Sara Faison had never heard of St. Lucia, a small country the size of Clinton County, located in the East Caribbean. Then, about a year ago, she was stationed in the city of Anse-La-Raye for her two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).
On Wednesday, the 2004 WHS grad returned to Rodger O. Borror Middle School to share her experiences with Cherie Dixon’s eighth grade extended learning opportunity class. Faison is a youth developer, working in a primary school with third to sixth grade students.
“It’s awesome to spend time with the kids and see the opportunities they are are getting,” she said. “They are learning skills and we can tell we are actually making a difference in their lives.”
Faison reconnected with Dixon, her former fourth grade teacher, when Dixon spoke with Faison’s mother at a parent-teacher conference for her younger sister. Both signed up to participate in the Peace Corps’ World Wise School program.
The program connects classrooms with PCV and provides supplemental materials for the instructors to use in their classes. Thanks to a technology grant the school received last year, Dixon’s classroom is equipped with a computer that has a web cam. This technology has enabled Faison and the students to Skype throughout the school year.
“Our kids, like most American students, are so unaware of the outside world,” said Dixon. “The typical response to a different culture is ‘oh, that’s weird.’ I’m trying to teach them to take that out of their vocabulary. Different is not weird; weird has a negative connotation. Americans tend to think our way is best, but through this program, kids are getting outside these four walls and learning to be more understanding.”
Faison had never had a desire to travel or live in another country. Her first venture out of the country was to visit a friend teaching English in Korea. She liked it, but didn’t want to teach in a school, so she began researching different programs.
“At the time I was working with disadvantaged children in Cincinnati. I figured, if you have an iPhone, you’re not really disadvantaged. I wanted a global view,” she said.
Faison stumbled across the Peace Corps, which just this year celebrated its 50th anniversary. Its volunteers currently serve in 76 countries, but do not operate in any country that doesn’t ask for them, nor in any countries where the volunteers’ lives would be in danger. Cuts in government funding have also led to decreased resources.
The government program was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, a year after he made a passionate speech at the University of Michigan asking the students if they would give of themselves to volunteer in another country, experience the hardship of its citizens and use their new knowledge and skills to benefit the world. At the time, the speech was given to address the Democrats poor history of foreign relations. She was sold.
“My biggest fear was where I would be sent. I’m not a good language person,” she said.
Her fears were assuaged when she received her St. Lucia destination. Though she had no idea where the country was located on a map, through her research she discovered that the country had two languages, English and Kweyol (pronounced Creole).
”The kids are all naturally bilingual and sometimes the speakers don’t realize they switch from one language to the other. They get really excited when you know how to say something in the native language,” she said.
PCVs must have a college degree, past volunteer work and undergo a series of medical examinations in order to apply and be approved. For Faison, the process took nine months. For some volunteers, it can take up to two years. A volunteer receives about six weeks notice before they are sent to the destination, where they participate in two to three months of intense training. The training covers topics including language, skills, how to work in a school, the country’s education and political systems, safety and security and Peace Corps policies.
Almost halfway through her appointment, Faison has learned much about the St. Lucian culture. She shared “soca” music and “guava cheese” with the class. Guava cheese is a candy made from the guava fruit similar to Dots or fruit slices candy. The village receives satellite television, allowing Faison to view the same commercials and shows watched in the U.S.
She said that one had to learn to “eat like a local” to survive on the PCV living allowance. Imported items are very expensive. The can of spaghetti sauce that costs 89 cents at Big Lots in Wilmington costs $7.50 in St. Lucia. The one pound of strawberries that costs $3 in Clinton County costs $28 in her village. A typical food in the village would be hot dog pizza or “bullion,” Faison’s favorite, a dish similar to chicken and dumplings that includes lentils. Banana dishes are also common, as the fruits are very cheap in the Caribbean.
In a country that only sees Americans as portrayed on MTV, or as tourists on vacation, Faison said that one of the Peace Corps goals is to show foreign citizens the “giving side of Americans.”
“The biggest difference between classrooms here and there is a lack of resources,” she said. “What do you need for exam week? Paper, pencils, staples, scissors? You have no idea how hard it is to get that in my classroom. We have no art class because we don’t have supplies. My students can’t buy their own because they have to pay for their textbooks.”
While volunteers and locals discover many similarities between their cultures, there are often many difference. For example, in a region second only to sub-Saharan Africa for its rate of HIV/AIDS, it is common in the St. Lucian culture for a man to have multiple girlfriends, and a girl to have multiple boyfriends. Due to poverty and lower education, the drug trade is also widespread, as many do not have the skills to work in other fields. There is a widespread push to legalize recreational marijuana, as it is so ingrained in the culture.
“One day when the kids were acting up, I told them if they didn’t behave I would shut the computer down, blow the joint and go home. I didn’t realize how popular marijuana was there,” she said, laughing. “One of the kids still teases me about it.”
Faison also met her boyfriend in St. Lucia. “I was taking a bus, and he was the only guy who didn’t hit on me,” she said with a laugh. “The driver didn’t hear me say my stop, so he made sure I got there, and he showed me the beach.”
Faison still has a little more than a year left in St. Lucia. When she is finished with her Peace Corps work, she plans to return to the U.S. and get him a visa so they both can find jobs. She said she’s keeping her employment options open.
Like volunteers before her, she can’t imagine volunteering anywhere else. The kids she teaches have taught her as well.
“Never take for granted what you have, because you can always learn to live without it,” she said.
Contributing Writer – wnewsj