Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog
- Posted byon March 29, 2011 at 3:07 PM EDT
This last Sunday, in between playing with my two year old and helping my wife with our new baby, I got a call from my friend Dagoberto Nunez that brought back a flood of memories from my two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The first time I met Dagoberto I was a Peace Corps Volunteer newly arrived in Honduras. I was assigned to work on water and sanitation projects in the southern part of the country, helping Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that provided the funds to build water systems in small rural villages. I lived in the central city of Choluteca and would ride out by bus, pickup, or the occasional mule, to villages to work on the water projects. I would complete a land survey of the village, design the system, and then hand it all over to a Maestro de Obra, or project manager, who would actually supervise the construction of the water system.
Dagoberto was a Maestro, and on a visit early in my service to a project under construction, I first got to see him in action.
Installing a water system involves installing miles of plastic and metal tubing, building multiple concrete structures to capture and store the spring or ground water, building a 10,000 gallon (or more) tank to hold the water, and then installing a distribution system through the village with a water tap for everyone. All of the labor to build and install the system was volunteered by the villagers receiving the system. In order to manage one of these projects, a Maestro de Obra had to be a master craftsman, trainer and coach to the villagers who had never built one of these systems before, and have the political savvy to deal with the local governments and village politics that might get in the way of finishing a project.
Dagoberto was all of these, and the best Maestro de Obra I worked with during my two years in Honduras. My basic job as the surveyor and engineer was to make sure the water could get from Point A to Point B. The moment of truth would come after months of backbreaking labor by the villagers: digging a three foot trench by hand from the spring to the tank location, carrying hundreds of pipes over hills and across ravines, and installing them. Then you turn on the valve, and wait to see if water shows up at the other end.
The picture below is from one of those moments about a year into my service. Dagoberto stood next to the pipe as water poured out onto the tank site of one of the toughest surveys and designs I’d completed. I remember asking myself at that moment: with everything else he and other local Maestro de Obra’s were capable of, why couldn’t they also learn how to do my part of it?
Dagoberto showing off a water pipe successfully bringing water to a village. March 29, 2011. (by Jon Carson)
It turned out that they could, and that the major obstacle in their way was access to the surveying equipment needed and someone to teach them how to use it. While I continued to complete surveys myself in my second year of Peace Corps service, I spent the majority of my time helping Dagoberto and other local Maestro de Obra’s become surveyors themselves. I wrote to engineering companies in the United States and received half a dozen donated surveying instruments that we could use. I then partnered with another local Peace Corps Volunteer, David Lawler, to develop an eight week long beginners surveying course that the local non-profit community college sponsored. Thirty local Hondurans enrolled. Eight weeks later, 25 of them graduated. After the course, I spent extra time out in the field with a small group of the graduates who planned to form a small cooperative of surveyors utilizing the donated equipment.
When you are completing a land survey like the ones we did to design water systems, the only way you know the accuracy of your measurements is to survey in a large circle and make your way back to the point you started from. This is called “closing the loop”. The only problem is that you don’t know how you did until you take the measurements back and make all the calculations. The day I went with Dagoberto and his team out to a small village for their first survey, I was more nervous than they were. For an entire day I watched quietly and anxiously as they made their way from the spring in the mountains down to the local village, making hundreds of measurements. My one requirement was that they survey back up to the starting point to “close the loop” so we could see how they did.
A long and dusty bus ride back down to my house and a couple hours of data entry later, I had my answer: Dagoberto and his team had nailed it. Five miles of measurements across the village, and they were accurate to within inches. I was so excited I ran outside and hugged one of the neighbor kids playing in the street.
That was 5 years ago. Dagoberto and his team are still surveying and partnering with NGOs who are supporting the water projects. Now instead of receiving a survey for free, villages have to raise the money to pay Dagoberto and his team for a survey. This invariably means they take the survey and water project more seriously because they had to pay for it, which leads ultimately to a better water system, and a better approach to community development.
Most returned Peace Corps Volunteers will tell you that they get more out of their service for many years afterwards than they feel they gave to their host country; I couldn’t agree more. And getting a call from Dagoberto on a Sunday morning to “close the loop” was one of those moments.
Jon Carson served in Honduras from 2004-2006 and is now the Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement
- Posted byon March 29, 2011 at 2:53 PM EDT
Ed. Note: In October 1994, Presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela met to seal a bond of friendship and a promise to work together to transform South Africa from a divided nation to one united by its commitment to build a democratic, nonracially based society. The Peace Corps was a small but important part of that agreement. Today there are 152 Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa working in the fields of education and NGO development.
As long as I can remember, I have aspired to live and work in Africa. As a young African American growing up, I wrote anti-apartheid rap songs in high school, interned with an Africa advocacy group, and even shook Nelson Mandela’s hand at a reception during my junior year of college at Howard University.
While interning in Accra in 1994, I had the opportunity to meet Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Ghana. They were community leaders welcomed by Ghanian communities, communicating in local languages and sharing new ideas.
Once learning about Peace Corps service, I only had two thoughts: Why hadn’t I heard about this sooner? And: Where could I sign up? That year, President Mandela invited the Peace Corps to South Africa and asked for a Volunteer group that truly reflected the diversity of America.
In January 1997, the Peace Corps swore-in the first group of 35 Volunteers going to South Africa, and I was among them. The assignment for our group was in elementary school education, serving in South Africa’s Northern Province (now renamed Limpopo Province) as liaisons, advisors and trainers for local teachers. The goal was to help implement a new national education curriculum that offered parity among people and replaced the current curriculum, which was based on ethnicity, race, and color.
To better communicate with my community, I learned an African language, Northern Sotho. I took pride in learning a new language and culture, though it came with some frustration; I would inevitably be drawn into the same questions.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from the States,” I’d reply.
“No, I mean where are you really from?”
“From the States,” I’d say again, this time more emphatically.
Then came looks of confusion and annoyance. Why, they wondered, would I deny my heritage and language? Surely I was African. They would try a new tack.
“Well, where are your parents from?”
And on and on it went.
These conversations of heritage and where I came from often led to discussions about slavery and the number of people of African descent in the United States. As I gave impromptu history lessons, I always mentioned the similarities I saw between South Africa and the United States and the struggle for racial equality. Exactly 40 years after Brown vs. Board of Education struck down “separate but equal” in the United States, apartheid was struck down with the first national multi-ethnic democratic election in South Africa’s history. In response to frustrations expressed that their personal circumstances hadn’t immediately changed, even though the government had, I would explain that slavery in America was followed by a reconstruction period and the civil rights movement.
I feel privileged to have played a small part in South Africa’s civil rights movement as it transitioned into a democracy, and I am grateful that the Peace Corps gave me this opportunity. As the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships at the Peace Corps, and a former staff member of the Office of Minority Recruitment at the Peace Corps, I continue to support Peace Corps’ efforts to ensure that Volunteers reflect the face of America and that everyone is provided with opportunity to serve.
C.D. Glin served in South Africa from 1997-1999 and currently, is the Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships with the Peace Corps.
- Posted byon March 28, 2011 at 3:56 PM EDT
Life is about choices. I could not be prouder of my decision to serve in the Peace Corps with my wife, Patti, in Ethiopia. The experience imbued us with the courage to choose a life of public service: to dedicate ourselves to developing policies that create social and economic justice and lift people out of poverty.
In 1966, at the start of our Peace Corps journey, we found a new home in rural Ethiopia: a tin roof, dirt floor, wattle walls, and unlimited opportunity to serve. Teaching seventh and eighth grade and women’s family health education, digging wells, offering small pox vaccinations, building remote schools, setting up coffee co-ops – every day was filled with helping the community.
The work inspired confidence in the ability of our common humanity to overcome daunting challenges. We witnessed remarkable cooperation and an intense desire to build a thriving community.
The partnerships we forged through our Peace Corps experiences have borne fruit up to this very day. For example, small pox was once a scourge upon our earth that disfigured, blinded, and killed millions. In administering vaccinations, we played a part in a global campaign that led to the eradication of this disease.
In the 1980s, I returned to an Ethiopia that was suffering from mass famine and drought due to civil war. Using my knowledge of water issues, I worked with a local public servant to provide water to a large camp of people displaced from the fighting.
In the late 1990s, during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, I led a peace delegation of returned Peace Corps Volunteers to negotiate between the warring states. Because both heads of state had been taught by Peace Corps Volunteers, they were willing to talk with us, and we were able to help negotiate a peace treaty.
My Peace Corps experience has guided me throughout my career. For instance, having seen the transformative benefits of expanding health access to rural areas of Ethiopia, I authored a law in the California legislature that made it easier for families in remote areas of California to see a doctor.
These Peace Corps stories are replicated over and over again by Volunteers of the past, present, and future. Peace Corps Volunteers return to America as tried and tested leaders. They are ready to take on a world of challenges in this country and continue a life of service.
Congressman John Garamendi served in Ethiopia from 1966-68 and currently represents the 10th Congressional District in California.
- Posted byon March 28, 2011 at 1:24 PM EDT
Fifty years ago this month, President Kennedy challenged Americans to serve their country in the name of peace. I was one of the many who got inspired to serve, and I count myself fortunate to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer under the masterful direction of Sargent Shriver.
As one of those early recruits, I worked in a poor barrio in Medellin, Colombia where I saw the grinding cycles of poverty that left so many men, women, and children without hope. This barrio had no lights or running water. But what this community lacked in infrastructure, they made up for with an unyielding commitment to build a better life for their children.
Immersing myself in the culture and language, I learned about the needs of the community and worked with the men and women of the barrio to uplift the whole community. Resources were scarce and life was not easy, but armed with the will to make a difference, I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with my Colombian friends to build a local soccer field, a school and install sewers. Because these projects were driven by the community members, they fostered an enduring sense of community empowerment that outlasted any one volunteer.
My story is one of millions that have emerged over five decades of Peace Corps service. And these stories, from the Volunteers and the communities they serve, help to shape our country’s image around the world. Over the past 50 years, through war and conflict, the Peace Corps has shown the world a hopeful, uplifting side of America that reflects our fundamental ideals of peace, service, and grassroots development.
It is in no small part, that because of my experience in the Peace Corps today, I have the privilege of serving the United States Congress. Peace Corps taught me to listen and react to the needs of those you serve. And that is a lesson I have used everyday in my 30 years in elected office.
As we celebrate 50 years of service by nearly a quarter million Americans, Peace Corps has never been more relevant. As President Obama said in his Proclamation honoring the Peace Corps, “In our increasingly interconnected world, the mission of the Peace Corps is more relevant today than ever.” I am very encouraged that Peace Corps has 8,655 Volunteers currently serving in 77 developing countries, marking a 40-year high. I urge my fellow Americans to honor 50 years of incredible service, and to encourage the next generation of Volunteers who answer the call to serve our great nation in the name of peace.
Congressman Sam Farr served in the Peace Corps in Colombia from 1964-66 and represents the 17th Congressional District of California
- Posted byon March 25, 2011 at 7:18 PM EDT
In 1986, three Vietnam War veterans – Peace Foxx, Mark Helberg and Ken Smith – made a pilgrimage to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. They were surprised to find a large number of homeless veterans living in the park nearby and returned to Boston inspired to make a difference.
After learning that veterans comprise nearly one-third of the national homeless population, Foxx, Helberg, and Smith founded the Vietnam Veteran’s Workshop. Through HUD’s Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, they acquired a 10-year lease on a former VA Outpatient Clinic in downtown Boston in 1989. A year later, they opened the doors to the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, one of the nation’s first veterans-only homeless shelters, now known as the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV).
NECHV was recognized by President George H.W. Bush as the “142nd Point of Light” – part of a vision that ordinary individuals across the country can make a difference in their communities. NECHV takes a multi-pronged approach to the issues that challenge homeless veterans. The center supports veterans through five core program areas: Emergency Shelter; Transitional Housing; Single Room Occupancy Apartments; Training and Employment; and Health Care and Case Management.
The Center collaborates with local programs to provide the services necessary to ease transition back to civilian life, especially for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). NECHV partners with the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) to provide emergency medical care for all residents. The Center has a full-service in-house eye, medical, and dental clinic to provide on-going medical care. NECHV takes a personal approach to addressing the issues facing our veterans – reducing the incidence of homelessness one veteran at a time. Stephen Cunniff, Director of Community Affairs, explained that each veteran has his or her own case manager and that this commitment to individual needs inspired two special needs programs that the Center runs in partnership with the Veterans Administration. The Senior Services Program caters specifically to the needs of veterans over the age of 65. The Bridges Program provides clinical case management for veterans with chronic and persistent mental illness. The Center also hosts a number of tailored drug abuse rehabilitation programs for their veterans that take an integrated approach to addressing mental health and addiction issues.
Cunniff finds the work “extremely rewarding,” which is reflected in their low staff turnover and abundance of volunteer and community support. The organization collaborates with the government and private institutions to tackle a national problem on a local level.
Share your story of an organization that takes a community based approach to address a national challenge.
Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation
- Posted byon March 24, 2011 at 11:07 AM EDT
Joining AmeriCorps was a way to tackle issues of educational inequality and poverty housing head-on. I joined to share my love of learning with at-risk students and help rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
During my service, I gained new skills, and through some mistakes, I found a new confidence. I learned how to hammer down a nail in 3 swings, and get a rowdy class of 45 seventh graders to sit still and craft an essay. I experienced failure when the stakes were high, and how to get up and try again until I succeeded. I felt the resiliency of my adopted community, which refuses to be wiped off the map.
My service was personally transformative. However, national service is much more than a defining experience for those who serve; it has a profound impact on the communities in which volunteers serve.
Last year, 657 AmeriCorps members served with Habitat for Humanity at 187 sites throughout the country. These members served for 1 million hours, raised $4.5 million in cash and in-kind donations, supported 200,000 community volunteers, and helped 3,642 Habitat families. Since the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes more than 110,000 AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America participants have contributed more than 9.6 million hours to the Gulf Coast recovery effort.
National service is indeed a part of the solution to our nation’s most pressing challenges.
No one person believed in the power of national service as a solution to our country’s problems more than the late Eli J. Segal. Eli Segal was an inspirational leader in the national service movement, and the first CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that administers the AmeriCorps program.
Last year, I had the honor of serving as the 2010 Eli J. Segal Fellow at CNCS. This provided me the opportunity to develop and implement national service policy initiatives with the Director of AmeriCorps. As the Segal Fellow, I applied lessons I learned through my AmeriCorps service to improve and expand the AmeriCorps program. After my fellowship, CNCS hired me to serve as a Disaster Services Specialist, in a position that enables me to continue to serve my community.
So, why am I interested in national service at this point in my life?
I am passionate about national service as a key way that we all come together to meet the considerable challenges in our nation and our communities. I have witnessed firsthand the transformative effect national service can have on the members who serve and the communities in which they serve.
Why are you interested in national service at this point in your life? Share your story with us.
Iris Dooling was the Program Specialist for the Louisiana State AmeriCorps program for Habitat for Humanity from 2007-2009, and served as the 2010 Eli J. Segal Fellow at Corporation for National Community Service.
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