Lauren Deimling Johns, 26, born in Toledo and a graduate of Fort Meigs Elementary and Perrysburg High School, joined the Peace Corp, after a back injury ended her professional ballet career. She was assigned to Peru, arriving in 2010. Her two-year stint in the High Andes of the South American country ends in August. Next, she plans to go to France and attend graduate school. She tells her Peace Corps story in three parts.
The is the first of three columns she will write for ourtownperrysburg.com.
I was home alone when I got the letter.
My professional ballet career ended 3 years prior, I was about to graduate from University of Texas with a degree in Psychology, and I had just had my first heartbreak. I resisted ripping open the Peace Corps envelope, like they do in the movies. Finally, I skimmed the letter, finding my assigned country and work assignment — Peru and Youth Development.
I screamed, jumped in the air, then collapsed, back to the wall, crying. Little did I know that those three emotions: excitement, isolation, and tears would define my Peace Corps service.
Upon arriving in country, everything was amazing. The air, the faces, the voices, the cold showers, dirt floors, limited electricity, weird food, and cold nights. I loved them even when I hated them. The challenge made me feel strong. I had one staging event in Washington D.C. before arriving, so my training was in Peru, which was novel, nerve-racking, and exhilarating. You have no idea what is to come, and no one can tell you. The only thing you do know is why you joined the Peace Corps.
Having come from a suburban, loving household with classical piano and ballet training, I thought beauty, strength, and intelligence were the goals in life. My liberal arts degree filled me with knowledge, but left much understanding and wisdom to be absorbed. The idea of laboring slowly and living each day to eat tomorrow was something I never experienced.
I wanted to live poor. I wanted to learn to live organically, with the Earth. I wanted to have stories to tell at cocktail parties that make jaws drop. I wanted to meet people so different from me every conversation was enlightening. I wanted to learn a new language. I wanted to be inspired by a brilliant village elder who knew every thing about the past. I wanted to know children in need and save them.
I wanted to save the world.
In training, I learned the International Peace Corps goals of helping the people of interested countries, helping to promote a better understanding of Americans, and helping to promote a better understanding of other peoples by Americans. For my Youth Development program, I was taught to training youth in healthy lifestyle skills and behaviors, to help with communication between parents and caregivers and to help both improve their skills, and to train youth service providers.
Quickly, I realized I wouldn’t be sent on a mission with step-by-step instructions and constant support from experienced development workers.
Some volunteers, including myself at first, dislike the lack of structure and mouth-fed resources. But, you adjust your expectations and learn to bite deeply into the juicy freedoms and opportunities provided to you. I would get to design my own program for the community’s specific needs with my specific capabilities.
I was sworn in Aug. 10, 2010 at the U.S. embassy in Lima, Peru. My training group was sprinkled all over the country to communities where leaders asked for help. When my placement officer asked me where I’d like to go to, my naïve mouth reported, “I am not here to live comfortably for two years. I am here for a challenge. If you could put me in the most beautiful most remote site you got, I will be a happy lady.”
I was assigned Madrigal, Arequipa. Madrigal is a community of 700. We live in adobe huts with aluminum or straw roofs. Electricity and water are running more often than they aren’t, and my house is lucky enough to have the plumbing of a bucket toilet instead of an outhouse. The local diet is a bowl of soup once or twice a day that is made from either noodles or rice with carrots, potatoes, corn and haba beans. Special treats are bread, cheese, milk, fruit and meat. No, not beef. Chicken, guinea pig, hare, or alpaca.
And where is that daily broth cooked? Over sun-dried cow dung or precious eucalyptus. Eucalyptus and pine are the only trees that grow here, albeit in scarcity. Did I mention that we are at 10,730 feet high. That means below freezing nights buried under heavy alpaca blankets, without even the skin on your face exposed, and a sun so strong at midday you must sun-tan-lotion up or risk scarring from burns. We are tucked into one of the deepest canyons in the world surrounded by snow tipped mountains.
Every single day has a breath-taking sunrise and set. We live in the ‘altiplano,’ there is no atmosphere to get in the way of the universe. Living here is kind of like a two-year camping trip, with no showers or doctors and going on the trip with 700 strangers who barely even speak your second language (Spanish). They instead speak the language of their Incan ancestors, Quechua.
Among the many “living with the Earth” skills they contain is mastery of healing herbs, which comes in handy when there are no doctors. However, the whole community is sick more often than it is healthy, and the people work long-laborious days that age their bodies about 5 years for every one. The high school put in by the government 30 years ago is not only lacking text books, paper, pens, pencils, markers, and crayons, but the teachers are under trained, tired, and hungry as you are.
Truly cut off from the world -- Internet access is 2 bus rides and 6 ½ hours away.
Still, I was on top of the world, both literally and physically. Not only was I experiencing the physical challenge of life without amenities, but I had a gem of an idea.
I did hundreds of surveys around town and developed this plan: World-Community-Self, an after school program addressing the needs of the community by focusing on leadership skills, creativity, and literacy. The space for the program would develop into a library over time.
It was the perfect solution to the community and Peace Corps goals and it paired with my personal capabilities. I applied for a very large grant with this idea and got it.
Only after a few cultural embarrassments (yes, a three-year-old had to show me how to tie up a donkey properly), I was set-up for a productive and successful experience.