By Natalie Montanaro, M.Ed.
Peace Corps Response Tonga, 2012–Present
Peace Corps Romania, 2009–2012
Peace Corps Response Eastern Caribbean
Peace Corps Response Guyana
Peace Corps Thailand, 2005–2006
Peace Corps Romania, 2003–2005
Last week, I met a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer whose service in Romania, from 2003–2005, made such an impact that, try as she might, it drew her back into volunteering again, much like the hospitality of this country of Romania clings to your inner core and beckons you to remain just a bit longer in order to experience more of the old-world traditions, the amazingly rich countryside, and the warm groundedness of the people who reside here.
Maura Reap: a Peace Corps veteran of four tours since she first took that step onto the plane in the US with a leap of faith to become one of over 200,000 of us who've gone away to promote peace and friendship somewhere far from home. She takes pride now, and rightly so, in gushing about her eye-opening experiences and memorable times here in Eastern Europe in a country which formerly was not so open to visitors or the swift changes which are occurring all over the region. She tells of her love of the music and dance here, the holidays, the ways in which she learned so much more about herself and her affinity—or should I say addiction!— to zacusca (that delicate balance between freshness and saucy which is uniquely blended from the finest of garden vegetables by each bucataroasa in their own modest kitchens each harvest season and then lovingly put up in recycled jars to spread liberally upon homemade bread at the most welcoming of tables).
The ways in which Maura changed during her 27-month initial tour here in Romania are different than how I've changed or others in Peace Corps Romania, but still, we share that common bond of the rich experiences here, and in that regard, we are partners, forever linked as volunteers from Peace Corps Romania. Together, but separately, we've gained a new respect for the land, up close and personal views of another side of life, cultural awakenings outside what the rest of the world knows from television or movies, and we are given the chance to find within as a common thread more patience, more kindness, and more love for ourselves. And much, much more.
The more is what drove Maura, and others like her, to decide to go one better. She signed on for three additional terms of service after finishing her work in Romania as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. Peace Corps Response Volunteers (PCVRs) are helping to address the critical needs of host country agencies in a variety of areas, including microfinance, TEFL instruction, monitoring and evaluation, library development, civil engineering, reproductive health and more. These volunteers are needed for short term assignments at the request of host countries. The people who fill these positions have proven success as full-term Peace Corps volunteers, not necessarily in the same country of service. The assignments can be anywhere from one month up to one year. They are expected to be equipped with the skills necessary to assist in a specific capacity. Unlike volunteerism for the 27-month commitment as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) these guys and gals rise to the challenge with much less time to integrate into their communities. In many instances, they must already be familiar with the language. They are exemplary performers in any case and once again, they choose to commit a good portion of their time to others in a valuable way, an attribute that both PCVRs and PCVs share. This year marks the 15th anniversary of such endeavors and more than 1,500 volunteers just like Maura have served in over 50 countries to date.
Maura has now been to Thailand, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Guyana where she's taught life skills, helped to address problems of clean water and ecology, and spent time with children and adults who were affected by the Phuket tsunami in 2004 as a volunteer in social programming. Her service has taken her from one end of the earth to the other and she hopes to continue with these short term assignments (some can be as long as one year, however) into the next decade.
In short, she says of her experiences:
In Thailand I loved the exotic foods and the beauty of the atmosphere. In Guyana, many days were difficult, but productive, and oftentimes safety was a concern. And in St. Vincent, the young people were so endearing and made a lasting impression on me. My functions have been different in each country and the terms were of differing lengths, but even so, I felt that I was able to fulfill the needs that were required of me as a volunteer and I've taken back with me more of other places to relate to the folks back in the US.
Maura, as many of us do, feels that changes are only necessary phases of one's adult life, and that as we grow with these changes, we are able to go one better, being given gifts and having given gifts that cannot be measured and are too important to keep to ourselves. Now Maura speaks to whoever will listen about the differences, the similarities, the joys and the trying moments which make up all of her Peace Corps lives. And as when her initial Peace Corps tour ended, she still wanted to see how far she was able to go, and how much she will be able to bring home and to the world the skills, the knowledge, the nuances of the relationships which she's forged in the Peace Corps. She wishes to continue to learn, to help, to teach and to breathe in more of what is out there, and although where she'll go next is still undecided, Maura is sure to make a positive impact wherever she goes and whatever she is sent to do.
Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life."
Jack KerouacOn The Road
At the end of our talk, Maura left me with this quote from Jack Kerouac from his book On The Road: "Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life."
For Maura (and many of us) the mission is the road of life and even though in 2005, she for a time believed that her Peace Corps journey might be over, saying with conviction, "I'm never coming back"—to the Peace Corps life, to another country, for another mission—there was immediately that little three-letter word which permeated her thoughts urging her to travel on to another place to respond to another request, to make some more memories and to add to her Peace Corps storybook.
In my opinion, it's not only a good storybook, but it's sure to have a never-ending happy ending, wherever and whenever that may be.