Courage

By Jane Spelce
Sept. 17, 2017

As I sit here typing, I'm feeling a little tearful, not out of sadness but simply out of appreciation for and wonder at how life works.  In my 60's, I still find myself amazed at the turns life takes, the unanticipated twists that occur out of simple conversations and sheer happenstance. It's remarkable how seeds are planted in our lives, at times taking on sprouts, then sometimes only to wither and dry up. Later, seemingly in an instant, unexpected buds appear and we see growth, we see newness. 

I remember a day many years ago when I was a giggly ten year old living in the heart of Austin, Texas and attending elementary school just a few blocks from my house. At school, a big announcement was made that President John F. Kennedy had formed the Peace Corps. I remember watching his announcement on the television and later hearing my family exclaim over such a great plan. It was an exciting time in our nation. Even at the age of ten, I realized the emotions we were all feeling as we watched our young new president, so full of hope and inspiration, and I remember this one word he spoke often and later wrote about. It has remained with me through a lifetime - "courage" - courage to step forward and do the next thing, set the next goal, help the next person, make the next plan.

 In class, our teacher showed us photos of groups of people in various countries and we talked about how it would feel to live among them. I swooned. I wanted that. I walked home and went straight to mother, telling her that I'd someday like to sit among a group of women in a faraway place, speak their language, cook and eat together with them, and discuss our lives, our hopes and dreams. I envisioned myself wearing the same traditional clothing they were wearing, holding babies, laughing together, crying together and sharing our lives.

Years later my grown children and I were discussing my son-in-law's time in Africa, where he served in the Peace Corps. We loved hearing his stories about that experience. I mentioned to them the dream I had a little more than fifty years ago and within moments I began realizing that the conversation had changed and we were talking about me—and the Peace Corps—and the real possibility. My children and I have done this before many times and those chats have incredibly brought forth new ideas and on many occasions, life-changing experiences. My new son-in-law is cut from the same cloth and, along with my two children, they now make up a powerful trio of initiative-in-action. 

At the powerful, grinning nudges of my three children, I applied to the Peace Corps. Then I waited. Periodically I'd receive a message from the Peace Corps asking for answers to various questions regarding my health and foreign language skills. Eventually those messages came more frequently and once again I saw myself in the midst of something big happening right before my eyes. They were considering me for a post somewhere in a Spanish speaking country!  Really? Really. Latin America. South. How far south? But what if my daughter and son-in-law have a baby, what if my son gets engaged?  Are you really going to deny yourself this incredible opportunity based on the what-ifs of life?  Well, no, I said. You've got a point. I suppose not.

So, not too long after, I was a volunteer in the Peace Corps, sitting in my sweet little casita in the middle of Paraguay on the 53rd anniversary of the day when President Kennedy issued the executive order to establish the Peace Corps. My site, San Bernardino, is a quiet town for 9 months out of the year. Come summer, folks from all over arrive to summer in this community situated along Lake Ypacarai.  "San Ber" as it's called, is located only a two-hour bus ride down the road from the Capitol city, Asunción, which made it convenient for my monthly treks there for committee meetings. My little home sat on the property of my host family in a compound that holds three family houses, all contained within a high iron fence. Painted multiple bright colors inside and out—turquoise, purple, goldenrod yellow and cranberry—it was a happy place. The weather in Paraguay runs on the warm side most of the year, so having an outdoor bathroom was not an inconvenience. I still remember the streets of rough cobblestone, lined with eucalyptus trees with their blonde, smooth bark, and how I took in the luscious scent as I passed by. Enormous mango trees dropped dozens of ripe fruit onto my patio each day, providing an easy midday snack. All in all, I liked this turn my life had taken. 

Everything I wanted to communicate and every conversation I had was in Spanish. After getting to know members of my community and listening to them share about their hopes for themselves, their family, and the community, my schedule formed. My days consisted of teaching classes on topics I love, taught to both adolescents and adults. Self-esteem and leadership classes, character-building activities, English classes and violin lessons were very popular.  I also taught another well-attended class entitled "Construye Tus Sueños" which means "Build Your Dreams."  The 16-week class provided training in entrepreneurship and allowed each student to build his or her own personal business plan. Teaching that class was clearly appropriate, considering Paraguay's fairly new democracy. A new generation was coming forth in the country, a generation that was showing great interest in entrepreneurship and leadership. After four months of colorful, fun, serious and intense classes with students happily planning their budgets, inventories, hopes and dreams, we held a day of celebration in the garden of my host family's compound, where each received their coveted certificate of completion. There I sat among now close friends, knowing they were fully equipped to courageously step out in faith to conquer their dreams.

President Kennedy's consistent message on courage has stayed with me all these years. I have certainly thought about it often and written about it frequently. With each lesson I gave in my site, I shared my thoughts about courage. I told them of my strong belief that we need only to muster the courage for the first step. That's all. Just gather yourself up to take that initial, brave first step. With that, you have a great chance of reaching your goal and living out your dreams. Each step we take provides its own impetus for the next step, and the next. Try it. Before you know, you may find yourself as I did: where you've always wanted to be.


Jane Spelce

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