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Volunteers take skills to distant corners

More people are in the Peace Corps than at any time since 1974, and Tampa is a prime recruiting ground.

ELISABETH DYER
Published June 4, 2004

For two years, the glow of sunrise spilled into her third-floor apartment in Thailand, waking Sara Peoples.

As a volunteer in the Peace Corps, her task in Thailand was to help modernize teaching methods. Children had previously learned by repeating facts like parrots. Peoples showed teachers how to engage their students, challenging them to think creatively.

Like most of her neighbors, Peoples rode a bike almost everywhere she went. School was a 15-minute ride away. Every morning by 8, first- through sixth-graders lined up outside in front of a statue of Buddha.

"First, they paid their respects to Buddha with a chant, then sang the national anthem and sometimes the king of Thailand's song," said Peoples, from her home in Carrollwood. Now 24, she returned from Thailand five months ago.

Today, more people are serving as Peace Corps volunteers than at any time since 1974, agency officials say. Each of the 7,500-plus volunteers went through a six- to nine-month process of interviews, references and physical exams.

Former President John F. Kennedy started the federal program in 1961 as part of his urging Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Since then, more than 170,000 volunteers have served in 136 countries.

Rachel and Colin Forman, who live near the Hillsborough River in West Tampa, filed an application through the Peace Corps' Web site. Rachel, 26, a librarian, and Colin, 27, a construction superintendent, had considered other ways to quench dual desires to travel and to "do good in the world." The Peace Corps satisfied both.

Tampa is one of the best areas in Florida for recruiting volunteers, said Peace Corps regional recruiter Adrienne Fagler. Fagler, who did a tour in Russia, will be in Tampa next week to talk with prospective volunteers.

The Formans' application has been approved and they are waiting to find out where they will serve.

Peace Corp volunteers immerse themselves in a foreign culture for two years. They receive a monthly stipend that varies by country, medical benefits and a lump sum of $6,000 when they finish. About two-thirds of applicants make the cut. Of those, 97 percent are college-educated.

Recruiters look for skills in education, medicine, business and agriculture and match them with requests, currently from 71 countries.

A fungus attack of the taro root, similar to a sweet potato, brought Charlie Delp and his wife, Stephanie Peters, to Samoa in the South Pacific in 1998. Natives ate taro "morning, noon and night" Delp said. But in 1998, when the couple arrived, most of the plants had died.

Delp, at 73, had been a plant pathologist for 40 years. In Samoa, he worked with local farmers to develop a fungus-resistant plant that would thrive in the volcanic earth and still taste good.

Delp's wife, Peters, at 37, left behind a corporate career. Culture shock hit her hard. She had to adjust to the more relaxed society and laissez-faire approach to protecting women and children, she said.

"They tell you about it in a little pamphlet, and you think, that won't happen to me," she said.

The experience helped her sort out what's important and what's not, she said. Today, she works as an educational coordinator at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine.

For Delp, the fruits of his labor were evidenced in the bountiful supply of taro in the marketplaces when they left in 2000.

As a reminder, they grow taro in their back yard in Temple Terrace

- Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at 226-3321 or edyer@sptimes.com

IF YOU GO

The Peace Corps is having informational seminars for prospective volunteers from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday at Borders, 12500 N Dale Mabry Highway, and from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the John F. Germany Public Library, 900 N Ashley Drive. For information, call toll-free 1-800-424-8580 or go to www.peacecorps.gov

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