Three Maine Women Reflect on Service as Peace Corps Volunteers

Three Maine Women Reflect on Service as Peace Corps Volunteers

They sought adventure. They wanted to travel and meet new people and experience different cultures. But most of all, these three women wanted to make a difference in the lives of other people. So, they answered the call put out by President Kennedy 60 years ago, when he asked young Americans to join the Peace Corps and volunteer their services in developing countries.  

Like all Peace Corps volunteers, they have a story to tell. A story about travel to faraway countries and living alone for the first time. A story about learning new languages and trying different foods. On one things, they all emphatically agree: it was the adventure of a lifetime, changing the way they looked at the world and other cultures. And on their return to the United States, they continued to find ways to serve Maine communities. 

 Maureen Dea, in the Ivory Coast 

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In 1966, when many of her college classmates were busy planning weddings, Maureen Dea was making other plans. The Peace Corps beckoned. Maureen says that she came from a homogeneous suburb in New Jersey and attended a girls Catholic high school and Catholic women’s college. She was ready for a change. “In the early ʼ60s, the Peace Corps was looking for liberal arts majors to fill its ranks,” Maureen explains. “Today it is much more specialized.” Volunteers come from varied backgrounds and  

experiences and work in the fields of health, agriculture, environmental management, education, and micro-business in their host countries. 

In the early years of the Peace Corps, about two-thirds of the volunteers were men, but Maureen was not deterred. One of 15,000 volunteers in 1966, she was sent to the French-speaking Ivory Coast to teach English to high school students.  

By today’s standards, the first generation of volunteers was truly cut off from friends and families. “We were not allowed to leave Africa for the two years that we were there. We were totally immersed,” Maureen notes. “And of course, there were no cell phones, no internet. We had to go to the post office to make a call.” Today, she says, it is very different. Volunteers can go home for weddings and holidays. 

Maureen says that she got more out the experience than she gave, but she thinks that her students enjoyed learning English with her. “I brought a different, less rigid approach to teaching than did the other teachers in my small high school, who were Frenchmen and who were extremely strict and used all French textbooks. Instead, the Peace Corps volunteers created our lessons around Ivorian characters and experiences, and we were very open and friendly with the students.” 

Upon her return in 1968, Maureen, who is now retired and lives in West Bath, taught high school students in Washington, D.C., as part of the Urban Teacher Corps. She then moved to Maine and worked as a reporter for the Times Record in Brunswick and later for the Associated Press in Augusta. In her 40s, she went back to school to get her law degree, and most recently she worked at Legal Services for the Elderly, based in Augusta. 

Looking back, Maureen says that volunteering in the Peace Corps was an amazing experience. “It really broadened me. It opened me up to other cultures and to people that didn’t think the way I did.” 

Valerie Young, in the Kingdom of Tonga 

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Valerie Young joined the Peace Corps in 2005 right out of college and served in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific for two years. With a major in Coastal Management, Valerie wanted to go to a location where she could “wear flip flops all the time.” She did get to wear flip flops, but like many volunteers, she had to adapt to a new culture and language.  

In spite of the training and preparations provided by the Peace Corps, Valerie admits that when she was eventually dropped off at the site where she would live for two years, she wanted to cling to the Peace Corps host country staff member who drove her there. “I had never lived by myself,” she says, “and certainly not in a house without a door!”  

She learned Tongan, a Polynesian language, and found herself teaching English to primary-level schoolchildren. Like Maureen, she used music, drama, art, games, and stories as teaching tools. “My Tongan students, however, were the most patient language teachers,” she says. “They never tired of helping me with the Tongan language skills.” 

Valerie found a real sense of community in Tonga. “The expression ‘it takes a village,’” she says, “is truly in practice. Tongans rarely experience hunger or homelessness. A customary Tongan greeting is ‘come and eat,’” and Valerie relates that she was warmly welcomed by her neighbors. 

Valerie now lives in Wiscasset and works as chief of staff at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. She is also a mother to two young children. When asked how she would respond if, in 20 years, her daughter decided to join the Peace Corps, she says she would be behind her daughter all the way. “I would tell her to go for it!  It is the adventure of a lifetime. It pushes you in ways that you don’t expect. You will need flexibility, open mindedness, and adaptability. You will learn that we are all just people. Moms are moms everywhere.” 

She also volunteers as the advocacy chair for the Maine Peace Corps Association. “The Peace Corps falls under the Foreign Affairs budget, and we still need to push for funding each year,” Valerie explains. She and other Maine volunteers are grateful for the strong support of Senator Susan Collins, who supported legislation that would provide unemployment benefits to volunteers who were evacuated from their countries of service during the pandemic. 

Macy Galvan, in Armenia 

Macy Galvan was one of these volunteers who had to be evacuated. In March 2020, while many Mainers were taking stock of their supply of paper towels, Macy, a Peace Corps volunteer in Tsaghkashen, a village in Armenia, was frantically packing and saying goodbyes to her host family.    

Macy had just completed her two-year assignment teaching English to elementary and high school students. She was in the midst of creating programs and trainings for a new language and technology lab as part of an extended stay. Speaking from her home in Portland, Macy recalls that saying goodbye to her family was the “hardest thing that she ever had to do.” 

But by mid-March it became clear that she, along with other Peace Corps volunteers from around the world, would have to return immediately to the United States. For the volunteers, their hopes and dreams of serving their communities came to a devastating halt. The returning volunteers had no jobs and in some cases no places to live. Coming back to Maine was an adjustment. “Being ripped away so quickly from my host family was traumatic,” Macy says. “I really wanted to go back.” 

When a job at Portland Community Squash opened up, Macy realized that she could channel her energies into serving the Portland community. Portland Community Squash is a nonprofit organization focused on the game of squash while creating a multicultural and multigenerational community center for the city of Portland. Today Macy serves as the high school and post-secondary coordinator and provides academic support and assistance with college admissions and internships for young Portlanders. 

Like most Peace Corps volunteers, Macy views service as part of her life. As a student at Bowdoin College, she had the opportunity to take part in summer service trips: one to India and the other to Cambodia. “These experiences really transformed me,” she says. “I realized that there were other ways of doing things. They were truly humbling experiences.” 

Macy says that her experience in the Peace Corps was formational on many levels. She does, however, have some words of advice. “You need to be resourceful and a go-getter,” she says.  Macy also stresses that volunteers need to learn the local language. “You become part of the community,” she explains, “versus just being hosted.” 

More than 240,000 individuals have volunteered with the Peace Corps over the past 60 years, and  

almost 2,000 of them have come from Maine. Once volunteers complete their two-year assignment, their service is never truly over. In fact, these volunteers are called “Returned Volunteers,” and they continue to serve their communities once they leave the Peace Corps.   

“Volunteers are a steady and constant voice of change in the communities they serve,” according to Valerie. Today, Maureen, Valerie, and Macy, along with other returned volunteers, remain committed to improving the lives of others here in Maine and the larger community. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Peace Corps visit the website at www.peacecorps.gov and if you are a RPCV living in Maine, join the Maine Peace Corps Association    

 

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