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The following article was posted on January 8th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 44 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 44

Northern Santa Barbara County locals serve the global community through the Peace Corps

BY HENRY HOUSTON


If you ask a Peace Corps volunteer about their experience with the organization, they’ll most likely answer: “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

Well, at least that’s what former Vandenberg Middle School teacher Tricia Kolp said about her service. Despite the hardships she faced while serving in South Africa, Kolp always tells people she’d sign up again “in a heartbeat.”

The educator was assigned to work at a primary school in a rural village outside of Pretoria, a city about 50 miles north of Johannesburg, for the Schools and Community Resources Project. The school she served at was incorporating a fully equipped computer lab. However, the teachers at the school had never used a computer before, so Kolp developed a curriculum that would instruct students how to use computers and trained a local volunteer to become the computer teacher.

During Kolp’s service, she made sure she stayed busy. From helping a graduate student with his master’s thesis to networking for educational purposes, there was never a dull moment. 

“The school had a room designated as the library,” Kolp told the Sun in an e-mail. “There were shelves and desks, but no books.”

So Kolp acquired more than 1,000 books, mostly from the United States, and found a local to volunteer in managing the library.

If that wasn’t enough busy work, Kolp taught English to students in fifth and sixth grades in the village.

Kolp’s dedication to her assigned worksite caught the eyes of fellow Peace Corps volunteer Colin Samson. Samson, who kept a blog of his time in South Africa, wrote about Kolp as someone who is “possibly the best [Peace Corps volunteer] in the [24th Peace Corps class] to serve in South Africa.”

Samson expressed such praise for Kolp because of how well she followed one of the goals of the Peace Corps: project sustainability.


A CLASSY GROUP
Erica Everett posed for a photo with her students in her HIV/AIDS education course in Ecuador.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ERICA EVERETT

“What makes Tricia special is how all the work she did is sustainable,” he said in an e-mail to the Sun. “She made sure that local community members were trained in what she was doing. Her programs will last forever because she focused on sustainability.”

That long-lasting impact is something Kolp takes much pride in—or as she insists—gratitude.

“The best part of my service is that there were people carrying on when I left,” she said. “Most of the teachers in the school had been teaching for 20 to 30 years, and they weren’t very interested in doing anything differently. The fact that young volunteers came forward to continue teaching in the computer lab and managing the library brought that element of sustainability to my service that is so crucial to development.”

Occasionally Kolp played soccer with some of the girls in the community after school. This activity soon blossomed into a full skirmish when she met with Colin Samson.

“We trained for a month before our showdown,” Samson said. “We played on a Saturday at my school (her team walked the 45 minutes to my school). We played three halves to accommodate all the girls who came out. The soccer match ended in a shoot out and, despite whoever won, we all had fun.”

College student Erica Everett was getting tired of all the academic theory she was learning in her undergraduate studies—she majored in neuroscience and physiology—so she decided to join the Peace Corps. She served in Otavalo, a village in Ecuador, where she was a general health counselor.

“I taught both sexual education and nutrition in high schools in the city of about 20,000 people, as well as with indigenous people,” Everett said. “The sexual education course was nothing like what we have here, though. We didn’t just watch a video or anything. It was focused more on puberty and anatomy.”

Toward the end of the project, Everett said she introduced contraceptives, and it was something that she had her students teach each other. Everett dealt with some resistance, however, due to the religious culture of Ecuador, as well as the timid and shy indigenous community.


ORGANIC CHEMISTRY
Everett worked with this family in order to improve nutritional intake through agriculture and agronomy.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ERICA EVERETT

Since there is an assimilation that’s necessary for a proper experience, every Peace Corps volunteer stays with a family, and Everett said every morning she enjoyed the leisurely Latin lifestyle.

“We would start the morning with a breakfast,” she said. “It’d be about an hour long. We’d eat, drink coffee, and just talk. Then I was off to the work.”

But the Peace Corps isn’t always a leisurely breakfast.

“When you’re approached with the volunteer opportunities with the Peace Corps, it’s not promising an easy volunteer opportunity. It’s a crapshoot—like, what I had can be a good site. Other volunteers I knew in Ecuador had a hard time [doing] worthwhile projects,” Everett said. “Not everybody made it to the end—about 50 percent of the volunteers left. It definitely tests you a lot.”

Everett’s time in Ecuador has helped her communicate with those in Santa Maria she might not have been able to in the past. Since returning from her service, Everett is now fluent in Spanish.

“I entered with a basic Spanish knowledge. I took my basic two years of Spanish and I studied abroad in Spain, but now I’m fluent,” she said. “But today, I speak Spanish every day at where I work.”

The two-year commitment the Peace Corps requires can be daunting for those considering joining, but Everett believes it’s a necessary time length when you’re moving to a foreign place.

“Unless you already speak the language and know the culture, it’s a necessary commitment,” she said. “You’re dropped into a scenario in which you are an outsider. You need to learn the culture in order to gain the respect from those you serve. Otherwise they might not listen to what you are teaching them.”

There may have been struggles at times that made the volunteers wonder just what they got themselves into, but in the end it was an experience in which Kolp and Everett felt they received more than what they gave.


AN APPLE A DAY
One of Everett’s classes with the Kichwa, an indigenous group of Ecuador, learn about environment health.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ERICA EVERETT

“We all had times when we felt like throwing in the towel,” Kolp said. “Through that struggle, we learn valuable lessons that continue to enrich our lives.”

And it seems both Everett and Kolp accomplished the mission of the Peace Corps.

“The mission of the Peace Corps is to allow Americans the opportunity to learn about people from other countries, to allow the people of our host countries to learn about Americans, and then for Americans to share whatever skills they may have with the communities in which they live,” Kolp said.

According to Jeremiah McDaniel, who works with public affairs with the Peace Corps, there are currently nine people from Santa Barbara County who are serving in the Peace Corps as of right now. These nine volunteers make up an astounding 973 volunteers from California — the highest in the country.

For more information about the Peace Corps, including volunteer opportunities, visit peacecorps.gov.

 

Contact Contributor Henry Houston through the managing editor at aasman@santamariasun.com.