Dreaming of Foreign Lands
The plight of Peace Corps volunteers
By Patrick Sullivan | Feb. 20, 2021
In this time of a shut-down world with borders closed and travel brought to a halt, Kama Ross has been thinking a lot about the Peace Corps, and she said she believes that the institution — which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year ‚ has perhaps never been more vital.
“I really do think it’s important for us as a community to start to look beyond ourselves,” said Ross, who is best known as the regional forester for the Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Benzie conservation districts. “Now we’ve had this year of reflecting on ourselves, and now we have to see, what does this mean for the rest of the world?”
Ross was in the Peace Corps herself, in Paraguay, between 1981 and 1983; today, she runs the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Northern Michigan group.
Ross is also biding her time until she gets back into the Peace Corps — she applied to reenter in 2019 and was all set to go to the Gambia in western Africa when the pandemic brought her plans to a halt.
A PERFECT PLAN THAT DIDN’T WORK
Though Ross is a treasured resource for many residents of the three counties where she works, and many depend on her for guidance concerning the health of their trees, Ross is sure a younger forester will be able to take her place and have the enthusiasm needed for the job.
Lately, she said, she’s felt as though she’s reached the people she could with her message of conservation, and the people who really need to hear it aren’t going to listen anyway.
She’s determined that her talents would be best put to use in a developing country.
“I want to give,” Ross said. “I want to travel and, you know, kind of reach a different audience than I’ve had the privilege of serving for the last decade, couple of decades. … I’m preaching to the choir and so many of the workshops draw an audience, but it’s the same folks. They love what I’m saying. They agree with me. They are already pretty much doing it.”
She came to that notion two years ago and told her boss that she was going to retire.
“I had already told my boss I was retiring,” Ross said. “I was joining the Peace Corps. My financial advisor was going to put everything on hold for me. It was a perfect plan that didn’t work out, but I’m still confident it will.”
Now, whenever Peace Corps operations resume, Ross hopes to win a similar placement in a developing country where her forestry skills will be of use. She also hopes to land in an English-speaking country. She said she is ready for lots of change, but she doesn’t want to learn a new language on top of everything else.
This time around, Ross expects she will be an even more effective volunteer than she was in her 20s.
“When I graduated from college in 1981 and joined the Peace Corps, I thought I knew everything, and I didn’t know a lot. I mean, I obviously did offer quite a bit to the community that I went to, you know, as a young person,” she said. “But now, now I have such a well-rounded set of skills that I’m really excited to share, because I have true confidence now in my abilities.”
LOOKING FOR YOUNG AND OLD
In the meantime, Ross is determined to spread the word about the Peace Corps in northern Michigan. Spreading the word, after all, is officially part of the Peace Corps’ mission.
“Our third mission in the Peace Corps is to bring our experiences from different cultures home,” Ross said. “And that doesn’t stop. You know, it doesn’t matter how many decades ago you served, our experiences are really needed right now to help us remind people of our community connections that the United States sewed over the decades.”
The group would like to celebrate the Peace Corps’ 60th anniversary with a big event, but so far that remains elusive due to the pandemic.
Perhaps later on, if things get better and large gatherings become considered safe, something will be announced. In the meantime, Ross is biding her time before she is able to get back into the program and she’s doing everything she can to get the word out about the local Peace Corps group, to perhaps interest others in considering filing an application.
“They really are looking for people with experience,” Ross said. “I mean, now, more than ever, I think they’re really looking for a wide variety to show what Americans are all about. You know, it’s just not the young hippies that we all kind of maybe associate with the Peace Corps type. It draws from all segments of our population, and there’s some really cool people in our area that have gone back, even in their late seventies, and have been very successful.”
So, Ross will be looking for groups to speak to — whether they are student-aged or more mature adults — to spread the word, not just about the good that Americans in the Peace Corps can do for other countries, but the good that can happen to the volunteers through the experience.
“Even though we now live beautiful, relatively safe Northern Michigan, you know that there’s a world out there that we should be well aware of,” Ross said.
“A BETTER CITIZEN”
Members of northern Michigan's returned volunteers’ group range from young to old; some were in the Peace Corps 50 years ago; another had her stint cut short last year because of the pandemic.
Caitlin Brooks, a Bear Lake native (pictured above) who today lives in Lake Ann, studied international business in college and spent years living and working around the world, from New York City to Chile.
In 2019, she decided it was time to pursue an old dream and she applied to get into the Peace Corps.
“I was like, well, you know, if I’ve wanted to do this for how long, it’s time to make it happen, so I applied and I went,” Brooks said.
Brooks ended up in Hojancha, Costa Rica, where she concentrated on community economic development — she conducted workshops with local women’s group, helped a nonprofit scale up rural tourism efforts, consulted with small businesses, and taught English.
It was a great and rewarding experience, she said, until last March.
She’d been there a year and was supposed to stay another when things started to get weird.
“At the beginning of March, we received orders that we weren’t allowed to leave the country,” Brooks recalled. “And then a couple weeks later, maybe 12 days later, we were told we weren’t allowed to travel to the capital because there were some COVID cases there. And about two days later we found out that we were being evacuated.”
The ending occurred suddenly — on March 16 she was told to travel to San Jose; on March 17 she was on a plane back to Michigan.
“We had like a couple hours to pack up everything and get to airport,” she said. “It was hard because we only had like an hour to decide” where to go.
It was recommended that people quarantine before moving in with anyone over 60, so she stayed with her brother in Kalamazoo for a couple weeks, and then moved in with her parents in Bear Lake.
Eventually, as it became clear that she was not going to return to Costa Rica anytime soon, she got her own place to live and found a job working remotely for a running show manufacturer.
Amid all of this, she found the returned volunteers’ group and in that discovered a network of people who could help her get settled back into life in northern Michigan.
The experience, though stunted, made her an even bigger believer in the Peace Corps, however, and she believes in spreading the word.
“I think there’s lots of images of what Americans are like from movies and television, and a lot of times those are false,” Brooks said. “In that way, the Peace Corps really provides a good value, showing the world regular people.”
More importantly, perhaps, is what the Peace Corps did to her — Brooks believes it made her a more resilient person.
“I know I grew a lot in my year in the Peace Corps and I think it creates people who really are kind and empathetic,” she said. “I think I am a better citizen after doing the Peace Corps.”
“JUST A WONDERFUL ADVENTURE”
The words of John F. Kennedy, when he stood before the University of Michigan student union and announced his intention to create the Peace Corps in an impromptu speech in 1960, heavily influenced Pail Sawin, who would join the Peace Corps himself eight years later.
“What a wonderful country that we lived in that would spend money to aid poor folks in another country,” Sawin recalled. “Also, I did not approve of the war and this was a way to serve your country without going into the military.”
Sawin, another member of the returned volunteer group, went to a country that is today called Benin but was then called Dahomey. He was in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to serve in that country, and he said his two years there assigned to the ministry of agriculture were focused on figuring out how the developing economy could be best served.
Residents of the country primarily ate millet, and so it was the Peace Corps volunteers’ job to help diversify their diet.
He worked on a school garden project to train students how to raise nutritious foods; he helped establish a commune where men just released from military service raised cash crops and were given a place to live and land to grow their own food; he moved to the remote north of the country and he helped set up forges to manufacture plows that could be used with oxen.
There, Sawin said, he realized the “classic Peace Corps experience” of living in a mud hut without electricity or running water.
“It was a real adventure then,” Sawin said. “Now most of the kids are in cities, teaching in a school, and everybody has cell phone. For me to get a letter home and a response from here would take six weeks.”
Sawin was born and raised on a farm in Manton where he still lives today.
In fact, it was growing up on that farm that turned out to be his “in” for the Peace Corps — while he graduated from Central Michigan University with a degree in Psychology and Sociology, the Peace Corps recruited him for his agricultural skills.
Five decades after his return from Africa, Sawin today remains committed to promoting the Peace Corps to others. Over the years he’s made presentations at schools in an effort to get young people interested.
“It was an adventure. For when your young, it’s just a wonderful adventure,” he said. “I was happy to go to Africa, and being a country boy and naïve, I thought I would see the whole place.”