How growing up Guyanese prepared a Brooklyn-born Volunteer for Peace Corps service

By Chanel Rigby
Feb. 8, 2024

I am a Brooklyn girl, warmed by the Florida sunshine with Guyanese blood running through my veins. I was born in Flatbush to Guyanese parents and I identify as a first-generation, Caribbean-American person of Afro descent. My parents and family members are from Georgetown, Victoria, Mahaicony, Berbice, and Linden, Guyana, who immigrated to North America in the 1970s and settled in Brooklyn.

"Little Caribbean" is the nickname given to the vibrant neighborhood of Flatbush and some surrounding communities in Brooklyn. It is one of the largest areas populated by Caribbean people outside of the Caribbean region. The colorful, creative, and energetic vibe reflects the rich fusion of cultures from Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Grenada, and other countries in the region.

Growing up Guyanese

Education, family, food and community have all played an integral role in helping me understand the uniqueness of my heritage. I was lucky enough to experience Guyanese culture and traditions in American spaces. The duality of my identity allowed me to connect with the world in a way that has opened my mind and ignited a sense of curiosity and wonder about life. I would not be who I am today, without the people who came before me and the ones who continue to nurture and pour into me.

In my early years, I attended a small Guyanese primary school in Brooklyn. I recall high expectations for behavior, respect, and academic performance. We prayed every day, attended chapel, sang songs, learned Bible stories, performed special shows for Christmas, and took piano lessons. I credit the discipline and love from the staff for helping to set the foundation for my educational success.

Volunteer chanel rigby shops at a produce stand
Peace Corps Response Volunteer Chanel Rigby says some of her fondest family memories are related to food, music, and dance.

At home, some of my fondest memories took place in the kitchen and at the meal table. Cultural dishes, pastries, snacks, and drinks like mauby and sorrel were always on the menu at family gatherings. Big Saturday breakfasts, pepperpot, rice pudding, curry, chow mein, fish, and provision were some of the dishes that my parents would prepare. One grandma baked plait bread, made black cake during the holidays and cooked hearty soup on Sundays with pigtail and tripe. The other grandma fried well-seasoned fish cakes, made cook-up rice, and was the queen of making mithai. Both grandmas knew how to make yummy, buttery roti.

My favorite moments with family not only included food, but also music and dancing. I remember hearing my mom sing Guyanese folk songs that she learned from childhood. My father was a DJ in New York City and would play different genres of music. At family functions, I loved watching the adults dance to oldies, do the Electric Slide and perform the Guyanese Waltz. I naturally discovered my love for dance through early exposure to cultural arts and music. Some of my dance experiences include tying the Maypole, performing on stage for local events, masquerading in Caribbean Carnival parades and teaching Caribbean dance classes.

In addition to family members sharing memories, traditions, home remedies and practices, I had access to many organizations, institutions and social groups that were designed to preserve, promote and educate people about Caribbean heritage. From adolescence to adulthood, I lived in Central Florida, where many other immigrant families also resided. I grew up around other young people like myself, who were also first-generation Americans.

While attending the University of South Florida (USF), I volunteered and worked for five years as a peer health educator, served as a student leader for the USF Caribbean Cultural Exchange organization for six years, and was a board member for the Caribbean Community Association of Tampa, Florida, for seven years. My volunteer contributions involved planning social events for members, organizing disaster relief resources to send to Caribbean countries in need, coordinating community service activities, providing dance and wellness programming, tutoring local students in mathematics, fundraising for initiatives, educating others about the Caribbean diaspora and serving as support staff for several annual medical health mission trips in Jamaica. This is where my love for service and community engagement truly blossomed.

Volunteer Chanel Rigby sits on a chair
When Chanel Rigby read the description for the school support officer role in Guyana, she knew it was a perfect match..

Service is close to my heart

My mother worked in the social service industry. She cared for children and adults with mental health challenges and other conditions that impacted their ability to live independently. She once worked for an agency that housed young children who were separated from their biological families. Part of the program’s design was to create a home-like environment for their residents. My siblings and I would visit the children often. We played with them, ate meals together, participated in special activities and enjoyed holiday festivities. It was a meaningful experience that sparked my interest in working with children and families in the community.

As a licensed master social worker, my passion for working in such a flexible field has led me on a continuous journey of exploration. Social work is heart work and I love my profession. I previously served as a specialist teacher for middle school students in AmeriCorps, a domestic U.S. volunteer program. Shortly after, I travelled to Puerto Rico with the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute of New York to complete a cultural arts and social justice study program. I gravitated toward the Peace Corps, due to my desire to work in the Caribbean region, my commitment to service, and interest in learning about the lives of others.

A perfect fit with the Peace Corps

When I read the description for the school support officer role in Guyana, I knew it was for me. I applied for the position, began the process for consideration, but did not share my decision to serve, until I got closer to the departure date. Some family members and friends were worried while others were excited and supportive. They expressed a bit of concern about traveling alone to live in a new country. They did know much about the Peace Corps Response program and there were some concerns about financial stability and the risk of turning down job offers to serve overseas. I did not know what to expect, but I could not pass up the opportunity. Now, as I share more with family and friends about how my work is unfolding, some of the doubts, fears, and skepticism have subsided.

I serve as a school support officer in Guyana alongside Nadia, a National Parent Teacher Association (PTA)/School Support Coordinator. Our collaborative work entails engaging with caregivers, teachers, school leaders, learners, and other stakeholders throughout the country. Our primary focus areas are building capacity of PTA executive board members, identifying strategies for improving student support, encouraging parent and family involvement in schools, emphasizing the importance of student advocacy, and helping to strengthen community relationships.

Volunteer chanel rigby sits on a chair outside in guyana
With the support of Peace Corps Guyana staff, co-workers, and community members, Chanel Rigby says she's been warmly embraced and is settling into a new living routine in Guyana.

Living in Guyana gives me a sense of home, because the smells and tastes are familiar. The accents, sayings, and common lingo are soothing to hear. The sun shines most days and the evening breeze is calming. The pace of my life in Guyana is slower, but there is still a unique energy in my town. I have a clear view of the sunrise, sunset, and the star-filled sky at night. I had to make adjustments, like getting used to switching gas on and off before cooking, dealing with random power outages, not seeing all four seasons, sharing the road with horse-drawn carts, understanding culture in Guyanese workspaces, learning the system, and just getting familiar with the Guyanese way of life.

Initially, I mourned my New York City lifestyle, as getting used to any new setting is difficult. With the support of Peace Corps Guyana staff, my cohort, my co-workers, and community members, I’ve been warmly embraced and settling into a new living routine, one day at a time. Through my Peace Corps Response role, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to several regions of the country. I am blown away by the natural beauty and the rich diversity of the people. There are many things that I can relate to, yet there is so much more to learn and understand. I remain open as I gain new knowledge about the real-life experiences of people who live in the Guyana. I am grateful that I get to do what I love in a place that is near and dear to my heart.

headshot of PCV chanel rigby in guyana