Ed. Note: The Peace Corps program in El Salvador began in 1962 and is was one of the agency's earliest posts. More than 2,100 Americans have served in El Salvador coordinating with local municipalities, NGOs, and community groups to develop better water systems, make health and sanitation improvements, provide environmental education, and assist municipal development projects. Sara served as a Municipal Development Volunteer in El Salvador from 2003-2006.
When I first arrived in Candelaria de la Frontera, El Salvador, I frequently wondered, “Why can’t this country just be more like the U.S.?” Though my family is of Hispanic heritage, I had usually shied away from being labeled as Hispanic and did not regularly embrace many parts of Latino culture. It took me about a year to understand that I had to accept the country with all of its idiosyncrasies, and that if I was going to be there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had better work my hardest to make my two-year commitment worth it. So I began meeting with different community groups, helping to strengthen their internal functions and facilitating communication with the local city hall. I organized youth camps, giving many children in my community the opportunity to travel outside of their village for the first time while facilitating educational experiences.
I soon realized that I loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I loved learning about Latino culture, appreciating it, and embracing it. I decided to stay in the country after my Peace Corps service to manage a service-learning program at a private high school in El Salvador, whose students would become future leaders in many fields. The program taught students the value of service by helping them become development workers who learned more about their country by doing hands-on work. On several occasions, I used my Peace Corps community for service-learning activities, and my students led youth camps for children from other Volunteers’ communities.
Working with Salvadorans across the economic spectrum allowed me to learn about Salvadoran society, culture, and different paths to community development. Experiencing the daily obstacles to community improvement in the Peace Corps, and facilitating a student’s first exposure to the stark realities of their country, made me more determined to learn about solutions to poverty; I pursued a Master’s degree in public affairs and learned about solutions on a broader scale. I am now a proud federal employee who strongly believes in the ability of government to provide the foundation for community-level initiatives to address poverty.
I consider the Peace Corps as my launching point for my career in public service, and I am grateful for the grassroots experience that continues to shape my thoughts and actions.
Sara R. Lopez is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a Program Specialist in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships with Peace Corps.