From Gabon to Paraguay: Peace Corps volunteers living in Taos swap memories

Former Peace Corps volunteers, now living in the Taos area, gather at the Living Light Studio to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary. Photo by Teresa Dovalpage

Originally published in The Taos News

From the Costa Rica National Park to the small town of Lastoursville in Gabon, to a Guarani village called Nyupyshuguazo in Paraguay, Peace Corps volunteers now living in Northern New Mexico have been everywhere.
They gathered Saturday (Feb. 26) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an organization that, as Bonnie Lee Black said, “shows to the world one of the finest faces of the United States.”
The celebration was one of more than 700 parties being held all over the world to mark the day that President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps, on March 1, 1961. Black, who served in Gabon from 1996 to 1998 and whose memoir, “How to Cook a Crocodile,” was just released by Peace Corps Writers, organized the event in Taos.
Close to 60 returned Peace Corps volunteers and friends gathered at Lenny Foster’s Living Light Studio.
Everybody had a story to tell.
The returned volunteers shared funny, sad and even scary moments. They talked about what it meant to jump into an unknown territory, often without knowing much about the language or the culture.
Many referred to the surprises they found after arriving in their posts.
“I thought I would be using Spanish, since I already knew the language,” said Ana Pacheco, UNM-Taos Library information specialist, who served in Paraguay in the early ’80s.
“Instead, I ended up learning and speaking Guarani.”
Pacheco worked as a health and agriculture home extension agent in a small village called Nyupyshuguazo. In Paraguay she met her future husband, Kevin McCourt, also a Peace Corps volunteer. Though they discovered they were in love when she was ready to come back to the states and he had six more months to go, that didn’t discourage them. They have been married for 26 years now.
“My experience was extremely positive, but a lot of it has to do with luck,” said Pacheco. “I was lucky to be embraced as a family member by the wonderful people I worked with.”
McCourt helped with the sanitation in a town called General Patricio Escobar. He helped to install a running water system and taught the locals how to keep wells and outhouses clean. Both he and Pacheco were in Paraguay during the Stroessner dictatorship. “People lived in fear,” said McCourt.
Another love story was shared by Patrick Nicholson, who met his wife, Andrea, in Uruguay, while working in environment protection projects. The couple lives now in Taos with their two children.
“The Peace Corps brought us together,” Andrea said.
The American Indian community was represented by the Taos Pueblo potter and artist Bernadette Track. She worked for AmeriCorps VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps. Track also directed the Native American Peace Corps recruitment at San Juan Pueblo for the Eight Northern Pueblos.
“There are so many ways to serve in our communities, too,” she said.
Serving in the Peace Corps was a life-changing experience for most of them.
“I learned more from the people I helped than they did from me,” said Judy Vickrey, who served in Ethiopia from 1963 to 1965. She was a nurse and worked in an US-AID Hospital, as part of one of the first groups of Peace Corps Volunteers.
Vickrey came to Taos to work with the Pueblo Health Center and has been in this area for over 40 years.
Though it wasn’t too common, sometimes an entire family had the Peace Corps experience together. That was the case with Don and Lorraine Goldman, who served in Costa Rica from 1972 to 1976. They were one of the few families with children that went into the Peace Corps.
Lorraine Goldman said, during the first years, only single volunteers or married couples without children were accepted, but then more experienced volunteers were requested.
“‘Experienced’ meant, in many cases, older people, that is, families with kids,” she said.
She taught English at the University of Costa Rica while her husband (who is a handicapped person and did his service on crutches) worked for the National Parks and also taught at the university. Their two little daughters, Emily and Jessica, were with them at the time.
Emily also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras from 1991 to 1992.
Though the family program was discontinued after a few years, the Goldmans look back fondly on their experience.
“They brought us closer as a family,” said Lorraine. “And our children speak perfect Spanish now.” To learn more about the Peace Corps visit www. peacecorps.gov

Cooking Crocodiles & Other Food Musings

Bonnie Lee Black during her Peace Corps service (pictures taken from the blog http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/cooking-crocodiles/author/bblack/)

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