By Barbara E. Joe
In 1961, when I was a 23-year-old newlywed, I heard President Kennedy on the radio announcing the formation of the Peace Corps. I felt instantly inspired. Yet during the years that followed, the demands of my life as a working mother meant that I had to defer my dream of joining. I held jobs as a social worker and occupational therapist, among others, and I had four children of my own as well as a foster son. After a bitter divorce in 1981, I found myself a suddenly single mother, so my hope of ever becoming a Peace Corps volunteer seemed to have faded beyond reach.
Then in 1994 just before Christmas, my older son died at the age of 27 from interactions of prescription drugs he had been given for a back injury. Losing him dealt me a cataclysmic blow from which I’ve never fully recovered. His death happened on my older daughter’s birthday, forever making that a bittersweet occasion. After his funeral, I experienced a cosmic loneliness, envying other parents their easy innocence, their failure to realize that their children stood only a nanosecond away from the brink of death. Only my other children and my little granddaughter gave me the will to go on living.
As the first anniversary of my son’s death approached, my foster son died of AIDS -- another terrible blow. I couldn't see the point of living any longer. I did derive consolation from a support group for people who have lost children, The Compassionate Friends. But that didn't change the fact that I had no control even over my kids’ very lives, the most precious of all possessions. When you bury an older person, you bury the past, but when a young person dies, you bury the future and all that might have been.
For two years, I remained practically catatonic, putting one foot in front of the other, forcing myself to go to work, eat, and go to bed at night. Then my father, my ex-husband, and a former lover passed away. That's when a little voice in my head started asking, “What are you waiting for? You may be next.” My Peace Corps dream resurfaced with renewed intensity. I realized the time to join was now.
My children and mother were skeptical. They didn't think I would really do it. My boyfriend at the time opposed the idea. "Mark my words," he said, "You'll be home by Christmas at the latest." But I was determined to go.
I had learned Spanish when I was 14 to 16 years old and living in Colombia with my family while my dad worked there for the Organization of American States, so I asked to be sent to a Spanish-speaking country as a health volunteer. In 2000, at the age of 62, I was offered an assignment in Honduras and I didn't hesitate for a moment. I ended up staying almost 3 ½ years instead of the usual 27 months. My duties included education for preventing HIV as well as the respiratory and intestinal illnesses that are the main causes of the death of Honduran children, training midwives and helping to deliver babies myself, teaching nutrition, and going house to house to advise people to dump standing water where dengue and malaria mosquitoes breed. I got malaria myself anyway, although I had taken a prophylactic!
My fellow volunteers and I used games, songs, drawings, and much audience participation to get our messages across. I also took sick children to U.S. medical and surgical brigades in the capital or along the north coast and did follow-up care such as monitoring for infection, taking off casts, and removing stitches. In addition, I trained village women as helpers, and they have carried on since.
I've returned to Honduras eight times since my Peace Corps stint ended. I work with the International Health Service, a medical brigade dedicated to improving the quality of life among the people of Central America. I have arthritis in one knee, so it's not easy climbing mountains, sleeping in a tent, and using an outdoor latrine and shower. But you just have to keep moving forward.
My most recent trip was in February of 2012 when I celebrated my 74th birthday doing what I love, serving the people of the little towns of El Triunfo (Triumph) and La Esperanza (Hope). In fact, when I wrote a book about my experiences, the title was inspired by the names of those villages: "Triumph & Hope: Golden Years With the Peace Corps in Honduras."
When I'm home in Washington D.C., I work as an on-call Spanish interpreter in local hospitals and schools. I started this career in 2004 when I was 66. I have a flexible schedule that allows me to keep going back to Honduras. I enjoy seeing the village women who are still doing the work I trained them to do. I also love catching up with Neris, whom I befriended when I first went to Honduras. That's her at the age of 8 in the photo with me. She's 18 now, married and a mother, and she wants to go to nursing school. I've promised to help her with the expenses. When I left, back when she was younger, she gave me a washcloth as a farewell gift along with a note in her childish hand saying in Spanish, “With much love and affection for my friend Doña Barbara. I only ask her always to remember me as I remember her. May dear God keep her well wherever she may go. I love her so, Neris.”
The oldest current Peace Corps volunteer today is an 86-year-old woman serving in Morocco. So remember that the Peace Corps is not just for young people. Whatever your age, it could be your second act and change the rest of your life, as it has mine.
Barbara Joe is the author of "Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras."
Please visit her blog at http://www.honduraspeacecorps.blogspot.com/