Peace Corps: Experience changes lives forever

Kendra Wohlert Peace Corps

Some Cedar Falls residents have made service into a 24/7 dedication by joining a global initiative to make the world a better place through the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps program started way back in 1960 when Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students of University of Michigan to go out and serve their country by working in undeveloped countries around the world. This idea turned into an agency of the federal government solely for the purpose of worldwide peace and friendship. Since then, 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. Today, the Peace Corps is dedicated to things such as AIDS education, the teaching of environmental preservation and business development.

People put away months or years of their time submerged in the lives of people living completely different lives than our own. CFHS choir teacher Kendra Wohlert had one such experience when she was stationed in the Maluti Mountains in Lesotho, Africa.

“I specifically asked for the most remote site, and I got it. My village was called Ramahaela. I lived in a small round dung hut. I was lucky and had a ‘tap’ in the middle of my village to get my daily water, and my toilet was a bucket kept under my bed,” Wohlert said.

Such conditions are not unusual when living in poor and underdeveloped countries. When people join the Peace Corps, they understand that they will be living in the same conditions as the local people. That includes hygiene and eating habits — no beautiful claw-footed bathtubs or fancy cuisine in sight, just the minimum.

Every person in the Peace Corps is trained once they arrive at their location. After Wohlert arrived in Lesotho, she completed eight weeks of job, language and culture training with 16 other people before heading off to their individual villages in the country.

“My official job was ‘Teacher Trainer,’ and I created teacher workshops for teachers to create lessons and teach them in front of other teachers to learn from each other,” Wohlert said.

Every day she walked to one of four different schools, walking through the Maluti Mountains for sometimes three hours each day.

“Each volunteer must also have a secondary project. I had four. I helped to build a two-room school house in one village, created sewing classes in my village and created a youth girls choir which traveled and performed to raise money for a chicken project for my village’s school,” she said.

While all these projects have hopeful outcomes, there is, however, a more serious matter that looms above all others in Africa: AIDS. According to Wohlert, the biggest problem she found concerning AIDS is that there are many misconceptions about it. Some believe having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS and that the disease is a “white man’s disease” brought to Africa to teach the locals not to have sex.

Wohlert said that in Lesotho and much of the rest of Africa, one in every three tested has the disease, but it is even harder to convince people to get tested. Many would be shunned and ostracized from their community if they are tested.

“It is a very sad and frustrating situation,” Wohlert said.

There are countless other members that have amazing stories such as Wohlert’s husband, Eric Giddens who was also stationed in Lesotho.

“I lived in Lesotho from May of 1997 to September of 1999. I managed a rural water supply project in a very remote part of the mountains of Lesotho. Prior to the project that I worked with, people got their water from open springs or streams. There were virtually no sanitation systems (toilets) in this area either, so water sources were often contaminated with human waste. The project with which I worked was funded by the Irish government and was administrated through the public health program of a hospital that served the area in an effort to reduce water borne illnesses that were commonly treated by the hospital. We built water systems that provided villages with clean, protected water, which not only reduced water borne illnesses but also reduced the distance that women had to travel to get their water,” Giddens said.

As dedicated and hard-working as these volunteers are, some of them get to enjoy the culture and scenery of the country like Giddens did.

“I had the opportunity to travel quite a bit around southern Africa. I saw most of South Africa, traveled through Swaziland and up the coast of Mozambique and spent some time in Zimbabwe, including a rafting adventure down the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls,” Giddens said.

Another Peace Corps member and friend of Wohlert who now lives in Oregon, Anais Alexander, was also stationed in Lesotho. While many members want to join because they would be helping people around the world, others, like Alexander, wanted to learn from the native people.

“I realized that the Peace Corps was the best option because they’d pay my way there. Most people go because they want to help others. I really wanted to learn from them,” Alexander said.

She also went through a training period before heading off, living with the locals and learning from them.

“The beginning of my stay was training based. I lived at a training center with 17 Peace Corps volunteers. We went to classes for most of the day. The (core) of the classes were language and vocational. I was an education volunteer, so the classes introduced us to the education system, what we could expect in our working environments and an overview of protocol that needed to be followed in schools; we worked in teams to create various lesson plans. The other sections were cultural classes, preparing us for the adjustment to living there independently. Then there was Peace Corps-related general info about adjusting to life there, services available to us, medical info, what to do if, political info, travel info, HIV info, etc. Part way through the training, we left the training center, were separated into two villages and had a ‘Village Based Training.’ Each volunteer lived with a family for a ‘homestay.’ The classes remained the same, the primary difference is that we were separated, living with families who didn’t speak English, eating foods they prepared for us, etc. It was a preview of what was to come when we were all assigned to different villages across the country, except we prepared our own foods and had our own small hut,” Alexander said.

And how did these people get interested in the Peace Corps?

“During my third year of college, I studied in Italy and fell in love with the world, other cultures, languages, traveling and the freedom, adventure and sense of unknown that it brought. I wanted to be in an international environment after that. And then two years later, nearing graduation and not having a clue what I wanted to do, I realized that more than anything I wanted to be in another world. I wanted to be in the most different world I could imagine. I wanted to learn from wise women. I wanted to be in the most remote part of Africa, deep in some village, learning about traditional ways from women. I never got that from my education or from my culture and felt that that without such an experience, one of learning from people who were so incredibly different, who had a knowledge beyond technology and books and information, people who were connected to the earth, people who were bound to a tribe, entwined in tribal traditions, I would not be complete,” Alexander said.

Unfortunately, she never met those wise women she dreamed about because the United States declared it too dangerous for travelers. Nonetheless, her experience was life changing, and she hopes to meet those women some day.

Wohlert, on the other hand, was exposed to the Peace Corps at a very young age.

“My first exposure was in sixth grade when a returning Peace Corps member came to our school and talked about their experience. I don’t remember much about it except that I thought it sounded cool to travel to another country and live in a hut,” Wohlert said.

After many years with that memory in the back of her head, she decided at the age of 29 to pursue it more seriously. It takes about a year for a full background check, so on her 30th birthday, she mailed in her application.

For some people, the Peace Corps offers a great way for recent college grad students to take a break before heading off into the world, just as Giddens did.

“I studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech and wanted to do something a little more adventurous and meaningful following graduation than enter the corporate world. The Peace Corps seemed like the perfect way to use my new degree, experience a new part of the world and hopefully do something to help people that were less fortunate than I was. So, I applied, was offered a job in Lesotho and left six weeks after I graduated from college,” Giddens said.

All three of them feel that joining the Peace Corps is a wonderful idea and experience even though sometimes it was hard to incorporate different methods in foreign places.

“I think the Peace Corps really tried to get Americans to understand other parts of the world. It was hard being a volunteer, knowing that your job was to teach them how to do things as we do them, and it simply doesn’t work and it shouldn’t work. We end up assimilating ourselves to their way of living, and we get something done, and other things don’t work the way we wanted them to. In the end, we all agreed that we were much enriched by the experience probably more than we were of help,” Wohlert said.

Giddens also explains his feelings and thoughts about how the Peace Corps changed his life.

“My worldview changed radically as a result of my experience in the Peace Corps. I learned so much about the world and my place in it, about the impact that my country and its policies have on the rest of the world and about how the choices that I make in how I live my own life can have an impact on the lives of people in far-flung corners of the world,” Giddens said.

Many members after volunteering in the Peace Corps visit classrooms to discuss their experiences while hoping to open the eyes of others to what is going on in the rest of the world. Wohlert especially would like to offer up her stories and experiences to others.

After this year, Wohlert will be leaving the CFHS teaching staff, and even though students and teachers alike will miss her terribly, she plans on using her Peace Corps experience in the future.
One experience has truly changed the way she looks at life.When she was in her village in Lesotho, her village had a huge water shortage. She had to ration two liters of water for five days — something that is hard to imagine here in the United States. Wohlert had to chose between bathing, having water to cook with or using it as drinking water. She recalls it as a scary experience, but looking back, Wohlert realizes how it made her appreciate the small, but important, things in life. In the upcoming year, Wohlert and her family plan on living as simply as possible.

“For this upcoming year, my husband and son and I are going to see how simply we can live. We have vegetable and herb gardens supplied with water by our 300 gallon rain barrel, and I will be freezing, canning and pickling all summer for next winter. We also do a lot of recycling, repurposing and reusing,” Wohlert said.

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