A ‘PEACE CORPS GRINGO’ RECONNECTS WITH HIS PAST
FIFTY YEARS AGO, AT AGE 23, I flew to Colombia, South America to become one of America’s first Peace Corps Volunteers. Over the years, I frequently thought about my Peace Corps colleagues and as I moved through my forties and beyond, I became increasingly interested in what happened to them. Did they go to Vietnam or Canada when they were drafted? How have they aged? What were they doing now? And how do they feel now about their Peace Corps work half a century ago?
I attended Peace Corps reunions every five years, starting with the first one in 1986. But besides attending these traditional events, I began to create my own “intentional reunions,” reaching out to people through the power of the Internet. I wanted to know more about friends who had been lost to me over time.
I’ve long been aware of the importance of friendship to our physical and mental health, especially during later life. And my own experiences have taught me how sensitive most of us are to how others see us. I was curious about my Peace Corps friends’ recollections and how they compared with mine. I wanted them to know how I remembered them; how they affected my life; and how I recall my past.
To help focus my thoughts, I also decided to write a memoir, “Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo,” taking some time to explore the question: Why did an average kid from the suburbs of Long Island abandon his parents’ wishes for his financial success and go to rural Colombia for two years?
I made contacts through emails and phone calls. And with my wife, Karen, I took three trips back to Colombia. At first, I was anxious about what kind of response I would get. But I was quickly gratified to learn that my fond Peace Corps memories were shared by my Colombian friends. They recalled me as a young man who had an important impact on their lives at a time when their country was experiencing many economic and social inequities. Visiting the gravesite of my dearest Colombian friend and mentor, Salamon Hernandez, I sobbed as his children stood next to me and I expressed what he had meant to me.
My outreach also produced invitations to visit old friends across the U.S. Karen and I traveled to Washington state, California, New Mexico, North Carolina, Colorado, and Illinois. I was welcomed everywhere, our common bonds continued. My reconnection with Pablo, my closest Peace Corps buddy, resulted in a four-day Grand Canyon hike.
In our meetings, we remembered ourselves as idealists who responded to President Kennedy’s appeal for public service—no regrets. We agreed that our work impacted many individual lives, even if it didn’t reform Colombia, as some of us hoped it would. I shared highlights of my life, especially how the Peace Corps had directed me into the fields of social work and social justice. And I discovered that most of my former colleagues, too, were involved in education, social work, international development work, and anti-poverty work.
All told, these intentional reunions have been like a boat trip through time, stopping off on various islands I’m unlikely to visit again. While I knew I would have to take emotional risks along the way, the experience has helped provide closure to my curiosities about these dear friends. With some people, I wish I had gotten in touch sooner, so we might have remained friends throughout our lives. Still, my time travels made me appreciate the value of lifelong friendships, even from afar. These friends from the past not only helped me recall my personal history, but that of my generation.
Paul Arfin is the founder of numerous Long Island community projects, including youth service organizations; an intergenerational day care program; a statewide senior program; and a social enterprise organization. His book, Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo, is available by contacting him at email@example.com. or at www.amazon.com.
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