Peace Corps volunteers from Burke are helping to build a brighter world overseas one community at a time through education and environmental projects aimed at improving quality of life. Upon their return, the experiences they share are inspiring others to join the program and follow in their footsteps. What they'll find, according to their predecessors, is the experience of a lifetime.
Jason Kane, Peace Corps recruiter and Burke resident, said volunteers rarely know what to expect when they sign up for the standard 27-month tour of service.
"What I often tell people is that what you think it is going to be like is not what it is going to be," Kane said. "It is one of the most challenging things you can do in terms of personal challenges, not just necessarily physical hardships but also in terms of emotions. But you have the chance to make a tremendous impact."
Kane served three years in the Peace Corps, teaching English in the town of Silale, in western Lithuania. Along with teaching his students, Kane was tasked with training other teachers in new methods of education, and he even helped to design a new English textbook. He added, although the work he did left a lasting impression on his life, what he remembers most is the bond he fostered with his students. Outside the classroom, Kane began an American football club for his ninth-graders and helped them put on a production of the English-language play "The Oyster and the Pearl."
"My students are where I found the greatest connection," he said. "I just went back this summer, and some of them are about to graduate from college. Lithuania is definitely a part of who I am now. I'll be following their team in the Olympics."
On Aug. 17, at 7 p.m., Kane will present an information session for prospective Peace Corps volunteers at Pohick Regional Public Library, 6450 Sydenstricker Road in Burke.
THREE OTHER Burke residents are currently serving in the Corps, in Bolivia, Costa Rica and in the Ukraine. More than 5,400 Virginia residents have served in the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961. In the field, these volunteers often have to find creative solutions to the complex issues facing their host communities. Ashley King, who returned to Burke from the Ukrainian city of Vinnitsy three months ago, said she and her colleagues discovered the best way to teach local children about environmental problems was through puppet theater.
"We wrote and directed plays about acid rain and pollution in the Black Sea," she said. "We had to learn how to work the puppets and put together the show."
Living arrangements for Peace Corps volunteers can range from a thatched hut on the African Savannah to a furnished house with hot water and electricity, depending on where a volunteer is stationed. King lived in a Soviet-style apartment block, where she formed close ties with her Ukrainian hosts. She said in her spare time they taught her how to can vegetables for the winter and how to distill her own vodka, skills she would never have picked up anywhere else. King said the most significant cultural differences she encountered revolved around the Ukrainian people's history and their outlook on the future.
"They just aren't very optimistic," she said. "That has a lot to do with their history of being invaded. They want the Ukraine to become a better country, but they aren't prepared to do much about it, to fight for it, because the ones who've fought have always died. They are passionate about their country, but they don't put much faith in the idea that things will get better."
King added that she, like Kane, now shares a close connection to the people she met abroad because of the moments she shared with them.
"It reaches to the deepest parts of my soul when I think about it," she said.
King is now planning to attend American University, where she wants to study international relations.
"The Peace Corps is definitely what pointed me in that direction," she said.
SARA JOHNSTON, a Peace Corps public affairs specialist, said the benefits of becoming a Peace Corps volunteer include the deferral of student loans, opportunities for graduate fellowships, and one year of noncompetitive eligibility status for government jobs.
"If you have the same qualifications as another person, you will get preferential selection treatment for government positions," she said.
Volunteers must also undergo three months of training.
"You have local language training each day along with technical training and cross-cultural training," she said. "You also have to learn how to stay healthy and safe in the country where you will be stationed."
Johnston said volunteers often enlist with one common misconception.
"Most people assume they are the ones who are going to be doing all of the service, but they'll find that you have to rely on the people in your community to learn how to take care of yourself," she said. "You're an infant to the culture, and you have to learn how to take care of yourself and how to make it through the day in your new environment."