There are those in the District who have always wanted to make a difference in the world. They are people of action, people who will travel any distance and endure any environment to bring comfort and assistance to others. People like that join the Peace Corps. Planning Division is home to four former Peace Corps volunteers – Elizabeth Decelles, Kevin Foster, Sharon Pailler and Mike Penko – and served in different parts of the world before arriving at the New England District.
Decelles, a biologist, served in the Peace Corps from 2003 to 2005, traveling to a rural fishing village in Jamaica to help with environmental projects and community development. “I was assigned to work as an environmental volunteer with a small community development group in my town which was comprised of the Justice of the Peace, the Primary School Principal, the head fisherman, a local shop owner, and a small hotel owner,” she said. “My group planned and ran fund raisers such as a hook-n-line fishing tournament and off-road triathlon, whose proceeds all benefited the local primary school.”
Decelles said she and her group put a three-room addition on the school and that she started an environmental club that continued on to win national recognition. “The environmental club projects included composting, planting native trees and vegetation around the school, field trips to the local estuaries, and making art from recycled materials that would normally be burned as trash,” she said.
Many travel to Jamaica for a tropical vacation, but after a monster storm ripped through the island, Decelles and the villagers found themselves in a paradise lost. “Hurricane Ivan decimated Jamaica and my community,” she said. “Almost everyone lost their roofs and fishermen lost all their traps. We were without power for months.”
Decelles and her community development group began recovery efforts and with USAID’s assistance, they were able to donate fish trap line, in regulation for sustainable fishing, to the grateful fishermen.”
Decelles said the highlight of her tour with the Peace Corps was the people’s positivity and resilience in the face of poverty and struggle.
Foster, who is also a biologist, served in the Peace Corps form 1982 to 1985. “I served as both an aquaculture specialist and a community development advisor during my three years as a Peace Corps volunteer on the island of Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia,” he said. “I also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in my third year. I served two years in the remote village of Utwa and my third year in the main population center of Lelu.
Foster began his assignment starting several aquaculture projects, but like Decelles, his island community faced a life threatening disaster and his projects had to be put aside for efforts that were more urgent. “We encountered the first major El Nino event from 1982 to 1983,” he said. Our annual rainfall fell from more than 300 inches of rain per year to less than 40 inches over a nine month period.”
The situation continued to deteriorate as no rain fell for long periods, so Foster spent much of his time working on finding water solutions for the 900 villagers in his community. “There was no drinking water so we drank coffee, coconut juice, beer or soda,” he said. “We took baths in the ocean and our hair turned tinges of red. We suffered and the mortality rate escalated among the elderly and children. Disease was rampant.”
Foster helped refurbish the village water pipe system and dam in order to pipe water from upland sources to his village. “I solicited funds from my home church in Bedford, New Hampshire, and purchased materials to construct 500 and 800 gallon water catchments,” he said.
The biologist worked with a squad of Navy Seabees based on the island to build 12 catchments for his village.
When he moved on to his other assignment on the island during his third year, Foster turned his efforts to improve recycling. “During my third year, I worked with another Peace Corps volunteer to start up a project to recycle cans,” he said.
According to Foster, thousands of beer cans littered the mangrove forest along the side of the circumferential road. “With start-up funds from the Kosraen Government, we employed two Kosraens to crush the cans into wafers and filled a Matson container,” he said.
It took a while to fill the container, but Foster said once it was full, it was shipped off to Japan. “Funds from the first shipment began a cycle of collecting cans, crushing them and shipping them,” he said. “Kosraens were paid five cents per can, so the island was cleaned up quickly.”
Foster said that in 1985, it was the first recycling effort in the U.S. Pacific and that today the recycle project is run as a private business on the island.
Pailler is an Economist who volunteered with the Peace Corps from 2001-2003 in rural Guinea. “My role was to work with farmers to integrate ‘sustainable’ agricultural approaches, like live fencing, compost, water conservation, etc.,” she said. “I also did some reforestation projects along the Niger River and some sensitization efforts to discourage bush fires. I ended up working with the Health Center a lot because it was gravely understaffed and I had experience working as a nursing assistant through high school and college.”
Pailler, who says she entered the Peace Corps because she wanted to save the world, encountered some challenges such as language barriers and problems with communication. “There weren’t cell phones in Guinea when I was there, and the land lines were only accessible in large cities and didn’t work well,” she said. “My whole first year I wasn’t able to speak to my father, which was really challenging. My grandfather passed away and I didn’t find out until months later in a letter from my mother. It was very isolating.”
While she was in Guinea, Pailler learned that even with best efforts, one person could only do so much. “My biggest challenge was realizing that my relative impact on the world was pretty darn small,” he said. “I remember my first visit to a nearby gold mine, which was a massive kilometers-wide-open-pit mine. The company had moved an entire village and cleared thousands of acres of forested land to accommodate their operations. It was very discouraging to think while I was trying to teach villagers in rural Guinea how to improve the environment; there was a huge foreign company less than 100 kilometers away that is destroying it. "
Despite the hurdles, Pailler said she had many good experiences with those she encountered. “The people were wonderful,” she said. “Guinea’s population is predominantly Muslim; an important part of their religion and culture is to treat strangers in their communities as guests. As such, I was very well taken care of and was protected wherever I went. I made some life-long friends that I stay in touch with. It is really magnificent the moment you make your first genuine friendship with someone from another culture, religion and background.”
Penko, a biologist who is too modest to make any remarks of his time in the Peace Corps, served as a forester in Burkina Faso in the 1980’s.
No doubt, the people the Planning Team encountered and worked with benefited from their selfless service while they were in the Peace Corps; however, when asked, the team members said they also got much out of their experiences. “The best part about being in the Peace Corps was learning that I was stronger than I thought I was,” said Decelles.
“My best memory is my Peace Corps family,” said Foster. “I lived with the district judge and his 10 children who helped me learn the language, spear fish, paddle my outrigger canoe, walk bare foot in the upland jungle, climb coconut trees and fall in love with coral reefs, which I later pursued as a career, starting with the University of Guam Marine Laboratory.”
“I learned more from my Peace Corps experience than any other experiences, and perhaps all my prior cumulative experience,” said Pailler. “It is the strangest thing, because at the time you may not feel like you are learning, but you come away with this deep understanding of things and how they work or don’t work. Things you never thought about before or didn’t even know existed. It is really hard to explain, but I think anyone who has done Peace Corps would know exactly what I’m talking about.”
(Editor's note: Pailler has moved on to a position with the ASPCA and Penko has retired from the Corps with 33 years of federal service.)