Coronavirus Sent Peace Corps Volunteers Home. It Could Also Give Them A New Mission
Imagine this: One minute you're a volunteer doing work that you find incredibly meaningful in a faraway place.
Then you get a notice – evacuate immediately. Suddenly you're back home, probably feeling down and definitely jobless.
That's the situation that over 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers found themselves in after an unprecedented evacuation order in mid-March. The reason: fear of coronavirus. The Peace Corps explains that it didn't want its volunteers stranded abroad if travel became impossible.
Yet they're stranded in a way now that they are back, ineligible for unemployment benefits because of their volunteer status and having to job hunt in a crippled economy.
But the same virus that ended their service could offer them a way forward.
The volunteer perspective
The sudden end to their service has been hard for volunteers to accept, says Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association, a network which serves the Peace Corps community. "There's an emotional shock here," he adds. Evacuees will be able to apply to volunteer with the Peace Corps again, but there's no guarantee they'll be accepted or that they can return to the same place they were working.
And it's not clear when volunteer activities can resume. "As soon as we can safely return volunteers, our goal is to totally normalize Peace Corps again in all of the countries in which we serve," says Jody Olsen, director of the Peace Corps.
Some of these evacuated volunteers face an uncertain future. Edretta Coker-Hughes, 41, has no family in the United States except her 16-year-old son, who lives with a friend of hers. She doesn't have a permanent place to stay or a car. She has a master's degree in public health, and hoped volunteering with the Peace Corps would give her experience. Before she was called back, she was working on public health projects in Uganda, like distributing mosquito nets and coordinating HIV testing.
Since she originally came to the United States as a refugee — she grew up in Sierra Leone before spending a few years in a refugee camp in Ghana— Coker-Hughes feels as if she is starting over again. "It's like I'm having a flashback to just being displaced," she says.
Aris Hines, a volunteer who was evacuated from the Philippines, says he felt as if he'd been fired when he first found out his project was over. Hines was originally told he would be on administrative hold — a temporary pause on his volunteer work, after which it might or might not continue. But then word came that he wouldn't be returning to the Philippines anytime soon. It isn't clear if he'll ever get to continue his work teaching subjects like English and theater to young adults who had committed a crime and had an ongoing case with the local government. "It really stung," he says. "It felt like kicking you when you're down."
But his perspective shifted over the next few days as he realized it didn't make sense for the Peace Corps to keep thousands of volunteers on indefinite hold.
The Peace Corps has established a number of resources for the volunteers. If they needed a place to stay for two weeks of self-quarantine upon return, they would be reimbursed for the cost and get a $38 per diem. The Peace Corps is also giving evacuation allowances based on how long an individual has been volunteering and time remaining on their project. Health care for evacuees extends for two months, and they can purchase an additional month.
Adam Greenberg, who is staying near his parents in San Diego after he was pulled away from his fish farming project in Zambia, is adjusting to life back in the United States. "It's strange how normal our life in Zambia came to feel, living without running water, having no electrical grid, cooking over a fire for two years," he says. "And it's equally strange how normal life here now is beginning to feel, living in an Airbnb that has a stove and drywall."
Help from veteran volunteers
To provide additional support, former Peace Corps volunteers have stepped in. Sarah Heyborne, who returned to the U.S. in 2019 after her two-and-a-half year stint in the Dominican Republic, helped organize a Facebook group of over 8,000 people to provide evacuees with money and other resources, like supplies, transportation and housing.
"It's an incredibly harsh reality, but so is this current pandemic," Heyborne says. Being stuck inside is different from being stuck inside without money for groceries, she adds.
The group has set up hundreds of money transfers totaling over $30,000 so far, Heyborne says, with help mostly coming from past Peace Corps volunteers who are giving out of their own pockets. Former volunteers brought Coker-Hughes food and gift cards after she got back to Indiana. An evacuee in Massachusetts asked for a winter coat and groceries, and Heyborne was able to link her up with a former volunteer who could provide them right away.
Blumhorst has been advocating for more benefits for the evacuees, like extending their health care coverage and sending more money to get them through this time. "We are exploring with some members of Congress the possibility of a special allowance to help compensate for their unemployment status," he says.
A possible new mission
There's an additional plan afoot to help the volunteers after their abrupt return – and help the country as well.
The National Peace Corps Association is hoping to create and fund a group that draws on the evacuated volunteers and their skills to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in the United States.
Workers would take on work like tracing the contacts of diagnosed individuals, monitoring the health of those in quarantine and staffing call centers. An agency such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or AmeriCorps could potentially manage the group, says Blumhorst, who has been advocating for the project. Salaries could come from funding that's already been allotted to the COVID-19 response but hasn't yet been spent.
The NPCA has discussed the idea with the offices of several members of Congress that are receptive and supportive, Blumhorst says, and they're planning to speak with more congresspeople and federal agencies and also hope to draw public attention to this potential project.
In the meantime, Coker-Hughes has been working on her resume and looking forward to seeing her son as she gets out of self-quarantine this week. "I really don't know what's next," she says.
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