In honor of National Peace Corps week, students at Kenmore and St. Agnes middle schools met with former volunteer Richard Nelson to learn about the benefits and the adventures that come with helping people overseas.
"The objective of the Peace Corps is really to spread friendship and to promote a better understanding of cultures," said Nelson, who signed on with the Peace Corps in 1964 to teach English in Thailand.
The Peace Corps was in its infancy when Nelson began his work. He was among only the ninth group of volunteers to be sent to Thailand. Founded in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps is now celebrating its 44th year of training young and old alike to improve life in communities across the globe. Nelson told students about his training, learning the Thai language and the challenges he faced during his experience.
"It's a great way for people who have the inclination to make the world a better place to get out there, to get involved and to learn about a different culture."
Nelson was stationed outside Bangkok and in a village where few others spoke English. Living in a small room where the only running water flowed from a pipe into an earthen jar, Nelson had to adapt to his environment but said he soon found himself immersed in the community surrounding him.
"I was able to break into the Thai culture and that helped me in what I was doing there," he said. It was great."
Among his accomplishments from his time overseas, Nelson said one of his favorites is that he and other volunteers were able to send Thai students to the United States on scholarships.
His service overseas later landed him a job in the U.S. Foreign Service. Nelson credits the Peace Corps with setting him on the right track for his future career.
ARLINGTON IS HOME to many current and former Peace Corps volunteers. Before leading the Arlington School Board and campaigning for delegate in the 45th District, Libby Garvey served for two years in the Central African Republic with her husband. She was part of the second Peace Corps Group to work in that country. Like Nelson, she also taught English to young students.
"I probably learned more from them than they did from me," Garvey said.
Stationed in Bambarli, a village along the Trans-African Highway, Garvey confronted difficult living conditions stemming from a lack of fresh water, bats and critters living in her apartment and problems with electricity.
"I remember looking out at the street and seeing children studying their school books under streetlights," she said.
Garvey also had to confront tough conditions in the classroom. Most of her teaching materials, she said, were written for students in France, not in Africa.
"There were stories in the books about snow, but I'd bet a lot of the students hadn't ever seen snow," she said. "We had to change things around so they could make sense of them."
Those problems caused Garvey to write a new textbook for her students, one that was later used by other volunteers. Garvey said she would recommend volunteering for the Peace Corps but added that prospective volunteers should be cautious.
"It's a different world than when I served," Garvey said. "It's a more dangerous world."
LOCAL RESIDENT JOE FORD returned from Zambia in 1996 after spending two years as part of the first delegation of Peace Corps volunteers to visit the country. Ford's specialty was water sanitation. He brought clean water to residents of the tiny village where he was placed by digging wells and improved quality of life by building latrines.
"I recommend the Peace Corps to everybody," said Ford, who now works at monitoring harmful chemicals for the Environmental Protection Agency. Being the first group into the country, Ford said, posed its own problems.
"We had no familiarity with Zambia, so we had to start everything from scratch," he said.
The local village chief also made things difficult at times, he added.
"He seemed like a nice guy during the first meeting," Ford said.
But the chief, Ford said, didn't quite understand the point to the Peace Corps' work if it wasn't going to bring a fully fledged water system to the village.
"A year afterwards, he summoned me to his palace to apologize," Ford said. "I heard that doesn't happen often."
As for his best accomplishments in Africa, Ford said keeping himself healthy was a big one.
"I didn't even get a cold," he said.
Since its inception, the Peace Corps more than 178,000 people have served in the Peace Corp. Volunteers must be at least 18 years of age, meet certain physical requirements and serve for at least 27 months. To find out more, go to www.peacecorps.gov.