Peace Corps, up close and personal – II

 
 
Peace Corps turned 50 on March 1, 2011. During the past 50 years more than 200,000 Volunteers committed to spend 27 months abroad in a place very far from home that they accepted, but didn’t choose.
  
 Sound scary? It is. Sound adventurous? It is. Sound wonderful? It was.
 
To celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary and the personal commitment and courage of five of those Volunteers, each Wednesday in March I will share one of their stories.

 

“For two years, Steffani lived in a remote village. The nearest phone was miles away. Making a call required a bit of planning – first a hike, then a boat ride, then a trip in a tap-taps (camionette/public cab) and voilà – she was there.”

Steff returned to Haiti in 2010 as a Response Peace Corps Volunteer

 

Steffani Fields was a 28 year-old former military “brat”, living in a great little house by the beach with her fiancé when she decided to join the Peace Corps. Although she was happy, her job as an office manager for a brokerage firm didn’t allow her to use her B.A. in Anthropology or to fulfill her dream of living abroad again, and somewhere down deep, she knew she wasn’t quite ready to settle down and get married.

Her desire to expand her world and to be able to observe and learn about another culture while gaining practical and personal linguistic and cultural experience led her to join Peace Corps. She’d led a privileged life, had a good education, and was ready to give back to the world.

Steffani served in the Peace Corps (PC) from March of 2000 to June of 2002 in the small Caribbean nation of Haiti. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) worked in Haiti from: 1982 to 1987, 1990 to 1991, and 1996 to 2005 when the program was suspended. A total of 500 PCVs served in Haiti within those periods. Steffani was happy to be one of them.

For two years, she lived in a remote village. The nearest phone was miles away. Making a call required a bit of planning – first a hike, then a boat ride, then a trip in a tap-taps (camionette/public cab) and voilà – she was there. Many of the things we consider everyday necessities, were not part of her daily life in Haiti, but she loved living there, so much so, she now makes her home nearby. 

 

Swearing in as a Response Peace Corps Volunteer, August 2010

 

What’s your favorite PC memory?

The 300+ person party thrown for me on my site visit. I was quite overwhelmed, realizing how much this community was expecting from me in the next two years, but the joy of knowing how excited and curious they were to have me as a neighbor and co-worker is something I’ll never forget.

Your funniest memory?

Haitian culture is in general, quite superstitious. While living with my delegate and his family for the first three months*, I was warned not to open windows or doors or to venture out at night, because the night is full of spirits and evil-doers. But as an independent and thick-skulled American, I did not feel those rules applied to me and proceeded to sneak out of my room (two room house full of people) when the need to visit the outhouse arose. 

Sneaking out worked great, until one dark night in the outhouse when I reached for the toilet paper and instead grabbed an extremely, sickening and slimy bullfrog. After screaming much too loudly and waking everyone in the house, I received the toughest tongue-lashing I can remember, and learned what the real spirits of the night look and feel like.

Best thing about Haiti?

The culture. Definitely the culture! I learned that often the poorest people have the most faith, and in Haiti that makes for the most amazing art, music and religion.

Best thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?

I was able to give back to the world a little of what the world has given to me. It was a truly rewarding experience to use my education to improve the lives (even in the smallest of ways) of those less fortunate than me. I often thought that I could just have easily been born to Haitian parents in Haiti, and because of that fact alone, would have had none of the opportunities that an American has.

Least favorite thing?

Being perceived as a “walking-dollar sign”. I was robbed at gunpoint for nothing but a backpack, merely because I was a foreigner and therefore considered rich. (Steff was robbed in a city, not at site, a few weeks after she began her assignment.)

Biggest surprise you experienced about yourself, Peace Corps or your service country? 

How much I value my privacy and how I cannot give that up.

What did you miss most about the States? 

My family.

Did your Peace Corps service change you? If so, how? 

Peace Corps set me on a career path and permanent relationship with the island of Hispaniola. After Peace Corps I moved to Florida and spent 5 years managing my family’s frame shop and art gallery in Tampa, Florida. Then I spent a year working for the Global Institute/Project Medishare Haiti at the University of Miami. I traveled between the US and Haiti each month. 

I then married, and have lived with my husband in the Dominican Republic for the last few years. We are just two hours from the border of Haiti. I realized I prefer life here. (For those enquiring minds, her husband is not the fiancé she left behind when she joined PC.) 

I recently served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer and worked for three months at the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince for USAID after the terrible earthquake of January 12, 2010. 

Port-au-Prince as a tent city in December 2010

Steff working with UN and USAID in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Steff with co-workers from the US Army and United Nations rebuilding Haiti, 2010

Among all the destruction and gloom, life goes on and school begins again - often in make-shift tents, December 2010

 

My life has come full circle in many ways. I applied to Peace Corps Dominican Republic for a Volunteer in the spectacular coastal village where I live. In May of 2010 a PCV began working with us on environmental/ecotourism projects.

 

Steff with Biembo, her neighbor and colmado (small store) owner. Improvements to the building his store is in are part of the PC project in their town.

 

Any memorable readjustment issues upon your return to States?

Yes, I could not readjust to commercialism and excess wealth and long-lasting holidays such as Christmas. I also had (and still do) a real hard time making up my mind in the shampoo aisle (and every other aisle, too) with the hundreds of choices in the American grocery stores.

 

Today, almost a decade after she applied to Peace Corps, Steff still lives by the water, but she and the location of the beach have changed.

 

View from Steff's front porch in the Dominic Republic.

View from Steff's front porch in the Dominican Republic.

 

I think this one says it all . . .

 

Another magical December in paradise, 2010

 

*As part of their training, Peace Corps Volunteers often live with a host family for the first three months in their host country to immerse themselves in the language and the culture. Peace Corps makes all the arrangements; there are usually a small group of volunteers living in the same village, town or city during the training period. The PCVs attend language class together 4 hours a day, 5 days a week. (The specifics of training vary from country to country.) 

  

 
 
 
 

 

Getting your bearings – Haiti and Dominican Republic are practically Florida’s neighbors.

 

To read the first “Peace Corps, up close and personal” profile about Dawn Hamil, and her assignment in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco click here. 

Final Note: Steff is a friend of mine, talking to her helped me decide to join the Peace Corps.

 

 

4 Responses to “Peace Corps, up close and personal – II”

  1. Peace Corps, Up Close and Personal – IV « Wishful Thinking Works Says:

    […] they accepted, but didn’t choose.    To celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary each Wednesday in March I’m sharing a PCV’s story. This week’s installment is a bit different; I […]

  2. Peace Corps Up Close and Personal – III « Wishful Thinking Works Says:

    […] Anniversary and the personal commitment and courage of five of those Volunteers, each Wednesday in March I will share one of their […]

  3. Heather Says:

    Thanks for sharing these stories, Patrice! Really inspiring! (If you need other RPCVs’ stories to share, i have a whole bunch in my neck of the woods I’d be happy to refer you to!). Happy Anniversary, Peace Corps!

    • Patrice Says:

      Thank you, Heather, and YES! I was just thinking about Ben this a.m. I want to keep celebrating the 50th throughout the year. Connect away with all.

      Hope you are doing well, need to catch-up soon. I’m Macedonian bound in May and June. Miss you.


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