(Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of student essays written by McCall-Donnelly High School juniors for their Spring 2018 Literary Journalism course.)

President Kennedy greeting Peace Corps volunteers in 1961.

The Peace Corps: Helping and Learning   The Peace Corps was started under the Kennedy Administration in 1961 in hopes of promoting world peace and helping third world countries. In the week after creation, thousands of letters came into Washington from young men and women who hoped to aid those less fortunate any way that they could.

The Peace Corps has three main purposes: to give other countries an understanding of American culture and the people who live there, give Americans an understanding of another culture and how the citizens of that area live, and finally to the volunteers who are a part of the Peace Corps to share their experiences of how life was in another county, especially a third world country, and to spread the word about the Peace Corps.

Applying to become a member of the Peace Corps is extremely tedious. This long and tiring process is in place for a specific reason: the average American can’t handle going from an easy, materialistic lifestyle to a foreign land and surviving without what most Americans deem necessary. The Peace Corps invests a lot of money in each volunteer to get them to and from their destination, so they need to ensure that each person is right for the job. To get accepted each person needs to write several essays about why they want to be a part of the Peace Corps and why they are fit to do the job. Each applicant also needs to have several character references who also need to write and submit essays about the volunteer’s strengths and why they believe that he or she will be able to make a difference abroad.

After being selected, each new member goes through three months of rigorous training covering everything from the language they will speak for the next two years to the culture of the area as well as societal do’s and don’ts.

Jane Cropp Volunteers in Costa Rica   My mother, Jane Cropp, volunteered for the Peace Corps in 1983 and was sent to Costa Rica. The country was drastically different 30 years ago than the tourist destination it has morphed into today. During my mom’s time in the Peace Corps, Costa Rica was an extremely poor third world country. It had few cities, the biggest being the capital city San Jose, and the rest of the country consisted of poor, rural areas that survived on almost nothing.

In the early 1980s Costa Rica experienced a nationwide shortage of firewood to cook with. This problem was especially evident in the rural communities because of their slash-and-burn method of collecting whatever trees were nearest and not replanting the forest. Women of the communities had to walk three miles or more a day for firewood to cook with, and this problem was only getting worse. During my mom’s time in Costa Rica, her mission was to solve this problem by creating self-sustaining tree nurseries and educating the community about how to replant to limit the retreating of the forest.

My mom was placed in a foreign land with one task in mind: to help the small community of Jicaral rebuild their forest. To do this she was given two years and no funding. Money would come from local fundraisers, the most popular being dances in a local barn requiring admission. By the end of her time in Costa Rica, she had several setbacks and walked away not accomplishing as much as she would have liked, but she gained something that was more important to her: she learned. Among other things, my mom learned that one man’s trash truly can be another’s treasure; we don’t need material possessions to be happy. All we need is to be surrounded by friends and family. She also learned about the culture of Central America and that she could do more than she ever thought possible.

On the first official day of her mission in Costa Rica, my mom quickly realized what she was in for. She had mentally prepared to live in a third world country and believed that she would be able to handle the poor living conditions as she had spent months in the poorly maintained government cabins deep in the wilderness with men who rarely got to shower, even after 12-hour days under the relentless sun, when she worked summers for the Forest Service.

Her first day began in the capital city of Costa Rica, San Jose, where she traveled in a bus much like one you might find in an American city to the shore line. There she boarded the ferry which traversed the bay with a mix of urban and rural citizens. The final leg of her journey was spent on a rickety old bus filled to the brim with people and their animals, including several pigs. This gave my mom her first real taste of what she would be dealing with firsthand: people who lived in horrible conditions, but who did it with a smile on their face.

Her training had prepped my mom for what to expect from the people of Costa Rica and countries like it, but hearing is one thing and seeing is believing. All volunteers had to learn how to ride a motorcycle because it would be their main mode of transportation around their home for the next two years. Each volunteer went to a wide-open field without an obstacle in sight to learn the basics of learning how to ride a motorcycle, then the next day went to take their test in San Jose, the biggest and busiest city in the country. My mom and one other volunteer went into the city to take their tests on their bikes, but about halfway there the other volunteer’s bike broke down; both my mom and the other volunteer had no idea what to do. Neither of them had ridden a bike, let alone fixed one. Luckily, a nice local saw them struggling and went over to help. After some struggling, the man got the bike working again and said that he would test it out to make sure it was running ok. He never came back. This was a serious wake up call for my mom and the other volunteer that they were no longer in America and couldn’t act like they were.

Valuing Relationships over Things   In rural Costa Rica, people have very little in terms of material possessions, but they do have friends and family which to them is more important than anything money can buy. This view of family before everything made them dislike Americans because everything that they knew about Americans came from TV shows, like Dallas and Dynasty, in which rich Texan families only valued their material possessions and constantly argued. Coming into the community, the Costa Ricans expected my mother to fit into what they believed every American to be: rich, spoiled, never completed a hard day’s work in their lives. My mom and her fellow volunteers had to prove to them that not all Americans are like those depicted on TV by never taking a day off and putting up with less-than-ideal conditions without complaint.

Twin boys with new clothes. Photo courtesy Jane Cropp.

One of my mom’s greatest takeaways from her time at the Peace Corps is how she no longer values her material possessions in the same way that she used to. Coming from a materialistic society like America and arriving in the poor and underprivileged country of Costa Rica really put into perspective how lucky she is. At one point, with only had one suitcase of belongings for two years, my mom decided to make some new clothes for herself. As she cut up pieces of fabric for her new clothes, all pieces too small were thrown away. About a month later she saw the twin boys who lived near her with clothes made out of her scraps. This showed her that what were useless scraps to her were useful materials to another family and could be used to make clothes that were nicer than what these children were wearing before.

This was again true with my mom’s tennis shoes. She had worn them every day for over a year and deemed them worn out, so she threw them away and purchased new ones, only to find the old pair on the feet of the young man who lived near her because what she viewed as damaged beyond repair was still nicer than anything the young man owned.

Cropp’s home while in Costa Rica with the Peace Corps. Photo courtesy Jane Cropp.

During her time in the Peace Corps my mom also learned that she can survive what she didn’t believe was possible. While in Costa Rica she lived in a small boarding house that doubled as a funeral home.

This was one of the nicer boarding homes in the area but still it was infested with giant rats, spiders, cockroaches, and at certain times of the year, even large crabs. My mom learned the hard way not to leave anything out when she went to bed after a giant rat came out of the walls to grab a banana that she had left on her nightstand for the next morning.

Throughout her two years in Costa Rica, my mom had doubts about whether or not she could make it through the full two years, but she realized that she was taking part in something bigger than herself and the locals who lived there; she only had to survive for two years. She stayed for the full two years and left the area better than she found it with a newfound appreciation for all that she has.

Even though her mission was largely unsuccessful due to the poor farmers not being able to pay for trees from the tree nursery, so there was no way to keep it running, my mom was able to educate the locals about replanting to create a sustainable forest. More importantly, she left having learned lessons that will follow her for the rest of her life.

My mom took the lessons that she learned and today incorporates them into all parts of her life, including how she parents. While in Costa Rica, she realized how lucky she is to have all of the clothes that she does, so every year we gather all clothes that we don’t need and gift them to those less fortunate. She uses her time in Costa Rica and stories about the families there to tell me how important family is and to remind me how lucky I am to have a stable roof over my head, good clothes on my back, and never having to worry about where my next meal will come from.

(Read previously published essays written by McCall-Donnelly High School students under the Opinion – Student Voices tab.)

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