Fifty years of service: Peace Corps workers cherish human contacts, life-altering experiences

There are a few dozen Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the Capital Region and 12,392 volunteers fr

Late one night in Fiji, a man woke Karl Luntta and brought him to a hut where people were huddled around a baby, lying in a tub of cool water, shaking violently and convulsing.

“He was burning up,” Luntta said. “Everyone looked at me, questioning and desperate, as if I had an answer for this.”

There was no doctor, clinic or medical center nearby. “There was just me, the sole westerner in the village, the doctor by racial proxy,” he said. “I was shaken by how much I didn’t know, by how much the family trusted me, for no better reason than where I came from and what I looked like.”

Luntta, director of media relations at the University at Albany, was working as the staff training director for the Peace Corps in that region. He also served in Botswana from 1977 to 1980.

He’s one of a few dozen Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the Capital Region and one of 12,392 volunteers from New York to serve over the past 50 years, making New York second on the list of Peace Corps volunteer-producing states. Those volunteers, who live and work among us, have affected people across the globe, from small villages in South America to bustling cities in former Soviet republics. All of them answered a call to service that John F. Kennedy made 50 years ago.

Reasons to volunteer

They volunteered for different reasons. Joseph Doherty of Albany was inspired by a teacher who had been a Peace Corps volunteer, and decided to do something that was both adventurous and good for the country. Kristen Garvin of Sand Lake simply wanted to make a difference. Nancy Cousins of Burnt Hills wanted to know what it was like in different countries and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after college. Terry Amrhein of Burnt Hills was opposed to the war in Vietnam, but he still felt that he wanted to serve his country, and the Peace Corps was his way to do it.

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In 1962, Bill Batt of Albany was one of the earliest Peace Corps volunteers, joining in search of adventure, challenge and broadened horizons just a year after the organization’s formation. He ended up in Phayao, Thailand, where his official job was as a middle school teacher.

Batt said this job was a pretext that gave him an entree into the community, and said he was expected to do anything he could to help. He raised chickens, helped a midwife deal with a breech birth, and helped to improve drainage on an athletic field, to name a few contributions.

While Batt was in Asia, Harry Thornhill of Glenville, who describes himself as a “Kennedy kid” who was compelled to give to his country, was a continent away, assigned to the African nation of Liberia in 1964. He taught at the Teacher Training Institute. Many of his adult students only had a primary school education.

Jeanette Grayson Gottlieb, also excited by President Kennedy’s challenge to America’s young adults, found herself in Iran from 1965 to 1967 teaching English as a second language. She felt that she was able to correct some misperceptions about the United States, thus fulfilling one part of the Peace Corps’ threefold mission that includes promoting a better understanding of Americans.

Shaped by experience

Her service had a huge impact on her life, as she met her husband, Stephen Gottlieb, in Tehran. He was also a Peace Corps volunteer who taught at Pahlavi University. Their experiences in Iran helped to shape their life together.

“Part of what forms a strong bond between us is that understanding of the needs, hopes and desires of people elsewhere, and the effort to see the world without being blinded into thinking that there is only one way to see what is going on,” Stephen Gottlieb said.

In 1973, Terry Amrhein took a two-year leave from his job at GE to serve in Swaziland with his then-wife.

Today, only 7 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are married. For half of his six months of training, Amrhein lived in an African kraal with a thatched roof, mud walls and cow-dung floor. He trained from 5 a.m. to noon, which included learning the Zulu language and customs, and then came home to have dinner with his African “parents,” who had prepared it on a pot-bellied stove. After training, he went to live in the nation’s capital, Mbabane, where he taught in the machine shop at the Swaziland Institute of Technology.

Peace Corps volunteers work in 139 different countries in education, health, business, the environment, agriculture and youth and community development. Through the decades, some of the world’s needs have changed, as have the roles of Peace Corps volunteers. When the AIDS epidemic emerged, volunteers became involved in education and prevention efforts. For example, from 1999 to 2001, Garvin’s assignment in Ecuador in rural public health included HIV prevention work.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, former Soviet republics were busy building business infrastructures. From 2007 to 2008, Mark and Lisa Lebowitz of Gansevoort were assigned to Zugdidi, Georgia, where they worked helping to develop fledgling businesses and teaching, respectively, until they were evacuated when war broke out with Russia. The Peace Corps reassigned the couple to Bolivia, but before they could get there, volunteers were evacuated from that country as well. They ended up returning to New York, but they visited Georgia a few months later to say goodbye to the friends they had made there.

While the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, volunteering is not just for the young, and the Lebowitzes are an example of that. Mark was 60 and Lisa 57 when they left for Georgia, inspired to serve after their son had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama.

Humor is essential

Having a sense of humor is critical. “One of the most important assets a Peace Corps volunteer can have is a strong sense of humor and the ability to laugh at his or herself,” said Doherty, who served in Sierra Leone from 1976 to 1978 designing and building agricultural roads.

One of Garvin’s funny moments stemmed from a mistranslation when she confused “VCR” with the word for “HIV.” She thought a woman had come to confide in her that she was infected with HIV. “She really just wanted me to watch TV with her, and I thought she had a deadly disease,” Garvin said.

Luntta had a similar translation problem when he tried to compliment a woman on how beautiful her baby was and instead said, “Your baby is a rabbit,” in his newly acquired language.

Batt was once called upon to help pull a panicked elephant out of a rice paddy.

There were plenty of poignant realizations as well. In Niger, where she served as a nutritionist from 1981 to 1983, Cousins learned “that there are people in all places who choose to be happy, and there are also people in all places who choose to be unhappy. Material goods seem to have very little impact on this,” she said.

Garvin was in Ecuador on Sept. 11, 2001. “It was really scary,” she said. “My community just really surrounded me and were so protective. They just really took me in as their family.” She was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the Ecuadorans.

Other cultures

Another part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help Americans better understand other cultures, and area volunteers who served surely had that opportunity.

“What impressed me was how similar the people were to everybody else,” Amrhein said. “They are interested in having a roof over their head, having something to eat, and having a good time. In one respect, they’re so similar, and in one respect, they’re different because they’re so poor, their cultures are different, and they do things so differently, but the fundamentals are the same.”

Doherty had a similar lesson in Sierra Leone. “Despite the obvious socioeconomic differences, we all have the same underlying desires to live healthy and productive lives and to provide something better for the next generation,” he said.

Having a lasting impact is something that Peace Corps volunteers seek to do. During her service in Panama from 2006 to 2008 teaching sustainable coffee practices and nutrition, Darlene Yule of Altamont developed a series of seminars about coffee farm management. “The work I did while in my small town, Las Barretas, will hopefully continue for years,” she said.

These former volunteers continue to fulfill the Peace Corps’ mission, specifically by helping to promote a better understanding of other cultures on the part of Americans. “I felt and still believe that the Peace Corps was and is the most effective foreign policy that the U.S. has ever had,” Thornhill said.

Amrhein said that he is still working on the third part of the mission by educating Americans. “If somebody asks how long is your Peace Corps experience, most people say two years, but the right answer is forever,” he said.

Many still have ties to the countries in which they served, and their service continues to affect their lives today. Doherty sponsored a student from Sierra Leone who came to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree. Amrhein donates funds to charitable organizations that help Swaziland. During Liberia’s civil war, Thornhill hosted fundraising dinners to help refugees. He and his wife took their three sons to Africa to live from 1980 to 1981, and the couple later taught in Ghana on three separate occasions. Batt stays in contact with the group of volunteers he served with in Thailand. In addition to traveling back to that country several times, he still speaks Thai and has been like a “father” to many Thai students in the Capital Region`.

Some area volunteers will be involved in presentations and celebrations around the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, including a September gathering of the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C.

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