“The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.”—- Mahatma Gandhi
Suchet Loois, Country Director – Peace Corps
David White could not have said it better himself. The 28-year old American and Peace Corps volunteer says after completing college, he had a burning desire “to give back” some of the rewards he earned having been granted a tertiary education. His way of “giving back” came with his decision to enroll in the Peace Corps, a voluntary organization that addresses the human needs of persons in developing countries.
He tells JIS News that working with the Peace Corps of Jamaica for the past five years has been a fulfilling experience that “has changed my life”.Upon arriving in Jamaica in 1999, Mr. White, who has harboured an interest in Caribbean culture, was assigned to live with a host family in southern Trelawny, where he was to work on a sanitation and water project.
Peace Corps Volunteers at work in Jamaica.
“I worked in areas where most communities didn’t have running water,” he recalls, “so we worked on projects which helped to create more sanitary water supplies.”In addition to the project’s provision of running water, he says, “we did a large project trying to put in new types of compost toilet units for personal use.”
For Mr. White, living and working in rural Jamaica was “interesting” inasmuch as it was also challenging. He explains that while for the most part the development work the Peace Corps carries out is not “physically hard labour, motivating people (which is one of the organization’s main goals) can be challenging.”
According to him, one of the hindrances he has identified working in the voluntary service in Jamaica is the perception by members of communities that “development workers are not looking out for the best interest of the community.”
“At the same time, you find people who are willing to open and expose themselves to take a risk.to put in extra work and convince their community members that through cooperation, unity and togetherness, they can produce a change in their environment,” he says of others.
Making positive changes has been an important aspect of the work of the Peace Corps of Jamaica for the last 42 years.
The voluntary agency’s long stint in Jamaica took effect on February 22, 1962 when Norman Washington Manley signed an agreement with the United States Government, inviting the Peace Corps to have a programme in Jamaica. Later in that year, on June 12, the first group of 37 volunteers arrived in Jamaica after training in San Diego. The volunteers journeyed to the island mere weeks before Jamaica ushered in its independence, coming to work in the fields of agricultural and vocational education, formal education, construction, electricity, plumbing, library and health. Since then, more than 3,400 volunteers have been sworn in to serve in Jamaica.
Jamaica is one of 136 countries across the world to which Peace Corps volunteers have been dispatched to work.
The Peace Corps was established as an Agency by an executive order of President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961. In June of the same year, the U.S. Congress approved the legislation formally authorizing the Corps, giving it a mandate to promote world peace and friendship.
Peace Corps Country Director for Jamaica, Suchet Loois explains to JIS News that the Agency revolves around three main goals.
“One,” he points out, “is the developmental goal, which is in the heart of what President Kennedy’s vision was, which is to provide adequate hands on training to people in developing countries to meet the human needs for development.”
The second goal is for U.S. Peace Corps volunteers to help in the promotion of a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people they are serving in Jamaica.
The third and final goal, Mr. Loois says, “is for the volunteers to improve the understanding on the part of Americans, so when they return home, they have to go to their communities, go to universities or to schools or wherever they can meet to talk about their experience working in another country and give people a different idea about the country where they served.”
A key component to the success of the varied programmes of the Peace Corps is community integration. Mr. Loois says this is critical as it sets the precedence for the volunteers to maintain ongoing interaction with community members.”In order to improve the quality and sustainability of the Peace Corps work in the country, the volunteers have to meet that goal (community integration),” he states.
Speaking further against the background of community integration, he says much has been invested in improving the training of volunteers over the years.
“Every volunteer that comes to Jamaica has to be assigned to a community or organization to fulfill community-based training where our volunteers spend five of seven weeks in training, living with a host family where they can learn about the family and also Jamaican culture,” he says.
Continuing, Mr. Loois notes, “they become embedded in the culture, assimilated so to speak, and they perform well when they are assigned to the community so they have to integrate.”
The Peace Corps Country Director tells JIS News that the selection process for volunteers is competitive and is not a random exercise. “Not all volunteers who apply to the Peace Corps get in,” he says.
According to Mr. Loois, volunteers are highly selected and more often than not, are tertiary school graduates. Volunteers, he says, range in age from eighteen and “our oldest volunteer serving is 84.”
“They have to be highly selected by the training they have at school or experience they get in the workplace so we develop a recruitment profile based on the needs of a country. For example, if we have a programme on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, we go for trained volunteers who have expertise or experience in that kind of field,” he explains. Mr. Loois says that presently, the Peace Corps in Jamaica was focusing its work on three sectors: environmental awareness, youth development and community environmental health.
In the area of environmental awareness, he explains the programme “is a sub-sector of agriculture and animal production. We select volunteers with degrees and expertise in environment awareness and protection in agriculture and we place them in organizations dealing with environment.”
Speaking of the agency’s work in youth development, he notes that particular attention is paid “to youth at risk, specifically youth that are marginalized such as males aged 15 to 24.’
“In that broad area of youth development, we have literacy, numeracy, as well as hard and soft skills building. We also have volunteers specialized in information and communication technologies,” he adds. The Peace Corps’ work in community environmental health, the agency’s Country Director says, primarily involves water sanitation and as such, there are volunteers who work as engineers on sanitation projects.
While many volunteers often implement or help in the implementation of development projects, they mainly fulfill their tasks by working in established government, non-governmental and community-based organizations.
Among the places where Peace Corps volunteers offer their service are Government Ministries, teachers’ colleges, the National Water Commission, Jamaica Social Investment Fund, Hope for Children Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and Jamaica AIDS Support.Mr. Loois is of the view that the most significant achievement of the Peace Corps has been the mobilization of “human power into several fields of development.”
He credits the sustained presence of the Peace Corps in the island to a fairly stable political system and the emerging needs of the country as it continues to develop.
“The stability of this country and the closeness of the two countries (U.S. and Jamaica), the common language, and good health as well as a good environment makes it suitable for the Peace Corps to come here,” he explains.
Looking to the future of the Peace Corps in Jamaica, Mr. Loois says the agency will continue to grow and increase the number of Volunteers.