Peace Corps Service as a “50+” Volunteer

Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) from 2004 to 2006 was the experience of a lifetime—challenging, surprising, and inspiring. After receiving my assignment to Guatemala as a Municipal Development volunteer, my first question was “Where’s Guatemala?” I soon learned it is a Central American democracy, located directly below Mexico and also bordered by Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, with coastal areas on the Caribbean and Pacific.

As I began my service in May 2004, I was especially excited to be included in the 10 percent of “50+” volunteers among thousands of PCVs worldwide. Most PCVs are in their early 20s, fresh from college and pre-career/family. With my three daughters grown and more than 30 years of satisfying work behind me, the anxieties of “What will I do with my life?” were resolved. I was ready for some adventure! Training for service took place over three months, at an in-country facility near Antigua, Guatemala. Even though the next oldest trainee was in his early 30s, PC service proved to be such a unique bonding experience that volunteers younger than my own adult daughters ultimately became, and remain, among my closest friends.

In my class of 28, volunteers were assigned to work in four programs: municipalities, agroforestry, rural youth, and community “technology” projects (which in Guatemala meant building stoves, constructing wells, and repairing bridges). Training – eight hours a day Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturdays – encompassed improving our Spanish language skills, preparing for our responsibilities within our specific program areas, and understanding and appreciating the cultural realities of our prospective site assignments. We each lived with a host family, conversing in Spanish, sharing meals, and swapping stories of Guatemala and home.

The mission of the Peace Corps is threefold: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.  We learned that democracy had come to Guatemala only recently, following a very long and bloody civil war. Self-governance and elections were new developments, and the “Munis,” as those of us in the Municipal Development program were called, were responsible for working with newly elected officials in our community’s towns and villages, explaining democratic basics including running meetings, setting agendas, prioritizing community needs, and raising funds to meet those needs.

Once we completed our training, we were sworn in as official “PCVs” by the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala and received our site assignments. I was assigned to the city of Tecpán, a proud Mayan community in the country’s Central Highlands, in the “Departamento” (state) of Chimaltenango. We had to get to our sites on our own, make our own living arrangements, and outfit our homes from small “start-up” stipends. Based on our location, each of us then received a small monthly allowance to cover all needs at very basic levels.

In such a poor country, our expenses were very low, and we lived simply, as the Guatemalans do. Farmers’ markets in every community offered wonderful fresh vegetables and fruit for little cost, along with beautiful handmade blankets, rugs, and other necessities.  Buying clothing was easy, too – throughout the country, vast parking lots host vendors at “Ropa” markets.  “Ropa” is Spanish for clothing, but in this case “Ropa” meant American clothing donated to U.S. charities in amounts so mind-boggling that it is stored in huge shipping containers and sold at very low cost to other countries. Going to the Ropa markets in Guatemala certainly gave me a new sense of how much we have and discard in our country (not to mention how many dumb T-shirt slogans there are!). As a Pittsburgher, though, it was always fun to locate Steelers and Pirates gear to wear!

In Tecpán, I worked in the office of community development in the “Municipalidad” (municipality) building, under the supervision of two Guatemalan officials. Each “aldea” (village) surrounding the central town had a council of elected representatives and we worked closely with these groups in training, helping assess and prioritize village needs, and researching funding possibilities.

Tecpán is a predominantly Mayan community known as the “first capital of Guatemala.” More than 90 percent of the residents are descendants of the Kaqchikel Mayan people. The remains of their pre-16th century capital city, Iximché – the center of pre-Spanish Mayan culture – are nearby; it’s a peaceful and mysterious site that local families and tourists regularly visit to picnic, explore, and ponder this lost civilization in the hills of Guatemala.

During service, each PCV is encouraged to develop an independent “secondary” project, so I began networking with a group of Mayan women in the aldea of San Lorenzo who wanted to start a business to help raise funds for their families. We first considered chickens or woven items, but the women were seeking something new and different, so ultimately they chose the “Proyecto de Hongos” – the Mushroom Project. Mushrooms are readily available in the wild, in season, in Guatemala, but domestic cultivation is a new concept that the University of Guatemala has been promoting, and they provided assistance to residents interested in exploring this possibility. We submitted a proposal for funding to USAID and secured a grant of $3,000 to build an “invernadero” (greenhouse) in which to cultivate oyster mushrooms, with the labor and love of the women as the key ingredient for success.

Peace Corps Volunteers in other programs, including business development and marketing, joined me in providing training to the women on aspects of creating and running a successful enterprise, and construction began on the invernadero amid much anticipation and excitement.

The opening ceremonies, in March 2006, were a highlight of my years of service. I had never in my life been part of the creation of an actual building before! The women of the community who played central roles were prominently featured, making speeches (very unusual in this historically macho Central American culture) and preparing a wonderful meal shared by all.

I especially treasure the beautiful, hand-stitched needlework “recuerdo” I received that day, presented to me in a handcrafted wooden frame. It states:  “La Asociacion San Lorenzo Agradece a: Bette Hughes por su apoyo en el Proyecto de HONGOS Tecpán G.  15-03-06.” It hangs in my office today, reminding me daily of the life-changing and soul-enriching years when I was privileged to represent our country as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Peace Corps Service www.peacecorps.gov.

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