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Profile: Merry Hutton

Sierra Leone

I was motivated to go into the Peace Corps for the adventure of it — I wanted to experience a new country, a new culture, and I wanted to contribute to another community. My family, however, was surprised when I told them about my decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. As cattle ranchers near Lewiston, Montana, they were puzzled that I would want to live in a place that was even more rural than where I grew up. It took a while, but they ultimately understood what an enriching experience it was.

The Peace Corps sent me to the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where I worked as a teacher trainer and taught English to young kids. The things I liked most about my job weren't always classroom activities. One of my projects was the development of a farmer's cooperative, a palm oil plantation. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of palm oil went to the school to help pay for student fees and books. That really inspired me to work in communities to a greater extent than I did as a teacher. It led me to change my professional course.

As the first Volunteer in my village, Rosota, I was received very well. People generally seemed to have a perception of America that was very different from the reality of it, so I spent a lot of time breaking down stereotypes. I explained that a lot of America is very rural, that there are neighbors helping neighbors, inter-generational living, just like they were accustomed to. I think they liked to hear that.

I was born on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and grew up close by. I attended Northern Montana College, which is located between two reservations. Just as different Native American tribes have very different belief systems, my friends in Sierra Leone would talk about the differences between ethnic groups like the Timne and the Fullah. So I came into the Peace Corps with a cultural understanding that helped me bond with my new community. Moreover, it was fascinating for me to learn that, even though our cultures are continents apart, there are a lot of similarities between some Sierra Leoneon and American Indian rites of passage and ceremonies for courting, marriage, and naming children. Serving in the Peace Corps made me want to understand more about other cultures, and it made me more appreciative of my own.

I loved Sierra Leone so much that I stayed after my service to teach at an American school there. When I came home, I earned a graduate degree in public administration from the University of Montana and recruited on campus for the Peace Corps at the same time. I then worked for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation for several years as a grant writer and administrator. Since 1997, I've been the community services coordinator at St. Patrick's Hospital in Missoula, Montana.

People really get out of the Peace Corps what they put into it. You should go with a mix of wanting to do good things and, at the same time, opening yourself to learn new things. You'll gain a new way of looking at life by experiencing a different culture. Although the Peace Corps was forced to close its program in Sierra Leone because of the tragic civil conflict, for me, serving as a Volunteer there was a life-affirming experience.

Merry Hutton (Sierra Leone)

Merry, who is Native American, was interviewed for "Diversity in the Peace Corps" in 1999. She has a B.S. in Education and is originally from Missoula, Montana.

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