A Peace Corps Assignment in El Salvador Plants Seeds of Community Transformation

This is part one in a three part Citizen Diplomacy series highlighting how cross-border experiences shape individuals and their communities. Read part two here. Read part three here. 

“Try this one here, it’s really sweet.” Alberto, an eight-year-old Salvadorian boy led me down a ravine, pointing to a strange green and yellow fruit.

“And this one over here, there are so many of these, too!” yelled back his 14-year-old cousin, Orlando, as Alberto handed me another odd-looking fruit he had just picked from a nearby tree. I reluctantly accepted, having never seen any of these in my life. Hesitating only a moment, I bit into its scabrous and wrinkled flesh. It was indeed sweet.

In the early days of my Peace Corps assignment in rural El Salvador, Alberto and Orlando offered me a crash course in survival, instructing me how to identify the native fruits and avoid the poison ivy. Fresh out of 10 weeks of intensive training in cross-cultural engagement and technical skills geared toward helping communities reach their development goals, I hadn’t expected to be learning how to survive in the wilderness from two kids that could barely read.

We reached our destination, swam in the river, enjoyed our fresh fruit, and chatted about sports and girls. I had agreed to go along with them on their Saturday morning activity—a long and steep hike down to the river from the mountain village of Atiluya—as a break from what had been a frustrating start to my assignment. As I settled into my new home, I quickly found out that bonding with a handful of my host villagers that had just met me a few days before wasn’t going to be that easy. I couldn’t simply apply my 10-week training and automatically engage the community to execute development projects of my own design. I was missing something. As we hiked back to the village, happy and energized, I realized that I still had much to learn about how to connect with people, build trust, and work together toward common goals. It turned out I was at the beginning of a transformative process brought about by my two years of service.

The idea of the Peace Corps was first introduced in 1960 during an impromptu presidential campaign speech by then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Addressing 5,000 students at the University of Michigan, Kennedy challenged them to dedicate two years of their lives to the challenge of working alongside locals in developing nations. But what began simply as a motivational speech quickly became a reality when President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924 in March 1961, establishing the Peace Corps on a temporary pilot basis. Just five months later, the first cohort of volunteers departed for Ghana and Tanzania.

Today, the agency promotes its goals through a simple formula: train a person eager to go overseas to serve, and assign them to work alongside a community and its members to develop effective community impact initiatives over the course of two years.

Today, the agency promotes its goals through a simple formula: train a person eager to go overseas to serve, and assign them to work alongside a community and its members to develop effective community impact initiatives over the course of two years. Since its inception, nearly 220,000 Americans have heeded the call to public service and served as Peace Corps volunteers. Today, close to 7,000 volunteers serve in over 60 countries, in diverse areas that include education, health, youth engagement, and community development, trying to reach targets on goals set by the agency worldwide, in coordination with other international development sector efforts. Returned volunteers have also formed strong networks back home, helping to expose a generation of Americans who haven’t yet had a chance to serve overseas to cultures and customs other than their own.

Atiluya is a picturesque mountainous village in western El Salvador, a small community of 150 friendly families that depend on the seasonal harvest of coffee and balsam tree extract, and survive on slash-and-burn farming of corn and beans on the steep mountain slopes. The local primary school offers village children the opportunity for formal classroom learning, but they must travel by bus to the next town if they want to continue their studies beyond seventh grade. The village lacks basic services, with limited electricity coverage, firewood-powered cooking stoves, and only a handful of the rustic wood and tin houses connected to a reliable water source. Many families hike down the mountain on a daily basis to fetch water and bathe. Malnutrition rates among village children are still high and dengue fever is common, claiming the lives of a handful of children each year. Many villagers believe their only hope for a prosperous future lies in the vague possibility of employment in the capital city or the long, expensive, and difficult migration north to the United States.

In the early stages of my assignment, many of the initial project ideas I proposed failed miserably. I first tried to help villagers build efficient wood-burning stoves; three were built, and none survived. Then there was the world map I started with the children at school that was never finished. The projects I came up with were not well conceived because the ideas behind them did not originate from the local people themselves. In the days and months that followed my hike with Alberto and Orlando, I learned to listen and engage Atiluya’s leaders and community members, realizing that the purpose of my time there was not to focus on my vision, but the vision, ideas, and goals of the community.

The projects I came up with were not well conceived because the ideas behind them did not originate from the local people themselves.

Slowly, I developed a better sense of the work that needed to be done. Together, we started a women’s group, built a health clinic, and obtained a grant to build a road. From the outside, the changes might have seemed trivial, but for the community, the improvements were life changing. Throughout my time, I observed how a group of leaders learned to come together and help their small community of 650 people grow, finding hope in the small but significant changes in their quality of life.

My experience is not unique. Each Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, known among us as RPCVs, will tell you a similar story of struggle, adaptation, communication, and ultimately, triumph. Collectively, the Peace Corps represents an incredible network of community engagement experiences. Anywhere in the world, RPCVs often seek out ways to come together, exchange stories, and reminisce about the struggles and joys of living and serving in the remotest areas of the globe.

Still, the Peace Corps is not without its critics. I often receive mixed reactions when I share my experience living and working as a volunteer. Many people don’t understand why a young person would choose to delay their career to go live abroad for pennies. To many friends, two years seems like a very long time to commit to living poor. Recently, my neighbor asked me what was wrong with America that made me want to live elsewhere.  In exchange for two years of service in a rural, community setting, a volunteer gains an invaluable wealth of experience, a unique perspective on the drivers of poverty, and an incredible lesson in the importance of humility and collaboration to arrive at successful outcomes.

A few significant challenges during the past decade, including serious incidents of harassment and violence against volunteers, yielded a great deal of negative publicity, and triggered a strong reaction against the Peace Corps, most notably from the U.S. Congress. These events prompted the agency to reassess its approach to how it operates around the world, and how it recruits, places, and supports volunteers during their service and once they return home.

Last year, the Peace Corps announced a change to its recruitment process, allowing applicants to apply for specific roles in certain countries, rather than simply enlisting to be sent on assignment anywhere in the world. Under the new mandate, volunteers spend much less time shaping the projects they will work on, and more time diving into existing projects to get the work done. The agency has also improved its support for volunteer safety and security while in-country and expanded its support systems for volunteers returning home. Services range from career fairs to university partnerships that provide subsidized RPCV fellowships. In order to ensure that the Peace Corps continues to play an important role in global diplomacy, the agency encourages RPCVs to use their network to continue to expose others to the benefits of embedded long-term service.

Despite the many challenges the agency still faces, its mission to promote world peace and friendship remains more relevant than ever in an increasingly globalized world. In order to integrate the agency more fully into global development efforts, the Peace Corps has aligned itself with other development initiatives, seeking to play an important role in advancing the international development agenda, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In the process, the Peace Corps has developed strong partnerships in all its countries, for example, to effectively reduce the prevalence of malaria and HIV, improve literacy rates, and empower women and youth.

The agency can use its volunteers to effectively advance the Sustainable Development Goals without overlooking that true sustainable development begins at the grassroots level.

In a world where U.S. development assistance can often seem unpredictable and disengaged from the realities of local communities, Peace Corps volunteers are powerful citizen diplomats, providing tangible community-level evidence of America’s commitment to invest in improving the world. What’s more, the ever-growing community of volunteers who have embraced the opportunity to serve continue to influence future generations of Americans who, in turn, will be better positioned to understand and engage in an interconnected world. The list of RPCVs who have taken up leadership positions in various companies, nonprofits, and government agencies continues to grow, including a few currently serving in Congress. These are leaders who have learned firsthand the true meaning of transcending cultural and linguistic boundaries to develop partnerships that effectively advance a common agenda, rooted in a common understanding among those who may hold different values and worldviews.

The Peace Corps is a unique engine of partnership and collaboration, driven by the interests and needs of villages like my host community of Atiluya. The agency can use its volunteers to effectively advance the Sustainable Development Goals without overlooking that true sustainable development begins at the grassroots level. Perhaps with the right encouragement, more Americans will heed the call to serve, to seek ways to engage in effective community development that also promotes world peace and mutual understanding.

Daniel Breneman

Daniel is a Program Manager for the Enterprise and Community Development Practice Area at PYXERA Global where he assists in the development of local content programs. Daniel has been involved in headquarters and field program management activities for non-profit organizations over the past decade, in both Latin America and Africa. Daniel grew up in Argentina, and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.

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