the third goal of the Peace Corps to life," she said.

That will affirm the purpose of the local organization, which survived a setback a few years ago after a number of students in leadership positions graduated and left. The remaining members had to decide whether to dissolve or rebuild.

They resolved to continue the organization and attract returned Peace Corps members in new ways, such as the film festival and sponsoring the Burdens, two of the first full-circle volunteers.

"That, I think, was proof positive to me that the vision that we had cast several years prior was really something that was realistic, something that we could achieve," Davis said. 

In their own words | Peace Corps volunteers' experiences

These excerpts were edited from longer interview transcripts.

Don Spiers | Venezuela, 1973 to 1975

Don Spiers, back right, poses for a photo in Venezuela with people he met while working in the Peace Corps in the country. (Photo courtesy of Don Spiers)

"The first thing that happened when we got into the Peace Corps was that the agency we worked for said, ‘We want you to work on wiping out the mosquitoes in this resort village.'

"Then they said, 'By the way, you have a fish in the United States called the mosquito fish that eats mosquito larvae. Could you just go and bring it over and start putting it everywhere?' 

"I was 24, I think, at the time. I was the leader of the project. I had never done anything like that before. So I had to pretty much convince the head of this agency that we shouldn’t do that. We needed to look at fish that are already found in Venezuela and not bring in fish from outside that could destroy their ecology.

"Not only does the mosquito fish eat mosquito larvae, but it also eats fish eggs and fish fry, so basically it wipes out every other fish that lives there.

"With some help, we learned how to convince and argue our point. I’d never had to do that before, and I don’t think I would have been put in that agency in the United States at that level with that much responsibility."

Lindsey Smith | Armenia, 2001 to 2003

Lindsey Smith, left, poses with a group of language teachers. She served in Armenia from 2001 to 2003. (Photo courtesy of Lindsey Smith)

"The former Soviet Union is not what people think of when they think about Peace Corps necessarily. They think of going and digging wells or latrines and that sort of thing.

"The former Soviet Union had infrastructure, but when the Russians pulled out of all the satellite countries, they basically pulled everything out. The infrastructure was there, but there was no way to maintain it. There was no system of government, there was no civic center, there was nothing.

"Right at the end of the Soviet era, Armenia also had a terrible earthquake that devastated the northwest third of the country, and they never rebuilt. So there was a lot of work for Peace Corps volunteers. It just maybe didn’t look like the typical thing."

Dave Knieter | South Africa, 2003 to 2005

Dave Knieter poses for a photo with the Tswana family he lived with while serving in the Peace Corps from 2003 to 2005 in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Dave Knieter)

“I served as a community resource, essentially, but my main objective was to train teachers how to teach.

"I worked with teachers, I facilitated workshops teaching teachers how to teach, essentially because considering the legacy of apartheid, black Africans were taught in ways to make them servants to white people.

"Teachers needed to educate them in such a way that they could naturally determine their own futures. The key to any kind of empowerment is through education, and so that was sort of the goal.

"I think the big thing that I took away from the experience is that South Africa is still racially torn. There’s still a great tension that exists there, especially in the rural areas, which is where I was.

"Just being there, a white person, essentially, helped to bridge certain gaps … Now, granted, I’m an American. I’m not a South African white person living in the rural areas. Actually it was interesting because many white South Africans would say, 'I would never, ever go there.'"

William Zimmerman | Nicaragua, 1974 to 1976 and 2000; currently serving in Liberia

William Zimmerman volunteered in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua from 1974 to 1976. He is currently serving with the Peace Corps in Liberia. (Photo courtesy of William Zimmerman)

"As all of us in my group (Nicaragua, 1974 to 1976) were in our 20s and recent college graduates.

"My memories include simply learning how little was necessary for survival and how much of my prior life centered around luxuries not available to Third World peasants and subsistence farmers. 

"My one-room house had a tile roof that never entirely kept out the wetness during the rainy season. During the wettest weeks, my canvas backpack, leather saddle, etc. would suffer from mold unless I aired them in the yard during the sunny hours. 

"I had a well behind the house, a latrine in the yard and a kerosene lantern. I owned a horse, a dog, cats and several types of tropical fruit trees.

"As a Japanese American with a dark tan, I also remember that sometimes I passed as a local (if I did not speak), so was not automatically stereotyped as a rich American.  But all of us experienced the same transcultural benefits of the Peace Corps experience."

Venus Reyes | El Salvador, 2008 to 2011

Venus Reyes, back left, served with the Peace Corps in El Salvador from 2008 to 2011. Reyes is currently a graduate student at MU studying public affairs. (Photo courtesy of Venus Reyes)

“The first couple of months coming into my community, I was always very fast-paced. I was trying to say, “OK, so now we’re going to do some major projects and continue working.”
Everybody just kind of looked at me like this crazy person, like “Why are you trying to work right now? It’s Sunday.”
One of my neighbors’ favorite things to do was at five o’ clock every day, make coffee, sit down in the main street and watch cars go by.
"So I started following that trend. I thought “Well, maybe I’ll be able to bond with them, and then we’re going to start talking about health.” That was my own personal motive as to why I wanted to do that.
"Then one day, I started just hanging out for the sake of hanging out. I sat down watching all the cars go by, watching all the kids playing.
"And I thought, “What am I doing? I’m just enjoying life right now. This is so perfect. I’m getting to know these women and really enjoying this. I don’t need to work. I just need to get to know them first.” 
"So that’s what I did. I realized that the first step to development is seeing people as people, instead of these things you need to rescue. Then they respond to you; they start listening. And in the process, you work.
"You, the person that’s supposed to go save, are learning how to be a better person, a better listener, just better at indulging in life.”

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

MAP: Former Peace Corps' volunteers' small grants program

Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers distributes small grants to support active volunteers in projects around the world, including HIV/AIDS education, libraries and women’s cooperatives. (Graphic by Jon McClure)

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