By Dick Hughes  

SEPTEMBER 26, 2011 11:42 a.m. Comments (0)

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The Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Washington with more than 200 events either organized by the Peace Corps or by returned volunteers reuniting in host-country gatherings.

Since the national service program officially began March 1, 1961, with an executive order by President Kennedy, more than 200,000 Americans have served two years or more in 139 host countries.

That includes 1,383 South Carolina residents and 87 currently serving.

The inspiration for the Peace Corps came on Oct. 14, 1960, when Kennedy, in an impromptu campaign speech, asked University of Michigan students to give two years to help people in countries of the developing world.

It was a theme he followed with his inaugural urging: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Within three months of Kennedy taking the oath of office Jan. 20, 1961, the Peace Corps was up and running under R. Sargent Shriver, who was director for five years.

The first group of 51 Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Ghana the next August. Today, 8,655 volunteers and trainees are working in 76 countries.

Volunteers typically spend 10 weeks of in-country training and 24 months of service in the field. Today, 37 percent of the volunteers are in Africa, 24 percent in Latin America, 21 percent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, seven percent in Asia, 5 percent in the Caribbean, 4 percent in North Africa or the Middle East and 2 percent in the Pacific Islands.

To commemorate the Peace Corps anniversary, the Journal asked three Upstate residents currently serving to share their experiences.

William Blakely Ruble, Spartanburg

Serving in the Peace Corps has been one of my goals since I was 15. I would daydream about living in another culture and not only of having the chance to serve but also taking the opportunity to grow as a person.

I knew from the onset it would be one of the greatest challenges of my life. I knew Peace Corps service would come with all kinds of struggles. These include overcoming cultural barriers, dealing with loneliness and separation, and leaving behind the things I love the most.

Today, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer in Mahalapye, Botswana, and I can honestly say service is every bit as hard as I imagined.

I’m serving as a community capacity builder in a program dedicated to combating HIV/AIDS. My primary role has placed me in a clinic, assisting in systems strengthening and information management. The clinic I’m working in is severely understaffed and has an infrastructure that desperately needs improvement.

Outside the clinic, I spend a lot of my time teaching English at a local primary school. I have a class of around 30 kids who are 11-13. While my work at the clinic is important, teaching is becoming my passion. As a volunteer, I need to be able to see visible change so I know that my time is well spent. Seeing a child take an active interest in learning helps me through the difficult days of service.

Every day of service comes with its own challenges. However, embracing these challenges allows volunteers to participate in an amazing journey of self-discovery. I’ve never been more challenged, nor have I ever felt so in touch with myself.

William Blakely Ruble, 23, began his two-year commitment in April. William is a graduate of Dorman High School and Wofford College.

Natalie Quaranto, Greenville

My experience in the Peace Corps is unlike anything I could have ever anticipated.

I am a year and a half into my service as a rural health and sanitation volunteer in Paraguay. Paraguay is a rural, relatively unknown country in the heart of South America and has one of the longest histories with Peace Corps.

Some volunteers are in small farming communities inhabited by Guaraní-speakers (Guaraní is Paraguay’s indigenous and official second language), while others are a part of a large city and enjoy modern luxuries and technology found in the United States.

My experience has been shaped by my community, a neighborhood situated just outside of a large city-center bordering Argentina. It is a formerly rural and agricultural community that has grown rapidly in recent years. Health problems are often compounded by poverty and lack of education.

I teach health in the local elementary school, which has 500 children from grades K through 6. I focus on nutrition, hygiene, dental health, parasite prevention and self esteem. The curriculum and teaching methods are pretty rigid, so I teach in a variety of ways: with games, books, songs, worksheets, group projects and presentations, cooking activities, etc. and share my didactic materials and approaches with the teachers.

I also work with our neighborhood health post by helping with first aid and secretarial work and encouraging community involvement in health post activities. Last summer, we held a series of health talks on high blood pressure, dangers of cigarette smoking, breast cancer, hand washing, dengue and diarrhea. We are holding our second prenatal care class, comprised of 11 pregnant women 16 years and older. In October, we will have a six-day reproductive health workshop on family planning, HIV/AIDS, STDs and self-esteem. I also teach English to a dedicated group of middle- and high-school girls.

I am not trying to say life is perfect and constantly rewarding. Within a day, there are several ups and downs. The tiniest frustrations can build up and test your sanity. But an especially discouraging week can be transformed when you realize you’ve made more progress than you think.

I hope I leave a mark on my community through my various educational efforts and personal relationships, but I know Paraguay has become a part of me forever. It has been my home for almost two years, the source of innumerable joys and frustrations. I will forever be indebted to my Paraguayan family, who took me in as one of their own. The love I have for them, my friends (volunteers and Paraguayans) and students is the ultimate reward for my time spent in Paraguay.

Natalie Quaranto, 24, of Greenville graduated from St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in 2005 and received her BS in Biology and a minor in Spanish from the College of Charleston in 2009. Her service in Paraguay ends in April 2012.

Nelson Patterson, Greenville

I am writing this sitting in my room in front of my fan in more than 90 degree heat in the evening. I live in a house with my host family where I have my own room. There is no air conditioning, but I am lucky to have a fan. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti. Not having modern conveniences is part of the experience.

As I reflect over the past eight months I realize how lucky I have been to be a part of an organization where I am helping others and also learning. I have been able to learn Spanish and feel comfortable enough to give presentations and teach subjects that in the past would have been a challenge even in English. It is amazing.

I am a health volunteer in Chinandega, Nicaragua. The main focus of my job is to work with the Ministry of Health of Nicaragua to promote and educate the most at-risk population on HIV/AIDS. I have formed youth groups with teenage boys and young adults who are out of the school and are not working. Many of them have had problems with the law.

I have been working with them so they can be responsible young men who know about reproductive health and ways to protect themselves from different infections, as well as culturally appropriate planned-parenthood methods.

I also go to different communities giving talks about the importance of taking the HIV test. HIV/AIDS is a growing problem in Chinandega, and it is important that people know that this life-threatening illness is preventable. Recently I have asked to help educate commercial sex workers so that they can have a better understanding of how important it is to protect themselves.

I miss my family in Greenville. Although I have traveled a lot, my roots are still in Greenville. Peace Corps has opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking about life, and I am proud to serve my country to help others in need.

Nelson Patterson, 24, grew up “as a third culture kid” of parents with USAID who are serving in Pakistan. His roots are in Greenville, where his grandmother Mary Patterson and uncle and aunt, Charles and Janette Patterson, live. Nelson graduated from the International School of El Salvador and attended College at Barry University in Miami.

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