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 last of three columns she wrote for ourtownperrysburg.com.
Being in the Peace Corps put every aspect of patience, innovation, independence, faith, and intelligence to the test.
Instead of keeping myself distant from the locals as a method of protection because I knew I was leaving in two years, I embraced them as much as they would have me. I have fallen in love with quite a handful of children and women here, so I designed my primary project around them.
Even with much training and experience working in impoverished communities in my past, nothing quite prepares you for the Peace Corps.
Arriving at my site in the rural Andes of Madrigal, Peru I felt incredibly overwhelmed. Do I do a project to develop trash collection and recycling systems that lack because community members burn trash? Do I work on a chimney project for the women who cook over wood and manure fires whose smoke billows into their houses and lungs largely contributing to upper respiratory infection and death rates? Do I spend two years purely focused on promoting hand-washing and teeth-brushing so mothers aren’t passing bacteria into the mouths of their babies and adults aren’t tooth-less by the age of thirty? Or even tourism promotion to bring money into the community?
I decided that I couldn’t possibly work on everything or please every community member that asked me for help, but I could pick one theme to focus all of my energy on. That theme would need to be as effective as possible.
I was invited to Madrigal by the local public school system and municipality, and they requested I focus on broad themes such as “community leadership” and “health.” I decided to take on the ambitious goal of bettering the educational opportunities of the youth in Madrigal and getting them access to information.
Because the educated typically leave the village to look for work in the city, we lack healthy mentorship and role-model relationships in the village. And, because there is no Internet or library in the village, information is often either outdated or twisted into misconception.
With the help of a committee of local women, made up of teachers, mothers, and adolescents, we developed an after-school program they called VALE -- Volar A Las Estrellas. Vale is the present form of the verb meaning “to have worth” and "volar a las estrellas" means "to fly to the stars."
The 8-month program had three parts: World, Community, and Self. I used methods I learned from my senior thesis at the University of Texas. The committee members worked hard with me to make the curriculum applicable, and over time they developed a sense of ownership. We applied for and received a $4,000 grant with the NGO World Connect.
We used art and play to teach the youth. Each section concluded with a community leadership project, like painting a mural on a public wall and a game of Jeopardy so I could test the youth.
With the only rules being “work hard, and be nice,” students with good attendance and who follow these rules received a formal certificate as well as prizes, such as warm clothing items, school supplies, or healthy food items.
The results was overwhelming turnout. We had 50-80 children attending weekly (about 10% the village’s total population). We did surveys with their teachers before, during, and after and found that students with good attendance had higher grade point averages and had improvement in every single goal we set for them. Surprisingly, at-risk youth showed the greatest improvement.
But, today, the library is closed. The after-school program is no longer running, and, there isn’t a day that goes by where a little one doesn’t tug at my sweater and ask, “Hay VALE?”
The local municipality originally promised to pay my replacement, and hired a teacher, never signed the teacher’s contract or set up payment. So, the teacher looked for another job.
Without a librarian/program teacher, Madrigal lost one of its biggest book donations of $1,000 worth of quality books. The youth collected a petition with more than 200 signatures requesting the municipality to pay the teacher and protect their library, but nothing changed.
The budgeted money for the teacher didn't come forth and municipality members stopped returning my phone calls. The men who run the municipal government explained to my committee of women that we didn’t understand; the mayor needed to build something the locals could see and touch so that he would be re-elected, so they focused on irrigation, not a library.
How do you fight with that? Water is indeed very important.
Then, when looking for volunteers to teach the program, not a community member stepped up, and to be honest, most were not qualified. Anyone over 30 is illiterate, and few adults could help kids with science or math homework, let alone read to them.
Cyclical poverty is indeed the hardest to break.
So I closed the library. I wanted the community to feel what it is like to be without it again before I left. Being used to loss and disempowerment, the community didn’t uprise as I hoped.
The committee, though, refuses to give up. It elected a new president and secretary and have begun the mountain of paperwork needed to get the money for the library.
Some volunteers from local NGOs, like the French NGO Village des Andes, have stood up to offer some time and help, but nothing is long-term. No educated professional is interested in living so rurally and uncomfortable, especially for no salary.
My time in Peru is now up. My Peace Corps service was supposed to end the third week in July, but I received permission to stay through August to clean up the lose ends.
Who can say if my main project was a failure? As my program director Lucia Piñeiro wisely pointed out to me, “You have planted a seed no one can ever take away.” She has decided to publish the VALE program as a manual in English and Spanish for future Peace Corps volunteers.
I will leave Peru with mixed emotions.
I have the guilt that I should stay longer and work harder, the knowledge that I will miss my host family and friends immensely, the joy that I will see my American family soon, the strangeness of the materialism of Western culture, the bliss in the comfort of warmth and food, and so much more.
My last days in Peru will be decorated with tears, but I wouldn’t change the experience for the world.