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 have been sharing one of their stories.
Today is the final installment for March, and is the story of a currently serving Volunteer.
“Now, when given a situation and a set of materials, I make it work as best I can. My service has made me more resourceful. I also think my service has made me bolder, more willing to throw myself into new situations.”
High praise when you consider that by the time Katie Kalinowski decided to join Peace Corps she had a B.S. in Natural Resources from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a Master of Economics from North Carolina State University, traveled to 32 countries, run four marathons and celebrated her 29th birthday, and yet, she credits Peace Corps with making her understand and embrace Project Runway fashion consultant Tim Gunn’s quote to “Make it work.”
After years of thinking about Peace Corps as a way to work abroad and immerse herself in a foreign culture, Katie joined when she could not longer resist the lure of all the amazing photos of people doing good work in exotic places.
When she applied Katie was working as a Program Associate at a nonprofit called Renewable Northwest Project in Portland, Oregon, which advocates for renewable energy in four Northwest states. Prior to that, she worked for 3.5 years in Washington, DC at a nonprofit called RESOLVE as a Facilitator. Her primary project was as Senior Outreach Coordinator for the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative, a neutral forum for stakeholders to get together and discuss the challenges and opportunities of wind power development.
Katie is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Macedonia. Her service will end in November of this year. After she finishes, she plans to travel for a month with two other volunteers through Eastern Europe. Then she has plans to continue on to India, Thailand, and Laos for another two months before she finds her way back to her home state of Colorado.
When the traveling ends – at least for this phase of her life, Katie would like to find a job in Washington, DC working on international, environmental, and energy issues (or some combination thereof) for a nonprofit or government agency.
1. What’s your favorite memory of living in Macedonia, thus far?
One of my favorite memories is of hiking the tallest mountain in Macedonia with the hiking club from my community. Another Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), went with me and we wore matching “I *heart* MK” T-shirts which made us a head-turner on the trail. The weather could not have been better and we were escorted by two friendly and seasoned Macedonian hikers. There were so many beautiful vistas and everyone had fun at the peak, eating snacks and taking photos. In true Macedonian fashion, on the van ride home, there were more snacks, lots of “refreshments,” and laughter.
2. What’s your funniest memory?
A site mate and I were teaching the local kids how to play kickball. Since they had never played baseball either, we were thoroughly going over the basics from “this is a base” to how to tag out players. We thought we had covered everything until, as we were playing, one runner passed the player ahead of him between second and third base. “There’s no passing your teammate on base in front of you!” we yelled. It’s the smallest things that trip you up.
3. Best thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?
The great people that we get to work with, and I mean the other Peace Corps Volunteers and Macedonians. Both groups are comprised of people, who want to make a difference in the world; it feels good to be a part of their efforts.
4. Worst thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?
Not being able to fix all the problems that you encounter. Many problems are seemingly too big to take on, especially as a temporary visitor. Other times, you want people to think about something in a new way to help solve a problem but they don’t seem to be able to do so. It’s those “unsolvable” problems that make it hard to be a PCV.
5. Best thing about your host country?
The warmness of the Macedonian people, folks will invite in strangers and they genuinely care about the wellbeing of the people around them. And, if I can have a second best thing, then ajvar—a tasty red pepper spread that is like spreadable heaven.
6. What do you miss most about the States?
As much as I want to say family and friends, the real answer is food. Macedonia has delicious and fresh food but it’s a uniform cuisine. I miss having the world at my doorstep—Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Lebanese, Indian, etc. Not to mention individual foods themselves—sweet potatoes, black beans, roast beef, turkey, sprouts, cheddar cheese, and . . . I also miss taking a run and having it be a non-event – in Macedonia my running attracts stares from almost everyone I pass. I also miss seeing other runners, particularly other female runners
7. Has your Peace Corps service changed you?
Now, when given a situation and a set of materials, I make it work as best I can. My service has made me more resourceful. I also think my service has made me bolder, more willing to throw myself into new situations.
On the other hand, I also feel like Peace Corps opened my eyes to how big the challenges are in the world to improve education, the environment, and so on.
8. Has there been a defining moment that made you realize you were making a difference by being in the Peace Corps?
Recently I’ve noticed that my coworker is now regularly referring to a work plan that he started using after we finished writing the organization’s first strategic plan. He’s utilizing a checklist and updating it on a weekly basis, which feels like a big accomplishment in a work culture where the usual approach is simply “ima vreme” (there’s time).
9. Did you make friendships that will go beyond Peace Corps?
The friendships that I have with some of the other Volunteers definitely feel like they will go beyond Peace Corps, because we have bonded over all our successes and challenges. I also feel like some of my closest collaborators here will remain friends, because I care about what happens to them and vice versa.
10. If you had to describe your Peace Corps service in one word, what would it be?
“Marathon” (Katie ran her fifth marathon in Macedonia, but I don’t think that is what she meant!)
Final note: Katie and I served in the same city in Macedonia, but not at the same time. We met first via email and then in-person when I returned to Macedonia for a two month visit in the fall of 2010.