Finding My Path Back to the Peace Corps by Barbara Joe

 

Finding My Path Back to the Peace Corps

-a Gateway to a Useful Life

Contributed by Barbara E. Joe 

As a newly minted college graduate, I realized that if I lived long enough, I would meet many challenges while finding my path and a gateway to a useful life.  Finishing my master’s degree was the first step; raising four children and facing head-on the time when my husband left while the kids were still young, proved to be another.  So who could blame me when I thought that the only way from there would be up – surely I had “paid my dues.”

But I was wrong!  In 1994 Andrew, my older son, died after a work accident. It was my darkest hour, the before and after of my entire existence – a divide never to be breached – seeming totally contrary to the natural order. I faced a problem without any remedy or redeeming rationale, no lessons to be learned, only that a child lovingly raised and nurtured could suddenly disappear forever. Then, my Cuban foster son, Alex, an unaccompanied minor who’d arrived during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, died of AIDS one year later.

For many months, all I could do was put one foot in front of the other, going to work, coming home alone to my empty house, feeling thirsty from so much crying, almost reveling in my grief, perhaps punishing myself for having let my boys die. Other parents’ announcements of their kids’ graduations, marriages, new babies, and promotions only rubbed salt in the wounds.  I joined a support group for bereaved parents, The Compassionate Friends, which made me feel less alone and for that I am grateful.

I became hyper-protective of my remaining kids and little granddaughter, anxious about every late arrival and missed phone call. After all, lightning had already struck twice. I envied other parents their innocent belief that their children would always be there to carry on their legacy. I knew otherwise – kids’ lives could actually disappear in a nanosecond, as is the case for each and every one of us.

My awareness that every life is finite, including my own, revived a dream I’d had since 1961 when President Kennedy first established the Peace Corps.  Although I hadn’t been able to join the Peace Corps in my youth, I revisited that dream.  In the year 2000 at the age of 62, I became a health volunteer in Honduras.  This was a homecoming to both my dream and to Honduras, because I was there in 1941 while my father did archeological work in the Mayan ruins of Copán.

How a 62 year old woman revisits her dream of joining the Peace CorpsMy surviving kids were skeptical; I’d often talked about Peace Corps but never followed through. They were surprised that this time I really meant it. Before I left, a man my own age warned that I was making a big mistake, that Peace Corps was only for young people, “Mark my words, you’ll be home by Christmas at the latest.” I followed my passion and stayed beyond the usual 27 months for “three Christmases!” I even started a support group for “over-50” volunteers, OAKS, standing for Older And Knowing Souls.

In the first town where I lived, two of my landlady’s young grandsons died of AIDS, along with the female partner of one of them. At that time, no AIDS remedies existed in Honduras, so my efforts focused on education and prevention. I also trained midwives and helped with deliveries, once participating in a breech birth where the baby died; the young mother should have gone to a hospital, but with the infant’s feet already emerging, it was too late to get her there. To reduce childhood deaths from a common killer—intestinal illnesses—I encouraged women to keep babies with diarrhea well hydrated with breast milk and a rehydration formula made of boiled water, salt, and sugar, consulting their local health center if the illness continued.

I had hoped to leave death behind, but it soon caught up with me. Honduran children died, as did some mothers in childbirth, and AIDS, the illness that had killed my foster son, was rampant.  Those deaths helped guide my work as a health volunteer. Fortunately, thanks to many collective efforts during my time in Honduras, child and maternal survival increased and AIDS decreased. The two Honduran towns where I lived and worked, El Triunfo (The Triumph) and La Esperanza (The Hope), memorialized in my book’s title, Triumph & Hope, reflected the true spirit of their inhabitants and my own frame of mind.

In 2003 I left Honduras after receiving an urgent plea from my 90-year-old mother who had learned to use e-mail to communicate with me.  I was already conversant in Spanish before going to Honduras, but it had become second nature to me there. Thus my new career as an on-call Spanish interpreter in hospitals and schools began, something I’m still doing at age 74. As an interpreter, I’ve helped families with children undergoing painful organ and bone marrow transplants, mothers with preemie babies small enough to fit into your hand, and kids with congenital anomalies such as eye tumors and missing intestines, as well as a pregnant woman with terminal brain cancer, patients with end-stage kidney and liver disease, and roofers permanently paralyzed in falls.

My work has proved helpful to others and my part-time schedule allowed me to spend time with my mother before her death in 2006. It was then that I got down to finishing my Honduras memoir, based on letters I’d posted monthly on a website while in service. After it received positive reviews, I was invited to give talks about Peace Corps service at libraries and continuing education centers. I also started going back to Honduras, volunteering with a medical brigade (ihsmn.org) and organizing other humanitarian projects partly funded by my book proceeds. I’ve returned eight times so far, most recently in February.

Nothing can bring back my son and foster son, who are never far from my thoughts. But my experience of finding my path back to the Peace Corps offered me a healing experience and opened a brand new gateway to a useful life.

Metamorphosis - Your Stories of transformation and self-realization

 “It is well to be prepared for life as it is,

but it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is.” Sargent Shriver

A gateway to a useful life - finding my path back to the Peace Corps Contributed by Barbara E. JoeBio – Barbara E. Joe, MA   Metamorphosis - Your Stories

“Barbara Joe,” people ask, “What’s your last name?” Well, “Joe” is my last name, thanks to my late Korean father-in-law who chose that spelling. In solidarity with my kids, I kept that name after becoming divorced. A native of Boston, an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley, I’m now 74 with a lively five-year-old great-grandson. From my century-old house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, I work as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator.

I belong to The Compassionate Friends, a support group of bereaved parents. I’ve also joined a local Catholic community, Communitas, a few dozen people meeting for weekly Mass at a neighborhood center for gay Catholics. Most members are not gay, just people of all ages, races, ethnicities, orientations, and abilities, with priests from Catholic University taking turns presiding. As a volunteer with Amnesty International (AI) since 1981, I was a founding member of local Group 211 and have held various national leadership positions, including the last eight years as volunteer coordinator for the Caribbean for AI USA, and also serve as a board member of three non-profit organizations working internationally. From 2000-20003, I was a Peace Corps health volunteer in Honduras and wrote a memoir, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years in the Peace Corps in Honduras (Amazon.com,Kindle, and Nook), winner of three literary awards, including “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” from Peace Corps Writers.

A powerful, inspiring personal story that offers an intimate look inside Peace Corps service, showing that no matter what your age and circumstances, you can always forge a new direction.

I’ve also written several articles about the Peace Corps and my missions to Romania, Sudan, Cuba, and other countries. I speak frequently at libraries and educational centers about Peace Corps service and my book.   In April 2011 I was featured in Woman’s Day and in August 2011 appeared in a video distributed worldwide by Voice of America News.

 

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Comments

  1. Deri Joy Ronis says:

    Reading your article has given me permission so to speak of an idea I have been contemplating for the past few years, to join the Peace Corps at the same age you were when you went in.. I had lived and taught in Belize through Rotary International and also lived and taught in the Bahamas for 5 years and am fluent in Spanish and French.. very exciting.

    best,

    Deri

  2. Adarryl Daniels says:

    I have known Ms. Barbara for 9 years now and it still amazes me that her drive has not slowed an ounce. She is a woman whose humanitarian efforts go above and beyond the norm! That she has healed, or is still healing….. and the Peace Corp helped her find some of that peace – is definately fair exchange! I have listened to many of her talks, read her book and have seen many, many gorgeous story telling photos of hers – all of which bring knowledge to myself and others thru her work. Ms. Barbara, you are an amazing woman, full of heart, comfort and selfless giving – i can only hope many followin your footsteps of example! Bless you and those who surround you…………

  3. Jamie Welch says:

    As a Father who has lost a child, I can fully relate to your fight not to give up on life, and the over protection/worry of your remaining children. Barbara you are a true inspiration, you have proven that by selflessly giving of ones self to others can help heal the wounds that are embedded so deeply in ones heart. You exemplify the meaning of living your life to the fullest and the Peace Corps is better off because of it. I can only hope that at age 74, I have half the drive, determination and enthusiusm for life as you do!!!

    With the upmost respect – Jamie

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