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Committed to service: Couple embarks on journey from in-person service to virtual

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Madeline and Clint Kellner discovered during their in-person volunteer service in Guatemala a benefit of going as a couple – your partner serves as an additional support system. After returning to the United States, the two decided to serve again but, due to COVID-19, Madeline and Clint were forced to leave Peru after only 10 weeks.The couple credits the supportive Peace Corps post staff as one of the reasons they remained committed to serving South American counterparts through virtual service.

Can you share a little bit about the projects that you individually worked on during your in-person service in Guatemala and then in Peru?

Clint: In Guatemala, I worked in two middle schools that are 100 yards apart in a town of about 4,000 people. I taught Life Skills, which covered topics such as self-esteem, communication, critical thinking, and gender. None of which are normally covered in the curriculum. When we were in Peru, I worked with the nonprofit, Minga Peru, on its educational tourism program to help them develop steady funding for their social service programs in the Peruvian Amazon. They had an arrangement with Lindblad Expeditions, in which a boat brings tourists to three villages. The tourists interact with locals, learn about the people in the Amazon, and purchase their wares.

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The couple visits a restaurant in Iquitos.

Madeline: I worked for Healthy Schools, which was a Guatemala-based project that worked with primary schools to further community health. The malnutrition rate of children under the age of 5 was high. In fact, our municipality had the second-highest in our department (similar to a state). Since it was an agricultural community, we thought school gardens could be a solution. Some gardens caught on, some of them didn’t. I also worked on training community members on food preparation, especially for at-school meals.

I'm into textiles, so for a secondary project, I worked with some of the local women to help them figure out how to market their creations. I connected them with a nonprofit in the area so that when I left, they would continue to receive support.

For Peru, I worked with Minga Peru on improving their training program for female community health volunteers also known as promotoras.

What were your favorite aspects of the cultures?

Madeline: What I really loved about Guatemala was that the people in our town all wore their indigenous clothing. They wove blouses with the area’s motif – a double-headed eagle – in their own individualistic way. Just the fact that they wore their art.

Clint: Guatemala and Peru are similar in that family is very important. In Guatemala, I liked that each town had its own music and dance. The kids learned the dances when they were in preschool, so they would perform at the various celebrations.

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A shot of Maranon River, a major tributary of the Amazon.

Why did you participate in the Virtual Service Pilot and what was it like?

Madeline: We were evacuated from Peru after only 10 weeks. Minga Peru contacted us shortly afterwards to help them address COVID in the Amazon. In the meantime, a few members of the Peace Corps Peru staff, Rachel and Giovanna, informed us they were doing a focus group to see if counterparts could be remotely supported. The staff then worked with headquarters on formalizing our work into today’s pilot.

The transition from in-person service to participating virtually was natural for us; we felt like we were on the ground floor helping to provide important health safety information during COVID. Our virtual service engagement was with Minga Peru. They have a program called Bienvenida Salud, which they started to communicate with remote communities. All topics are generated by the community. The local people write letters with their suggestions and the staff work to develop related programs.

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The Kellners soaking in Guatemala's beauty.

Clint: Minga Peru developed this emergency response plan to help out with COVID in the Amazon, and they wanted to know best marketing practices, so both Madeline and I worked as advisors on that, too.

What would you tell other returned Peace Corps Volunteers about the pilot?

Clint: It's five to 15 hours a week, so it's not a time sink. You can still do your job or whatever it is you're doing and still fit the engagement work in. ... It expands your connections – we're friends now with people we weren't friends with before.

Madeline: We've learned a lot the past two years in the Zoom era like just how much we can get done this way. It's a real opportunity and it could serve as a bridge for RPCVs to go back later when they’re at a different point in life. It's still like Volunteer service. You still develop relationships with counterparts, so it’s still very much international relationship-building. Other RPCVs will find it rewarding.