Volunteering can add years to your life!

 

“Volunteering for things that you feel passionate about and are intrinsically motivated to do may help you to experience greater health benefits and protect you from burnout.” Jenny Brennan

As a lifelong volunteer, and a 3-time Peace Corps Volunteer (one 27-month assignment and two 3.5 month assignments in the Response Corps), I wanted to share with you a recent article by organizational consultant Jenny Brennan about volunteering.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of volunteering and have felt the many benefits firsthand. If you haven’t already, I hope you will give volunteering a try – there’s plenty of scientific research that shows it’s good for you!

 
Around the United States on Monday, January 21, thousands of people across the country volunteered to make a difference in their communities during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. People came together for a variety of projects such as feeding homeless veterans, cleaning parks, and collecting clothes and toys for local children. Volunteering not only strengthens communities and those being helped, but as anyone who volunteers knows, it feels good. But a closer look at the research shows that the benefits of volunteering extend beyond a warm feeling.

Benefits of Volunteering

Researchers have found that the act of volunteering is associated with several forms of well-being, including hedonic (happiness, life satisfaction), eudaimonic (meaning and self-actualization), and social (how one views his or her function in society).

In a longitudinal study with a national sample of adults, Thoits and Hewitt found that while individuals with greater well-being tend to self-select, volunteering can also enhance happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, one’s sense of control over life, and self-reported physical health. These effects held even after controlling for individuals’ participation in other voluntary groups, such as attending meetings, and their prior levels of personal well-being.

Field and colleagues have found that the act of helping others decreases the stress hormone, while Konrath and colleagues have found it is associated with lower risk of mortality in certain cases.

Activism, which can be viewed as a dedicated form of volunteering in which people advocate for particular causes, has also been linked to higher subjective reports of well-being. In a series of studies, Klar and Kasser found that activism was correlated with positive affect, hope, self-actualization, psychological need satisfaction, higher meaning in life, and agency. Interestingly, they also found a small causal effect between engaging in an activist behavior and felt vitality

How Often?

While people can seemingly experience the positive effects of volunteering and activism after just one event, both studies found that people who engaged on a more regular basis experienced greater benefits. However, studies by Morrow and Howell have shown that the positive gains of volunteering are not linear and that levels of involvement beyond 100 hours a year were not associated with increased gains.

Why Is Volunteering Beneficial?

Volunteering may impact well-being through a variety of mechanisms. It may increase people’s perceptions that they matter, that they are an important part of the world. It can instill a sense of purpose in the volunteer and can boost social resources and positive effect, which can have positive health implications. Lyubomirsky reports that helping others can also lead to a sense of capability and accomplishment.

Motivation Matters

People volunteer for many reasons, including to meet new friends, to build personal skills, and to help others. Often, people are motivated by multiple goals. But the type of motivation driving the behavior may impact the benefits one receives.

In a study reported in 2012, Konrath and colleagues examined data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study that tracked 10,317 male and female high school graduates since 1957. They found that even after controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status and physical health, people who volunteered experienced a reduced mortality risk four years later than non-volunteers, but only when they were mainly motivated for other-oriented reasons, such as altruistic values or social connection, instead of self-oriented reasons, such as self-enhancement and learning. The authors speculated that perhaps other-oriented motives engage systems that deactivate the stress response and activate restorative hormones such as oxytocin.

Regardless of whether one is motivated for other-oriented or self-oriented reasons, self-determination theory posits that the degree to which a behavior is self-directed predicts its effect on well-being. Kasser and Ryan found that people experienced greater well-being when pursuing intrinsic goals (those that are inherently rewarding and done for their own sake), but not extrinsic ones (those that are done for some external reward or end goal). Intrinsic goals may impact a person’s well-being by fulfilling the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Volunteering for things that you feel passionate about and are intrinsically motivated to do may help you to experience greater health benefits and protect you from burnout.

Beyond Individual to Society

The implications of volunteering obviously extend beyond the individual. With greater human capital allocated to vital missions more people can be helped. According to Lyubomirsky, being kind and generous leads one to perceive others more positively and fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in the community. Given the individual and societal benefits of volunteering, perhaps this is something to consider doing throughout the year.


References

Field, M. F., M. Hernandez-Reif, O. Quintino, S. Schanberg, and C. Kuhn (1998). Elder retired volunteers benefit from gving massage therapy to infants. Journal of Applied Gerontology 17 (2): 229–39. Abstract.

Greenfield, E.A., & Marks, N.F. (2004). Formal volunteering as a protective factor for older adults’ psychological well-being. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 59B, S258-S264

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Be careful what you wish for: Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. In P. Schmuck & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Life Goals and Well-Being: Towards a Positive Psychology of Human Striving (pp. 116-131). Ashland, OH, US: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

Klar, M., & Kasser, T. (2009). Some benefits of being an activist: Measuring activism and its role in psychological well-being. Political Psychology, 30(5), 755-777.

Konrath, Fuhrel-Forbis, Lou, Brown (2012). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychology, 31(1), 87-96. Abstract.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Maslach, C. (2003). Job burnout: New directions in research and intervention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(5), 189-192. Abstract.

Morrow-Howell, N., Hinterlong, J., Rozario, P., & Tang, F. (2003). Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 58B(3), S137-S145. Abstract.

Piliavin, J. A. and Siegl, E. (2007). Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 48(4): 450-464.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 53,141–166.

Thoits, P. and Hewitt, L. (2001). Volunteer work and well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42, 115–131.

Wilson, K. & Musick, M. (1999). The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer. Law and Contemporary Problems, 62, 141-168.

Jenny Brennan, MAPP 2012, is a researcher, writer, and consultant who helps organizations develop their young professional workforces and empower employees through positive communication. She also helps individuals experience greater resilience and well-being. Ms. Brennan has 15 years of nonprofit management, issue advocacy, and corporate communications experience. She writes about self-compassion and ways that individuals and organization can harness positive psychology for social good.

Peace Corps, Up Close and Personal V

 

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.”

 

Katie at the summit, September 5, 2010

 

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.  
 

Hiking team, September 5, 2010

 
  
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.  
 
 

Kickball with the American Sports Club-Bitola, October 9, 2010

 

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.  

My host-nephew and host-grandma making ajvar, September 24, 2009

 

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.  


World Water Monitoring Day in Bitola, December 30, 2010

 
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.  

Baptism of my host-niece, Kijara, as her big brother Mario looks on, August 8, 2010

 

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!)  

Check out this Peace Corps press release about Katie!

 

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. 


 

Peace Corps, Up Close and Personal – IV

 
 
Peace Corps turned 50 on March 1, 2011. During the past 50 years more than 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers committed to spend 27 months abroad in a place very far from home that
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 didn’t write the interview, but wanted to share it because their PC story briefly touched mine.
  
 
“Ron and Nancy Tschetter served in India as community health volunteers from 1966 to 1968. After their Peace Corps service, Nancy worked as a social worker and Ron had a career in the financial securities industry. On September 13, 2006, Ron Tschetter was confirmed by the United States Senate as the 17th Director of the Peace Corps.”  (Source)
 
                                                          

Photo of Ron and Nancy Tschetter in India from http://www.peacecorps.gov

 

I met Ron and Nancy in February of 2008 when they visited Bitola, Macedonia where I was assigned as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) from 2006-2009. Ron was the world-wide Director of the Peace Corps (PC) then, and he and Nancy were on an official visit to Macedonia. Since they were scheduled to visit my city, a fellow PCV on the planning committee asked me if I would help with the arrangements for a luncheon PC wanted to have in Bitola. I said “Sure”, which made me the local arrangements liaison. We hosted the luncheon at one of my favorite restaurants in Bitola in the Hotel Millenium.

 

I will be the first to admit, my Peace Corps service was sometimes quite cushy!

 

PCVs from the surrounding cities and villages were invited to attend the luncheon along with local dignitaries and the PC Macedonia Director and some PC Macedonia staff. (Each country in which PCVs serve has an American PC Director along with a program director and administrator officer. Additional staff are hired locally and make up about 90% of the total in-country staff.)

These wonderful, kind and professional folks were the full-time staff, who helped us while we were serving in Peace Corps Macedonia. There were also many great temporary staff, who returned each year to teach and work with Volunteers during training.

 

I really enjoyed meeting and talking with Ron and Nancy. They embodied the vision I had of Peace Corps growing-up – young Americans stepping out into the world to offer their skills, and then finding ways to continue to give back to their country and culture after their return to the States.

I sat next to Ron at the luncheon and we talked a bit about service to one’s country and the different forms it can take. We discussed how great it was that our government offered us the opportunity to join Peace Corps in very different decades, at very different ages – they joined in their 20’s; I joined in my 50’s – and in very different places – they served in India; I was serving in southeastern Europe – and how Peace Corps had still turned out to be perfect for each of us.

We also talked about how you truly never know what life holds for you. Their lives had come full circle from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers to Ron being appointed as Director of Peace Corps more than four decades later. Sitting there talking to him, I realized my life had circled back allowing me to live out my childhood dream of serving in the Peace Corps. In different ways Peace Corps had allowed both of us to create the lives we wanted. 

The interesting thing about creating the life you want is that it can lead you to exciting, exotic places and to amazing meeting and moments, but the most important part of all is whether or not the life you are creating leads you full circle back to yourself – the real you, the person you truly enjoy being. That’s when you know you are on the right journey.

Here’s a bit of Ron and Nancy Tschetter’s journey from the Peace Corps’ Paul D. Cordell World Wise Schools Stories web page, where you will find more interesting tales from those who served in the Peace Corps. Next Wednesday, I will share the last of my “Peace Corps, Up Close and Personal” interviews for March. I am hoping to feature at least one interview a month through 2011 as part of my ongoing celebration of Peace Corps 50th Anniversary.

Peace Corps India, 1966-1968 by Ron and Nancy Tschetter

Ron:
As Director of the Peace Corps, it has been my honor to have met Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world and to have seen firsthand the remarkable dedication, passion, and skill they bring to serving others.

My wife, Nancy, and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in India from 1966 to 1968. We were in our 20s, recent college graduates and newlyweds, when we decided to serve in the Peace Corps. We spent two years living and working with the people of India and learned to speak the local language. We came away from our experience with a great appreciation for the culture and values in India.

Nancy:
The Peace Corps was a bit different back in the Sixties—nowadays Volunteers do their training in-country to become familiar with the culture and language, but back then our training was held in the United States, and we were sent overseas when it was time to begin our assignment. We completed our training on December 15, and, after an evening out and one last dinner in New York City, we left the Big Apple on a plane bound for London and the great beyond.

The following evening we boarded an Air India charter, a Boeing 707 full of anxious Peace Corps Volunteers just like ourselves. We flew all night to Delhi, India. I will never forget when we arrived, stepping off the plane: the smoky haze that rose from hundreds of small brown huts; the exotic smell of dinner prepared over wood fires; the pungent tropical air. We were truly on the other side of the world in a culture very different from our own.

It was midnight Christmas Eve when we finally arrived at our new community. Undeterred by the late hour, Bara, our proud host, gave us a short tour of the village, including the centerpiece of local entertainment—an outdoor movie theater that was in full swing, loud music blaring.

Decades later, I can still recall our exhaustion when we finally arrived at our house. It was situated among a block of shops, all resembling one another. Here, traders would sell their wares from the ground floor and live upstairs on the second floor.

Bara found us some plain metal bed frames, on loan from the clinic until we got our own, and we threw our sleeping bags on the frames and fell right to sleep. We didn’t even realize we had a bedroom on the second floor until the next day! Things were very basic. We had a tank that we would fill with water, and a”basket latrine” inside the house. A little balcony upstairs added a touch of luxury.

Ron:
We gradually became acquainted with our environment. India at that time still revolved around a caste system, and we lived among the people we were to serve; they were called “untouchables.” These were people from the lowest caste in Indian society, and they were very, very poor. Together with our Indian counterparts, we worked in a community health center at the other end of the village about a quarter of a mile away. We came to know our neighbors by walking to and from the clinic. From assisting in the clinic and living in our local community, we quickly learned about the development problems related to rural health. Certain illnesses such as dysentery, cholera, and malaria took their toll, and children were subject to catching every sort of childhood disease. Epidemics such as small pox and cholera could wreak havoc on a population already struggling.

Nancy:
It was natural to wonder then how much of an impact we were making in the face of such widespread poverty. We knew our Peace Corps experience clearly expanded our horizons and taught us a great deal about how life is for people who are struggling in other parts of the world. We learned to appreciate what we have as Americans, and how as global citizens we have a responsibility to others who are less fortunate. But was it really possible for two young people to make a difference? It may be simply that we influenced one person, or one family, or one village in a faraway place. However, the effect was no less significant, for those individuals were the people we had come to know and care about during our years of Peace Corps service.

Two young boys from a lower caste family that lived close by were in the habit of hanging out on our front porch. We gradually got to know them and their family quite well, and we became close friends. We have been fortunate to go back to India five times and have kept in contact with the family we knew so well. We do know that we impacted at least two people—the young boys who used to hang out on our doorstep. Both of them finished school and grew up to be successful businessmen, and each has three lovely children.

Ron:
Since becoming Peace Corps Director, I have had the privilege of visiting Volunteers in 43 countries, from Albania to Zambia . I’ve seen that the challenges now are as great as they were back when Nancy and I served, or maybe even greater. I continue to be deeply impressed by the commitment of our Peace Corps Volunteers.

Though it was many years ago, our Peace Corps experience still reverberates in our lives and the lives of those with whom we were honored to work. You see, once you do something so bold, so enriching, and so all-encompassing, you realize that volunteering and giving to others is actually a gift to yourself. Our lives, and certainly our perspectives, were changed forever.

 

If you or someone you know has a Peace Corps story they would like to share, contact me, Patrice Koerper at wishfulthinkingworks@gmail.com.

Peace Corps Up Close and Personal – III

 
 
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.

 

What makes a successful 29-year-old Creative Director working at a Madison Avenue public relations firm and living in Manhattan decide to change her life by going into the Peace Corps? Dao Tran, who served in the Republic of Macedonia from 2006-2008 recently answered that and other questions about her service.



After climbing the corporate ladder, Dao decided to take a different path, which led her to the mountains of Macedonia.

 

1. Why did you join Peace Corps?

Joining the Peace Corps was always in the back of my mind, but immediately after college, it just wasn’t possible. After a few years working in a job where each night I was questioning the purpose of my work and what good I had done for society that day, I went to the Peace Corps website and began the application process. It is a decision I will never regret.

As a training project, Dao and another Volunteer orchestrated a village cleanup and Halloween party with the local school children in Chaska, 2006.

 

Dao created a very hands-on-dental hygiene activity as one of her secondary projects* with Romani children in Skopje.

 

Dao having fun on a field trip to the ancient ruins at Heraclea with Romani students from Skopje.

 

2. Favorite memory of living in Macedonia?

I have many great memories of living in Macedonia. One in particular was during training in the village of Chaska when some members of our training group went on an overnight hike with our language instructor, who was close to my age. It was fall and the leaves where changing. The view was spectacular, and we had fun learning and playing a Macedonian card game with the Macedonian hikers in the hostel where we all spent the night.

Hiking the mountains of Jakubitsa with fellow Peace Corps Trainees and our language instructor

 

3. Funniest memory?

I laughed a lot during my service. One memory that still gives me a chuckle was on another hiking trip when one of my best Peace Corps friends was under the weather, and the higher we climbed the worse she felt. We were taking a break along some rocks, and one of the Macedonians with us was sharing the history of the area. When I turned to look at my sick friend, she said, “You guys, I don’t feel . . .” and suddenly all I could see was projectile vomit. But instead of showing concern like good friends should we all burst out laughing. And we laughed even harder when the Macedonian just continued with his history lesson as if my poor friend hadn’t just recreated a scene from “The Exorcist.” It was one of those moments when the humor of the situation far outweighed the reality.

4. Best thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV)?

The freedom I felt when I left my old life behind for a brief period to do something I had dreamt of doing but didn’t think was possible because of life’s responsibilities.

5. The worst thing?

How much I missed family and friends and New York City. I lived in the capital city of Skopje, which was Macedonia’s largest and busiest city with about 600,000 people, but was much less diverse.

6. Best thing about Macedonia?

The mountains, the amazing landscape. Every time I went running, the view of the snow-capped mountains in the near distance was a constant reminder that I was living in a beautiful foreign country.

The mountains are visible everywhere in Macedonia.

 

And, where there are mountains, there are sheep.

 

7. Biggest surprise you experienced about yourself, Peace Corps or Macedonia?

I joined Peace Corps thinking that I would go to a foreign country to help people in need, to teach them . . . I wasn’t sure what? It turned out that Macedonians and my Peace Corps family taught me what school and New York City couldn’t.

When I worked in the corporate world, I was extremely uptight, pretty obsessive-compulsive, and wanted things done now, not later. My approach probably stemmed from my belief that I constantly needed to prove myself to my clients and coworkers. In Macedonia, I learned to chill and to relax a bit. Most importantly, I gained tremendous confidence in my abilities and skills.

 

Dao teaching a water conservation session at Boy’s Camp in the summer of 2007.

 

8. Have those changes been lasting?

Most definitely. Since returning from Peace Corps, I stopped worrying about other people’s perception of me, which has reduced my anxiety level by about 99.9 %.

Macedonia taught me to slow down and appreciate the little things in life. After leaving the Peace Corps I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania and became a nanny for my nephew, who was born while I was serving in Macedonia. This past summer his little brother was born, and I now get to spend my days with both of them.

I never imagined I’d enjoy being a nanny as much as I do, and can’t fathom the idea of going back into an office environment. While my days are just as fast-paced and sometimes more stressful than when I was Creative Director, I find my current job more meaningful and rewarding.

9. What did you miss most about the States?

Being anonymous. There are not many Asians in Macedonia so I got lots of stares and unwanted attention.

10. Any memorable readjustment issues upon your return to States? If so, what stood out?

For months, every time I walked into a store in the States, I was in awe of how much we have and how much we believe we need. Whenever I picked up an item for purchase, I asked myself, “is this what I need or is it what I want?” If the answer is that it is what I need, it goes into the basket, otherwise, it goes back on the shelf.

11. Was there a defining moment when you realized you were making a difference by being in the Peace Corps?

Throughout my service, there were a few low periods when I felt I wasn’t making any difference. But looking back, I realize it was mostly my overly ambitious dreams of making the world a happier place. Now I understand that as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the changes I made were gradual and though too small to notice at times, I did, overall, have a positive impact in the community.

As a community development volunteer, my primary job was with Open the Windows, Отворете ги прозорците, a non-profit organization that worked to improve the lives of people with disabilities through accessible and assistive technology. One of the last projects I helped develop and received funding for was creating individual anthologies called “My Life, My Dreams.” The anthology included an autobiography, creative writings, drawings, family pictures and a family tree – all done on adaptive computers. The aims of the project were to help users of our computer center develop their writing skills and, more importantly, to encourage them to envision their life and future beyond the confinement of their disabilities. My organization had a ceremony to present the users and their parents the completed magazine. After the ceremony a parent of a 7-year-old boy with multiple sclerosis approached me and thanked me for writing the grant to fund the project. She said because of the magazine, she learned what made her son feel happy and sad. In that moment, I felt I had made a difference.

Dao often used her graphic and public relations expertise to create press kits and promotional materials for her Macedonian NGO, "Open the Windows".

 

12. Did you make friendships that lasted beyond Peace Corps?

Absolutely! I never thought I would meet and connect with so many amazing people, both American and Macedonian.

Enjoying a night out with Macedonian and American friends.

Dao with her host mother at Thanksgiving, 2006. Peace Corps Macedonia hosted Thanksgiving dinner for about 200 American and Macedonian folks each year.

The neighbors in Chaska pealing roasted red peppers to make avjar, a national dish.



Friendly Notes:

Dao and I served together in Peace Corps Macedonia. There were six of us living in the rural village of Chaska during our training. We met each morning for four hours of language class. After class we each headed back to our respective Macedonian homes where we were expected for lunch and where we were, for the most part, treated like guests.

Dao lived the furthest from school and each morning and afternoon walked down a long dusty and sometimes muddy road. (It has since been paved.) Both of Dao’s “host parents” worked and her teenage host sisters were at school, so Dao was usually walking into an empty house. Within a few weeks, we were referring to her as a latch-key kid and jokingly as Cinderella because she insisted on doing her own laundry and helping with the housework and cooking. Dao and her family bonded quickly; she loved living with them, “They were the best host family any volunteer could have asked for.”

Since she has been back, Dao’s love of cooking and all things natural led her to create her website, The Dao of Cooking, which includes wonderful recipes and much more.

 

Her two adorable and interesting bosses make life much more rewarding. 

 



 

 

And, her new location is far from the hectic lifestyle she once knew.

 

  
 
Getting your bearings . . .  
 

Macedonia is north of Greece in Southeastern Europe

 

*All PCVs, who pass their three-month in-country training, are assigned to a primary job. PC also requires PCVs to create a secondary project within their community during their 24-month assignment. Most PCVs develop more than one “secondary” project, and embrace and enjoy the opportunity the projects present.

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.

 

 

Peace Corps, up close and personal – I

On top of the world at 13,650 feet, Mt. Toubkal, Toubkal National Park, Morocco

Then one day, about a year into her job, she found herself in a very cold river watching her 40 year-old boss go under water to take samples, and she realized she was heading for the same chilly future . . .

At 26, Dawn Hamil had created the life she wanted. She had a BS from the University of California Davis in Environmental Planning and Management. Before graduating, she had landed a full-time job as an environmental consultant that included interesting field work, which sometimes involved exciting helicopter rides and swimming in remote river basins in the mountains of California. She was living the good life.

Dawn had plans to round-out her personal and professional experiences with international travel but wasn’t sure how to overcome her lack of funds or that she felt timid about going solo. Then one day, about a year into her job, she found herself in a very cold river watching her 40-year-old boss go under water to take samples, and she realized she was heading for the same chilly future. She decided to change her life, and applied for the Peace Corps (PC).

Nine months later, Dawn found herself in Toubkal National Park in the mountains of Morocco where she lived and worked for the next three years, 1993 to 1996. She enjoyed her life in Morocco so much, she extended her PC service there for one year*, and along the way realized she was no longer afraid of going solo – anywhere.

Favorite memory of living in Morocco? (Too hard to pick just one!)

  • Ramadan and never spending a night alone the entire month. Ramadan is amazing in-country.
  • Hiking over the High Atlas Mountains with a previous PC Volunteer. We hiked over a pass at 10,000 feet and descended into the next valley, found shelter in a village and then walked until we found a truck to take us back.
  • The food. All the food is delicious!
  • How happy people were. They were what we would consider poor and had to work very hard, but they were incredibly happy.
  • Receiving a grant from the World Wide Fund for Nature to provide animal guide books in French for the park and local nature guides.

Amazing meals from kitchens the size of cupboards and one burner!

 

Funniest memory?

Realizing about a year into my service that some of the people, who were putting up with my funny Arabic actually spoke English! My Arabic is still funny, but I appreciate that I had such kind help along the way.

Best thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Being able to learn about another culture by living day-to-day with the people of that culture is truly enriching.

Least favorite thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?

The hard days, but I suppose those made the good days better. I got a great deal of attention for being an American, and people sometimes bugged me about it or acted like they knew me, when they didn’t.

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

  • How much I enjoyed being in the High Atlas Mountains in a Moroccan village.
  • Confirming that we as Americans are often very one-sided with how we look at life.  EX: That because a person cannot read or write they are not intelligent; I met guides, who could not read or write but could speak and converse fluently in five or six different languages.

What did you miss most about the States?

Movies in English

Best thing about Morocco?

The people and the environment. Everyone was very kind and welcoming, and I fell in love with the mountains and Marrakech.

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

Yes, more than I could have imagined. On one of those “hard” days when I was in Marrakech getting more attention than I wanted, I was buying film and a young man approached and asked me if I worked at the park. I answered him brusquely, but as it turned out he was asking for a friend whose brother did work in the park and knew previous volunteers and had pointed me out before. The friend, who I was introduced to, is now my husband, Abdellah.

Dawn and Abdellah

We’ve been married for 15 years, and have three wonderful children, Zak-11, Khaled-9 and Norah-almost 7. The boys have been to Morocco twice, Norah has been there once.  We manage to get back every four or five years.

The Hamil family, living in America.

Zak, Norah and Khaled at the Saadian Tombs, Marrakech, Morocco 2007 

In addition, a partner Volunteer created the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), which continues to work in Morocco and the area surrounding Toubkal National Park. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers worked in three of the seven valleys making up Toubkal National Park. We all worked for Larbi Didoqen, who is now a part of HAF. The Foundation has provided a way for us to stay-in-touch and connected to what is happening in Morocco – 15 years later. It’s amazing the friendships that are started and continue throughout life!

Still connected with some of those friends and colleagues.

Friendly disclosure: Dawn is my niece (and the only interviewee I’m related to), but until we did this story I didn’t know the answers to all the questions I asked her. I have to add that Dawn and Abdellah are fantastic cooks, their kids are adorable, and her Arabic sounds good to me. Oh, and if you haven’t already, check out the High Atlas Foundation, you’ll be amazed at the beauty and the work being done.

 

Getting your bearings – Morocco is on the northwestern tip of Africa.

Peace x 50!

March 1 is the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps, and as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV)*, Macedonia 2006-2009, I’m joining the celebration, here, on Facebook, on local TV and in print.

Did you know that over the past 50 years, 200,000+ Volunteers have served in 139 countries?

  • 8,655 Volunteers are serving in 77 countries, as I type. 
  • 60% female, 40% male
  • 93% single, 7% married
  • 19% of Peace Corps Volunteers are minorities
  • 28 is average age
  • 7 % of volunteers are over 50. (I was!)
  • 90% have at least an undergraduate degree 

What Volunteers do?

  • Education: 37%
  • Health & HIV/AIDS: 22%
  • Business Development: 14% (That’s what I did.) 
  • Environment: 13%
  • Agriculture: 4%
  • Youth Development: 5%
  • Other: 5% 

 Where they do it?

  • Africa: 37%
  • Latin America: 24%
  • Eastern Europe/Central Asia: 21% (Me in Macedonia, south-eastern Europe.)
  • Asia: 7%
  • The Caribbean: 5%
  • North Africa/Middle East: 4%
  • Pacific Islands: 3% 

 

Personal Virtual Celebrations

For a more personal look at what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), please join us on Wednesdays in March when I share the tales and triumphs, memories and moments of five adventurous folks, who served at different times in different places, but all  loved, or grew to love, their PC service. Until then you can read about other “Notable Returned Volunteers” on the PC website.

I’ll also be celebrating with a FB event. At least 80 PCVs or RPCVS that I know or my invitees know, will be posting a few words and photos about their Peace Corps service on their walls tomorrow, March 1. You’ll be able to see some of their comments on the Wishful Thinking Works FB page. Stop by. 

Local Fun

This morning I’m taping a local morning show. This afternoon, I’m doing an interview with a local newspaper; I’ll link when it’s published. And, best of all, Tuesday night I’ll be enjoying an international dinner with other local RPCVs that I haven’t met yet!  Can’t wait to hear their stories.

Hope you hear about Peace Corps everywhere you go, because if you do – it means we are doing our jobs!

And, if you have ever, even for a moment, thought of joining Peace Corps, I hope you find a way to make it a part of the life you really want. What will you do . . .   I did, and I will never regret or forget it! For my stories and photos, just enter Macedonia in the “Search” box above and hit “This Site”.

* Peace Corps calls all Peace Corps Volunteers, who have successfully completed their service “Returned”, not former Peace Corps Volunteers. It’s their way of saying once a Volunteer, always a Volunteer. I like that.

Communication worth savoring

Me on trainI have been writing about savoring for years and have made it part of my daily life, because it is an amazing feeling and brings such insight and joy. But I never thought about savoring communication until I read this article, and checked out the research of University of Arizona researcher Maggie Pitts.

Pitts analyzed online responses after asking respondents whether or not they savored communication and if so, for a detailed example of an experience they had savored.

“Savoring is the process of (1) identifying a pleasant experience, (2) noticing that you are feeling pleasure about that experience, and then (3) feeling good about feeling pleasure” Maggie Pitts

From their responses Pitts identified seven different types of communication that people tend to savor:

1) Aesthetic communication. Survey respondents savored this type of communication because of some aspect of how it was presented—timing, delivery, choice of words or perhaps a surprise twist. An inspiring speech, good play on words or suspenseful announcement might fall in this category.

2) Communication presence. This category includes conversations in which participants reported being so deeply engaged and completely in the moment with another person that it felt as if no one else mattered. These types of exchanges often were described as “real” or “entirely honest.”

3) Nonverbal communication. From to physical contact to facial expressions, these exchanges emphasize nonverbal cues. A meaningful hug or smile might fall in this category.

4) Recognition and acknowledgement. This category encompasses communication in which participants were publicly acknowledged or offered appreciation, like an awards ceremony or a speech honoring an individual.

5) Relational communication. This category includes communication that establishes, confirms or gives insight into a relationship, such as a couple’s discussion about the future together or an intimate disclosure that brings two people closer.

6) Extraordinary communication. Many participants savored communication around special moments, such as a wedding, illness, birth of a child or other “landmark memories.”

7) Implicitly shared communication. This category includes unspoken communication experiences that may be more difficult to articulate, such as feeling the excitement of a crowd around you, or looking at someone and instinctively knowing that you are sharing the same feeling.

I love that learning something new about savoring has brought even more joy to my life, and I quickly realized that I do savor many of the conversations I have had with people throughout my life and each of those still brings me joy. Here are some of the most memorable as this moment:
  • a conversation we had in my 10th grade social science class about how people approach living and their choices;
  • a talk with a friend who was dying of leukemia;
  • listening to my sons when they were little and discovering the world around them and much later when they were in college and just after, as they explored a much larger world;
  • a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer on the train to Skopje – the capital of Macedonia;
  • talks with friends of shared books and movies;
  • a presentation on music, art and math by Richard G. Brown, the father of Da Vinci Code author, Dan Brown and a much honored math professor
  • the hundreds and hundreds of rich and wonderful conversations with my dearest friends at the happiest, most exciting, or the most trying times of my life,
  • and the deep, touching and heartfelt conversations I have with my husband almost daily.
I am now looking forward to reading the books Pitts edited on positive communication, which hopefully will create more conversations for me to savor. I already like the way she thinks, “Maggie takes a “bright side” approach to the study of human communication — asking questions like, “what is going right” here, and “how can we make good things even better?”
I hope you find lots of wonderful moments and communications to savor, today and all the days ahead for you.
As I was writing this post in the early morning hours, I took a moment to savor the water color view through the screen on my balcony on a softly unfolding morning in tropical Florida.
IMG_4786

Changing lives through education

DSCN4569I think this is a first for the Wishful Thinking Works blog, but my friend and former Peace Corps Volunteer, Katrina, and her friends are doing such good things in a country I consider my second home, I had to share their work with you. It’s a perfect Wishful Thinking Works kind-of story: They are making a difference, and it all began with a wish of a very special former teacher in Macedonia

Katrina and I have a lot in common, we both served in the United States Peace Corps in Macedonia; we each spent three months in the same amazing host village of Chaska, and we both have been involved in projects in Macedonia since our service ended. 

Here is the story of the Ethnic Turkish Educational and Cultural Foundation, which Katrina and others created to make positive difference in the lives of others. The words and photos are all theirs; more information can be found at their web site.

About

ETECFoundation grants provide impoverished ethnic Turkish and Roma children with the opportunity to go to school with books, school supplies, backpacks, shoes and support services.   ETECFoundation partners with K.U.D Kardeşlik, a Macedonian NGO, to provide scholarships to primary school children.”

History

“As a Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia (2005-2007), I had the good fortune to meet a man with a vision for the children in his community, located in Strumica, DSCN4585Macedonia  Though my Macedonian was poor and his primary language was Turkish, this former teacher was able to communicate his desire to work toward his vision that every ethnic Turkish and Roma child that wanted to go to school, would be able to do so.  We shared a belief that Education is the cornerstone of peace.

In May 2007 K.U.D. Kardeşlik, a Macedonian NGO, under the Direction of Emin Eminov, created the Children to School project to target children most at risk for being unable to obtain an education: children who not only faced insurmountable economic barriers but also had only one parent or were without parents. In addition to the scholarship criteria, attendance and achievement standards were set for scholarship recipients.

For the balance of my service in Macedonia in 2007, I worked with K.U.D. Kardeşlik to obtain funding for “Children to School” through Peace Corps Partnership Program advise on organizational management to Director Eminov and the Board.  In the process we engaged the interest and support of other Peace Corps Volunteers also serving in Macedonia.  Most notably, a former school teacher working across the country in Debar, Gail Graor.  Gail visited Strumica and got hooked on the “Children to School” program and the commitment of Director Eminov.  Together we pledged to continue our service to at risk children and families in this community, through raising funds in the USA for our partner NGO, K.U.D. Kardeşlik.

In August, 2009 we obtained 501(c)(3) designation for ETECFoundation so that all contributions  are tax-deductible charitable donations.  We deeply appreciate your support of our mission to promote the advancement and education of the ethnically Turkish and Roma minorities in Macedonia.”

If you would like to get more involved, visit their web site . . .

“$788 will send a child to school for one year

$245 will buy lunch for one child for the school year

$35 will buy school supplies and a backpack for one child

$21 will buy a sturdy pair of shoes for one child”

Never, ever think that one person cannot make a difference.  And, remember when like-minded people work together mountains can be moved, lives can be changed, and the effects can last for generations!

Have a great week, and keep dreaming those dreams.

Choices and change

Creating the life you want involves choices. 

I made a wonderful choice a few months ago, and I am now back in the United States Peace Corps as a Response Corps Volunteer in the beautiful  country of Macedonia. I spent three years in Macedonia from 2006-2009 as a Peace Corps Volunteer living and working in the Municipality of Bitola. I’ve been lucky enough to journey back here for pleasure and projects each fall since then.

When the opportunity to serve again with the Peace Corps in Macedonia arose earlier this year, I decided to give it a go. Response Corps and I are good friends. Last year, after visiting Macedonia for 6 weeks, I flew to the Republic of Georgia to serve as a Response Corps Volunteer at the Ministry of Environment for three and a half months. As always, I had a great time, learned a lot about myself and the world and lived with an amazing host family in TbilisiResponse Corps offers short-term, very focused assignments to former Peace Corps Volunteers, and now for the public, as well.

I invite you to follow and share my three month journey – I will be posting photos and more about Macedonia in the weeks ahead, along with my Wishful Thinking Works posts.

Creating the life you want takes couragecommitment and change. What have you been thinking about doing? What excites and inspires you? Why not spend a few minutes this week, exploring what’s ahead for you? Click here for easy to use sheets that can help you explore your dreams – big or small.

Then check out the The Power of Fortune Telling to take your dreams to the next stage!

PS Rest assured your dreams are possible, there was a time when I believed living and working abroad was an impossible dream for me, and I have happily proved myself wrong time and time again. And, I’ve seen my clients change their lives in ways they never thought possible.

Challenge the limits you’ve set for yourself – push the boundaries of your dreams. Take a risk in the direction of your dreams.

Wishful Thinking Works!

PS Here is a post about one of my favorite places in Macedonia, the nearby village of Dihovo.

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