Ask CSU alumnus Melissa Foster where her home is, and she’ll say it’s in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador with a small community of people native to the region.
Foster, 26, is a volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps and lives in a village of about 400 people at the base of the Chimborazo Volcano.
Foster, who has a degree in anthropology, said that joining the Peace Corps was a dream she had always known she would eventually pursue.
“I wanted to do Peace Corps from the time I was in high school. International travel has always been important to me,” she said.
She was also enticed by the idea that, “you get to live in their community, become a part of that community and become integrated into their culture.”
But it is not as easy as just showing up.
Before a volunteer is turned loose in a foreign country, he or she must undergo rigorous training. A volunteer’s first three months in their community is spent living with a host family learning about the culture and the specific areas with which they will be most involved.
“Training’s hard,” Foster said. “You live with a host family for three months and you don’t even speak their language. But it’s the best way to learn about their culture and language. It’s definitely worth it.”
After the training is complete, a volunteer spends two years in his/her community.
One of the goals of the Peace Corps, Foster said, is to set up “sustainable projects” within a community. Foster works most closely with the women in her society, helping them knit items that will eventually be sold, with all profits benefiting their community.
With a $1,000 governmental grant, Foster purchased knitting needles, yarn and sheep that produce a high-quality wool, for her women’s group to use. The women knit items such as hats, scarves and sweaters and Foster helps them sell their work.
Foster said one of her goals in Ecuador is to help the female population begin to overcome oppression. She recently led a women’s leadership camp that concluded with a hike up a volcano. She described the expressions of awe and transformation that appeared on the women’s faces as they crested the mountain’s summit as one of her most moving Peace Corps experiences.
“It’s a very ‘machista’ society. Women and young girls are not given the opportunity to live out their dreams,” Foster said. “One of the goals of the camp was to help them figure out their dreams and have the confidence to reach them.”
The Peace Corps also aims to educate less advanced societies.
“Education is a focus of all volunteers, whether it’s health education or teaching English,” Foster said. “Everything I do is basically centered around education.”
Foster said that the major problems in Ecuador are all health related. The residents suffer from, malnutrition, lack of hygiene, and lack of basic healthcare.
“My community is in the poorest area of Ecuador,” said Foster.
She readily admits that many of her experiences have been emotionally trying.
“The hardest thing is the lack of nutrition and education these children receive in my community and throughout Ecuador and realizing that change is extremely difficult,” she said.
Freshman Becky Hancock said she might be interested in the Peace Corps but she does not know much about it.
“I’ve not heard much about the Peace Corps. Maybe if someone came and said, ‘Here’s a reason why you should join the Peace Corps,’ then I’d consider it,” said Hancock, an art major.
Foster, who plans on attending nursing school after her volunteer time comes to a close in seven months, feels that her experiences in Ecuador will benefit her throughout life.
“Peace Corps teaches you patience, flexibility, and endurance. I have electricity and that’s about the only creature comfort I have,” said Foster, who has to haul water to her home, boil it, and wash out of a bucket every time she wants to bathe.
“These things become normal,” she said, “and then you come back to the U.S. and you have a new appreciation for things like running water and a hot shower.”
She encourages any student interested in the Peace Corps to talk with someone who has been a volunteer and check out www.peacecorps.gov.
According to the Web site, more than 168,000 volunteers have worked in 136 countries since President John F. Kennedy initiated the program in 1961.
“It really is the toughest job you’ll ever love,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a physical level, a personal level and an emotional level. But every day I’ve been there it’s been worth it. This was the best decision I ever made.”
Info for possible box:
Melissa Foster will be on campus from tomorrow until Friday at a booth in the Lory Student Center. She will also speak about her Peace Corps experiences at tomorrow’s Women at Noon presentation in LSC room 228 at 12 p.m.
Foster will be at CSU from tomorrow until Friday this week manning a Peace Corps booth at the Lory Student Center and selling the knitted products her women’s group made. All profits will benefit the women and their community.