Social worker Katie Fourqurean, 27, sat in her office in Atlantic City’s Uptown Family Center recently, programming about 30 computerized dolls to cry at various times, for different reasons. The fifth- to eighth-grade girls in her afterschool class would take them home for the weekend, figure out what the “baby” needed each time it cried, and answer each need.
“It’s called ‘Baby Think It Over,’” she said of the 13-week class, which teaches the responsibilities of parenthood. Fourqurean draws on her experience as a Peace Corps health educator in the African country of Zambia from 2006 to 2008 for the confidence and skills she needs in her job with AtlantiCare, she said.
She’s not alone. Former Peace Corps volunteers are at work as teachers, environmental engineers and health workers in southern New Jersey. They’re also getting local residents involved in solving the problems of their villages, often halfway across the world, where they made lasting ties.
As of September 2009, 1,842 people from southern New Jersey have served in the Peace Corps since its founding by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, according to Molly Jennings Levine of the New York regional office. Nationally the figure is about 200,000, she said.
Last year applications for the Peace Corps went up by 18 percent, to 15,386, a record for the agency. In part it’s due to the recession limiting other options, and in part to President Barack Obama’s call to service, said Levine. About 4,000 were chosen for placement, based on how well their skills matched the needs of host countries.
“It became more competitive (to join the Peace Corps) earlier in the year,” Levine said. “Now we’re trying to expand to create more volunteer opportunities.”
By 2012, the Peace Corps plans to increase the number of volunteers to 9,400 and by 2016 to 11,000, according to the 2011 Congressional budget justification.
There are 99 southern New Jersey residents now serving. The largest group, 38, work in education, followed by 20 in business development, 17 in health and HIV/AIDS, 10 in environment, six in youth development, four in agriculture and four in other fields.
Returned volunteers in our region include Robin Kuri, 34, of Toms River, a senior environmental engineer for Ocean County, who did environmental education work from 1999 to 2001 in the Peace Corps in Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of southeast Africa; Sofia Carreno of Absecon, a health researcher and graduate school student in Philadelphia, who was a health and HIV/AIDS educator from 2006 to 2008 in the Peace Corps in South Africa; and Virginia Hesel of Cape May, a retired teacher and middle school principal who served from 1967 to 1969 in Liberia, in western Africa.
Many former volunteers keep one foot in their adopted country and one in the U.S.
Fourqurean keeps in touch almost daily with the village through her cell phone, and goes back about once a year. Her home base there is a small hut she bought for $75, just before coming home.
At the Uptown Complex School she provides individual and group counseling on behavior issues and conflict resolution. She also teaches life-skills classes on nutrition, mental health, fitness, abuse prevention and more to middle school students after school.
“In Zambia, I would bike from village to village, and tape lessons up in a tree on big sheets of paper,” she said. “We had nothing like the resources here,” she said, pointing to her bookshelves filled with teaching materials.
In Africa she accomplished more than her job required despite those limits. She arranged funding to convert an abandoned building into a community center, and that effort resulted in a church group from Coatesville, Pa., adopting the project. Now the center houses a cafe, library and seamstress training school. The church group also raised funds for a microloan to allow the village to buy a minivan to generate income.
“I was given so much responsibility, and came to realize how much I am capable of,” she said. “The self-confidence boost is just crazy there.”
Anne Dice, 47, of Upper Township, found her life’s calling in the Peace Corps. The Spanish teacher at Atlantic Christian School in Egg Harbor Township went as an education worker to the Dominican Republic, a nation that shares an island with Haiti in the Caribbean, from 1990 to 1992.
“I didn’t have the goal of being a teacher until I saw the power of education down there,” she said. She had just graduated from Boston College with a degree in international development, and planned to go to law school.
She was posted to the rural village of Los Cocos de Jacagua, outside the country’s second-biggest city, Santiago. A big part of her job was teaching kids in a school where “half the time the teachers weren’t even paid.” She also helped with fundraising, and developing the Parent Teacher Association, which continues today.
But the lessons she gave in how to build cooking facilities and latrines, which helped reduce lung disease and other endemic diseases, also showed her the importance of education. She learned Spanish through living there, and that affects the way she teaches now.
“I use an immersion technique. I don’t use any English. I act things out and use visual aids, songs, skits and games. I tell them they are language detectives, and they can figure it out,” she said of her approach with students. “After having lived it myself, I know I learned so much more by living there for two years, than I did studying French (the traditional way) for nine years in the (U.S.) school system.”
She, too, returns regularly to the village, and even got her church involved, St. Peter’s United Methodist in Ocean City. Last month she returned with the church mission group to build more safe stoves and to paint a house the group constructed last year for a family. Her husband, Matthew, and children Lydia, 12, and Luke, 11, have been there many times.
She still stays with the Almonte family, which hosted her 20 years ago in the corps, and has purchased a plot of land next to a family member on which she hopes to build a home.
Kathy Coulibaly, 35, of the Elwood section of Mullica Township, melded her family with her village. She married Ben Coulibaly, a man she met while volunteering in the West African country of Burkina Faso. They have a son, Will, 7.
“I fell in love, and married someone from the country. It didn’t work out between us, but we’re still friends,” she said of her ex-husband, who is a U.S. citizen. “We were married for nine years. In my group, several people ended up marrying someone from the country. “
A native of Port Republic and graduate of Absegami High School, Class of 1993, Coulibaly is now the associate director of communications for the New Jersey Education Association.
“The work I do is very much like local community organizing we did in the Peace Corps,” she said.
She had just gotten a degree in literature, with a minor in journalism, from American University in Washington, D.C., when she left for Africa.
“A month after graduation, I was on a plane,” she said, as an education volunteer. She taught English at the middle school level, but her classes included people of various ages, up to adulthood. She also organized community education projects for HIV/AIDS prevention, and to increase opportunities for girls in education and sports.
She said her time in the Peace Corps prepared her well, both as a professional and as a mom.
“Number one (effect on my professional life) is public speaking. I was a 22-year-old bookish literature major. I had to get up every day in front of classes of 80 to 100 students. It was really sink or swim. Also just the confidence. You’ve got something to give. You might not meet every need. It gave me the humility to say, ‘I can’t do it all, but I can do something.’”
She said the Peace Corps also prepared her well for motherhood.
“When you’re a volunteer, you put up with a lot of discomfort. You learn a new language, which makes you sympathetic when your child is learning language. You get experience being your own doctor, nurse, pharmacist, EMT, and you develop basic medical skills that definitely helped me as a mom.
“It gave me a lot of patience, because other people showed that to me. It really helped me be patient with him,” she said of her son.
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