More than 100,000 volunteers will have served in the Peace Corps by the time it celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year. They are not the only Americans who have been changed by this personal outreach to remote parts of the world--a fact the Peace Corps director Loret Miller Ruppe has been noting in recent public statements. Families and friends, parents especially, saw them off for the unknown with fear and pride, and then shared vicariously in the experience of unfamiliar lands and peoples. Many times they visited volunteers in places where few Americans had gone before.
This month, Robert Epstein, Times executive arts editor, is visiting his daughter, Eden, a Peace Corps volunteer in Djiamand, a rural village in Senegal, West Africa. In the following articles, Epstein recalls his daughter's entry into the Peace Corps and Times Staff Writer Kathleen Hendrix remembers her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer.
What would we say when it was finally time to say goodby? Would we do the macho, bravo number, clip her playfully on the chin and mutter something about, "Show 'em how to do it, kiddo"? Or would we blubber something about writing regularly and thinking about us and how we all love her?
Our little drama of departure took place during a swirling Savannah, Ga., spring morning two years ago as my wife and I prepared to say farewell, in truth, a second farewell, to our daughter, Eden, off on a Peace Corps assignment to Senegal, a West African country unknown by that name when childhood stamp collecting and a Scott's catalogue taught me everything there was to know about Nations of the World.
A First Farewell
The first farewell had been at LAX two months earlier when we watched Eden walk away from us alone--that terribly symbolic, lonely walk that reached from the known (us) to the uncertain dark unknown of the airplane, a blue tote bag, veteran of many UC Berkeley days, draped over her shoulders. The family around us was in various poses of tearful stoicism, and we wondered how this gentle, slender, recent psychology graduate could bring any order out of seeming distant confusion, food out of dust, water out of wasteland.
For the second farewell we had flown to Savannah hoping to find daughter and a sea island called St. Helena's somewhere in the clutter of bridge projects that bejewel the eastern portions of South Carolina. My wife and I, along with a collection of well-traveled parents, family members and friends, were gathered for "graduation exercises" for the 28 people who were making up the Peace Corps Senegal Project, 1983.
Would we talk of other goodbys, the summer camps, the first college trip, the first vacation out of state? Would we kid her about old friends and new acquaintances?
Our destination in South Carolina was Frogmore, a disorderly rural arrangement of a general store, feed emporium and modest buildings. A few hundred yards down an incredibly straight, tree-bracketed road we found Penn Center, the staging area for this group of Peace Corps volunteers. Penn Center was started in early Civil War years and was the first school in the South for freed slaves. Occasionally it is used for Peace Corps training, its climate and soil possibly close to those of some African countries. And for some volunteers, it would be an important cross-cultural experience, for most of the farmers of St. Helena's are rural blacks with a language uniquely theirs. Penn Center is used frequently as a conference ground and Martin Luther King Jr. often found seclusion there in the activist years before his death. The wood buildings of Penn Center, many dating back to the Civil War period, all had broad and handsome porches and steps that encouraged outdoor gatherings and talk.
Eden took us proudly to the fields where she had learned intensive planting, growing vegetables on rows of mounds to achieve maximum production and minimum weeding. Late-spring storms and an early harvest had left more empty mounds than vegetables, but we could share a certain pride that what she had wanted to grow had grown. And with equal pride she showed us a latrine project destined for somewhere in Africa. What she had to learn she had learned. Then we visited the livestock area, the chickens, the goats, the rabbits. Far from earlier Girl Scout experiences, she had learned firsthand the complete life (and death) cycle of the chicken. In fact, she told us, she had helped in a new and different way to prepare that night's barbecue dinner . . . chicken. Again she showed that what needed to be done had been done.
Thinly Masked Bravado