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updated: 3/6/2013 4:01 PM

Why do Peace Corps volunteers do it?

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  • Kevin King of Batavia is a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan, a country on the Caspian Sea bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran. His duties include teaching English to children.

    Kevin King of Batavia is a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan, a country on the Caspian Sea bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran. His duties include teaching English to children.
    Courtesy of Kevin King

  • Matt Flannigan of Batavia, right, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, Africa.

    Matt Flannigan of Batavia, right, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, Africa.
    Courtesy of Flanigan family


Peace Corps volunteers are special people.

Many are college graduates who choose to live among the world's poorest populations. Some are retirees who want to have the experience of living in a different culture.

All earn a meager salary and often live without running water, electricity and heat.

Why do they do it?

"I joined mainly for the unique opportunity to immerse myself in the culture of the host country for two years while also having the goal of helping people with the education and experiences I have accrued thus far in my life," said Batavian Matt Flannigan.

After securing his master's degree in environmental engineering from the University of Iowa, Matt applied for the Peace Corps. A year later, he was given his assignment as an education volunteer in Sierra Leone, Africa.

"My typical teaching day consists of waking with the roosters at about 7 a.m., turning on the shortwave radio to listen to BBC's daily rendition of the world news and Focus on Africa," said Matt, via email. "Then I let the chickens out of the chicken coop, let my dog Fox (namesake of Fox Valley) and my cat Sewa (namesake of the biggest river around here) out, and fill up a bucket of water for the morning bucket bath. I put on my business casual, or Africana if it's a Friday, and then head to school at about 8 o'clock."

Matt teaches math to secondary students, ages 15 to 22. During his personal time, he works on a second project of setting up a resource center for teachers and some of his more responsible students.

People around the world all have the same needs; food, water, shelter, but, often have different ways of approaching similar problems. Matt explained one of the differences in Sierra Leone.

"For example, you ask a Sierra Leonean, 'If your boat is sinking and you can only save your mother or your child, who do you save?' A common response from a 'westerner' would be your child, while most Sierra Leoneans would say they would save their mother. When you ask why, they explain that you only have one mother; you can always have more children. In this part of the world, women have many children with the probability that some of them will not survive."

Peace Corps volunteers sign on for 27 months. The first three months are spent in training, learning the language and the culture. Visits back to the states aren't advised, although the volunteers get two days off a month and can use that time to vacation with family or friends. Holidays and birthdays can be especially hard away from home.

"One of the worst days I've had here was my first brush with someone I knew, dying solely because they live in a country with inadequate health care," said Matt. "My good local friend's wife, an 18-year-old with a 6-month-old newborn baby girl, died unexpectedly because of 'typhoid.' It may have been typhoid, but nearly every ailment in this country is diagnosed as malaria, typhoid, or 'pressure.' She had spent the afternoon at my house just a week before learning UNO."

The 27-month commitment is very real and hard for both the volunteer and for the family back home. When my younger son Kevin graduated from the University of Wisconsin last May, he talked about the Peace Corps but I really didn't take him seriously.

A research fellow at Wisconsin, he had spent last summer in Ludhiana, India doing a cancer research project at the Christian Medical Association Hospital, the only public hospital in Northern India. I didn't really think he would want to take on another commitment like that.

All the talk turned into reality when he boarded a plane for Azerbaijan to work with refugees and Internally Displaced People in youth development last September. He is working with the SOS Children's Village in Nanja, Azerbaijan.

Kevin has found the warmth and hospitality of the Azerbaijanis very welcoming.

"What I like about the Peace Corps is the way the volunteers are used in the community," said Kevin. "Instead of telling the community what they need, the volunteers live within the community and learn what the need is."

Kevin's experience is very different from Matt's. Kevin is in a city environment. He doesn't have to travel miles to secure an Internet connection. He has access to regular consumer goods. Though things like heat, water and electricity are at a premium, they are available.

"Right now I am doing different levels of conversation clubs so that the young people here can learn English," said Kevin.

Parents want their children to learn English because they believe it opens up more opportunities for them. Through these clubs, Peace Corps volunteers can help kids learn to respect one another, male and female alike.

"My job is all about little victories," said Kevin. "Even in the small victories there are great rewards."

One rewarding moment came when one of the little boys told Kevin, in Azeri, "You are so sweet, you are like honey. You belong in a jar."

Kids also learn through team sports. The Peace Corps volunteers in Azerbaijan are working together to set up baseball teams for tournaments this summer. The volunteers have contacted their home teams to see if they will donate bats, balls and mitts. The Baltimore Orioles are already on board. Kevin has contacted the Chicago Cubs and is hoping they will get involved as well.

"Team sports can be a way for these kids to learn how to treat one another in a positive way," said Kevin.

Kevin graduated from Madison with a double major in neuroscience and life science communication. He also achieved a certificate in leadership. He feels all of his areas of study are being used in Azerbaijan.

"I head up the public health initiative," he said. "And in the future, I hope to produce children's programming for television that shows the importance of good health habits such as hand washing and good oral care."

Both Matt and Kevin have gone through moments when they miss family, friends and the comforts of home.

"Sometimes the thought of Portillo's is unbearable, or a big slice of pizza," said Matt.

For Kevin, living in a country where summer temperatures can soar into triple digits, the desires are entirely different.

"In Azerbaijan, men do not wear shorts, ever," said Kevin. "In hot weather, I always think about shorts."

Since its inception in 1961, the Peace Corps has sent more than 210,000 Americans to serve in 139 countries around the world.

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