Since its founding in 1961, the Peace Corps has asked Americans to give their very best in building international relations with communities in developing countries. The Corps calls upon its volunteers to overcome cultural boundaries. It asks them to live modestly alongside the people of their host communities while working together to tackle challenges that range from climate change, to food and water sustainability, to pandemic disease, to gender equality.
Lehigh Valley natives Lauralee Lightwood-Mater and Sarabeth Brockley each served as Peace Corps volunteers in South America. Each of them gave up family, friends, and many of the modern conveniences we take for granted in the United States. They faced a host of challenges in fully integrating with their host communities.
In exchange, they gained a nuanced understanding not only of how cultures very different from their own function on a day-to-day basis but also of the ways in which they as cultural ambassadors shaped and were reshaped by the communities they served.
Lauralee served for two and a half years as an agricultural volunteer in Kokuére Guazú, a rural village of about 260 people in the department of Guairá in southern Paraguay. Around 500 people live in Levanto, a community in the department of Amazonas in northern Peru where Sarabeth served.
One of the basic hurdles Lauralee and Sarabeth each had to overcome during their time in South America concerned adapting to differences in infrastructure.
Lauralee notes that she needed to be flexible with her time and expectations in a place where even a sprinkle of rain made the roads, which are made of red clay, unusable.
“You could spend weeks planning a class and you get the classroom space, and then it rains the day you’re supposed to do it. That’s a pretty normal thing that happens.”
Sarabeth vividly recalls first seeing Chacopoyas, the capital of Amazonas, situated some 7,000 feet above sea level.
“You lived above the clouds.”
Sarabeth’s final site in Levanto is similarly situated in a remote area.
“The village was about 24 hours away on a dirt road from Lima. There was no airport. There wasn’t anything nearby that would make your journey any faster.”
Sarabeth mentions that her village’s remoteness forced her to undergo an appendectomy while in Peru. Sarabeth confesses that the emergency procedure nearly cost her her life.
“It levels you out. You understand how privileged you are and how much opportunity you have.”
Sarabeth and Lauralee each point out that adapting to their new environments gave them a much broader understanding of how South American communities in areas that don’t attract a lot of tourism function differently yet no less successfully than communities in the United States do.
Sarabeth’s host family owns and operates a cuy or guinea pig farm. The family served a cuy to the community at noon each Sunday. Sarabeth helped prepare this traditional meal.
“It was the first animal I’d ever killed in my life.”
Sarabeth, a native of Allentown, talks about how participating in this weekly ritual was very different from what she was used to growing up in the Lehigh Valley.
“It’s a much more holistic viewpoint of living. I come from the city.”
Lauralee discusses how the simple act of living in a house with a grass roof and wooden walls helped her to connect with the people of her community on a much more meaningful level than if she had simply been a tourist.
“You see how other people live completely differently but also validly and effectively.”
Like many who serve, Lauralee and Sarabeth each decided to become Peace Corps volunteers after graduating from college.
Lauralee, who grew up in Bethlehem, knew from an early age that she wanted to serve in the Peace Corps, even though she did not yet fully understand everything that serving would entail.
“I knew I wanted to go into the Peace Corps before I knew what it was.”
The ideas about activism that led Lauralee to apply to the Peace Corps after completing her undergraduate degree at Ursinus College formed at home.
“My Mom is a peace activist in the Lehigh Valley Pocono Committee of Concern.”
Sarabeth studied environmental science at Moravian College, where she developed a strong sense that she wanted to work to fight social injustice through peaceful action.
“I knew that, moving forward, whatever I was going to work in needed to have a social component.”
Sarabeth attributes her decision to volunteer in the Peace Corps in part to her academic research advisor Diane White Husic, who heads up Biological Sciences at Moravian.
“She’s very science oriented but she’s also very much involved with the social impact of environmental climate systems and sustainability on individual communities.”
Sarabeth and Lauralee emphasize that serving in the Peace Corps required an open mind on how to best serve a community’s specific needs as well an awareness of the part volunteers play in shaping international relations.
Sarabeth observes that Peace Corps volunteers must be mindful of a range of implications when embedding themselves in communities where the people look, speak, and act differently from them and then telling the locals how they are going to assist them in developing long term projects.
“You have to be incredibly considerate and sensitive to how you play a role in changing the landscape and changing people.”
Sarabeth adds that Peace Corps volunteers coming out of college need to be acutely aware of how the work they do disproportionately benefits the interests of the United States whether they want it to or not.
“It’s a heavy concept. I still think that the Peace Corps doesn’t necessarily know how to address it.”
Much of Lauralee’s work involved helping small scale farmers in Kokuére Guazú improve soil quality and crop yields. She also met with a women’s committee already in place once a week and taught geography and nutrition courses at a local elementary school.
“I would pretty much teach whatever they asked for. I’d do the research and make sure I could teach it.”
Lauralee stresses that she had a healthy respect for her community’s way of doing things and acted as a resource locals could consult rather than as someone who dictated what she thought would be most helpful.
“These farmers have been farming for generations. I didn’t feel comfortable going in and acting like I knew more than they did. Instead I helped them access information.”
While Peace Corps’ mission to help communities thrive has evolved, it has faced scrutiny over the past five years regarding its response to sexual assault allegations by volunteers, most recently in November when the organization suspended its first victim’s advocate Kellie Greene without pay.
Peace Corps’ official response was that Greene created a hostile work environment. Greene, however, has argued that she was punished for trying to protect the victims who came to her seeking help.
Lauralee confides that the safe and understanding environment for Peace Corps’ sexual assault victims Greene sought to create is vital to the organization’s continued success.
“I really hope that the situation can be peacefully resolved.”
Lauralee and Sarabeth have carried the critical perspectives they gained regarding international relations between the United States and the communities they served into their present day jobs.
Lauralee, who is now a Project Coordinator for Philadelphia-based The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store program, says that her experience in Paraguay has better prepared her to meet with Spanish speaking store owners and discuss how to carry healthy food options.
“It’s similar work in very different atmospheres. My Peace Corps experience most definitely helps me relate to people who may be very different from me.”
Lauralee recently visited the host families she stayed with in Paraguay. Though a personal visit, Lauralee was able to see how the communities she had become a part of had grown.
She mentions that the women’s committee she met with threw her a birthday party and also found time to talk to her about what they had been doing.
“I got to talk with them about their current projects and got updates on the current statues of some of my old projects.”
After returning from Peru, Sarabeth went on to complete a Masters degree in Environmental Law at Lehigh University. She currently works as a Policy Analyst in the Division for Sustainable Development at the United Nations in New York.
Sarabeth remarks that her time in Peru gave her a better sense of how she can share what she has learned to help address water scarcity as a means of promoting social justice in developing countries around the world.
“Cycles of injustice and poverty are only broken when people have self-efficacy.”