Coronvirus cuts short Centre’s Peace Corps volunteers’ service

The mission of Centre College is to prepare students for lives of learning, leadership and service in a global society, with over 85 percent of Centre students volunteering on a regular basis. And after graduation, many of those service-oriented students opt to continue their work in the Peace Corps.

As defined on its website, “The Peace Corps is a service opportunity for motivated change-makers to immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side by side with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of our generation.”

Unfortunately, the advent of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic put an abrupt halt to all Peace Corps service work throughout the world.

“On March 15, all Peace Corps volunteers around the globe were notified that the Peace Corps would be suspending all volunteer operations,” says Cameron Beach ’18. “That meant that over the next few days, all 7,300 volunteers were evacuated to their homes in the United States.”

After living and working in a rural community in Malawi for almost two years, Beach had only one day to pack up and say goodbye to those with whom she had shared so much.

“Along with most of my Peace Corps colleagues, I took this news very hard. In Malawi, I had built strong relationships with a particular family who took me in as one of their own. We did everything together, from eating to farming—even traveling together. Losing the opportunity to properly thank and say goodbye to my Malawian family was difficult.”

Colleen Coyle ’19 had only begun her service as a youth-in-development volunteer in Guatemala in September .

“I served 7 months until I was evacuated March 18,” says Coyle. “Learning that I was returning home was incredibly difficult news to receive. I was celebrating my host sister’s birthday at dinner with my host family when I received the news. I love them dearly and had made Guatemala my home, and to leave them and all the work I had yet to do was incredibly jarring and traumatizing. However, I am grateful for every minute that I spent there and I hope every single day that I can return to that beautiful country.”

Jacquelyn Engel ’19, who returned March 21 from her service in Benin as a rural community health volunteer, found her leave-taking fraught with emotion and anxiety.

“When volunteers were notified of evacuation, I was in disbelief. Additionally, the short notice and the quick timeline to leave the country did not allow me to say my goodbyes to the majority of my friends, or give me the opportunity to cherish my last few days in my community. It was so sad and upsetting not knowing if I’ll ever be able to see them again.

“Volunteers were rushed due to borders quickly closing,” Engel continues. “I was constantly on edge because instructions came minute-by-minute, so we had to be ready since plans were constantly changing. These are trying times for everyone, and I’m lucky to have supportive friends and family to get through all of this.”

Although the three women are safe at home, they struggle with projects unfinished. Beach, who had served since 2018 as a secondary English teacher, was only one term away from completing two full years teaching 10th and 11th grade.

“We were in the middle of important material that I had hoped to finish before the end of the school year,” Beach says.” There were a few extra-curricular activities that we had planned at the school dealing with reading and girls’ education.

“Additionally, we were in the finishing stages of a girls’ ‘hostel’ (dormitory) with a grant I was managing through Peace Corps. We had finished everything except painting. Though I’m sad that I won’t see the completion of the project, I have full confidence and trust that my counterparts will complete the hostel and successfully open housing for 50 girl students.”

Coyle’s work involved projects that aim to empower Guatemalan youth and provide training on topics concerning sex education, leadership, life skills and healthy lifestyles.

“I worked primarily in institutions which are about equal to our middle and high schools,” Coyle says. “I also worked with the Department of Education in the department of Totonicapan (essentially a county). I was working on a workshop for youth about to graduate high school to help them prepare resumes, practice for interviews, practice decision-making and generally prepare for life after school. I had only been working for three months, since the previous months had been spent in pre-service training, so I never got to get very far with my students, though I enjoyed spending time with them immensely.”

Engel was moving full steam ahead in Benin when the pivot caused by the Coronavirus suspended her work there.

“As a health volunteer, I had quite a few projects already up and running. I had a women’s health group, called Care Group, which was focused on training and empowering ten mothers with knowledge on best health practices pertaining to malaria, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, and reproductive health, and these ten mothers would then each teach and share this information with ten other families.

“I was just starting my youth peer education project called Amour et Vie in which two students from the high school, one female and one male, would be trained on sexual and reproductive health topics and then educate and share this information with other youth in the community,” Engel continues. “Also, I had a health club and English club at the secondary high school, where I taught healthy practices concerning malaria, hygiene and sanitation, and sexual and reproductive health, as well as helping students learn English.

“This disruption has caused me to forego building and strengthening relationships with members in my community,” Engel relates. “Relationships are possibly the most important aspect of Peace Corps service, as volunteers encounter so many kind and caring people that will have a life-long impact. Additionally, relationships are important in helping to promote and instill healthy practices, because the community develops more trust and confidence in the volunteer. Unfortunately, all of this progress was drastically hindered.”

Although the women remain optimistic, they continue to worry about how the pandemic is effecting the friends and loved ones who remain in the countries in which they served.

“Malawi had not recorded any cases of Coronavirus and when I left and, to date, have had eight positive tests,” Beach says. “Although all schools, including the one I was teaching at, have shut down, from phone calls with my friends in Malawi it seems as though COVID-19 has yet to impact other parts of their daily lives, but the situation is evolving. I continue to think about the members of our community and hope for their health and safety every day.”

“I am happy to say there are no official cases of COVID-19 in my community,” Engel says. “COVID-19 has not had much of an impact from what my friends say. I have been keeping in touch, and they have all stated there is no virus, and that everyone is well and going about their routines. As of April 6, there had only been 22 confirmed cases and 1 death in Benin. I hope the number of cases stays low.”

“My Guatemalan host family are currently quarantined in their home, unable to travel, and depending on the local markets for food, which has become very expensive,” Coyle says. “They are afraid, because Guatemala’s health systems are not adequately prepared for a true outbreak of the virus and there are many vulnerable old people and immunocompromised that lack proper access to medical care. Additionally, portions of the country speak indigenous languages rather than Spanish, and so it is difficult to help them obtain information about precautions and updates on the disease. I fear for my host family, for my Guatemalan work counterparts, and for my many friends there, but I am optimistic that they will be able to contain the virus, and we can move forward with the work once again.”

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Feature image: Colleen Coyle ’19 in Guatemala

by Cindy Long
April 20, 2020


By |2020-04-20T11:44:05-04:00April 20th, 2020|Alumni, French, History, International Studies, News, Remote Learning|