|November 1, 1999|
The ups and downs of the Peace Corps
When Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, Peace Corps volunteer Ahnya Mendes '96 was living in rural Honduras, working to improve the health practices of villagers.
Though most of Honduras was ravaged by the storm (nearly 9,000 people, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua, died, and more than one million people lost their homes), Mendes found that the hurricane affected her life and work minimally. "I was living in the western edge of the country, which was not hard-hit by the storm," she says. "It just rained for eight days, and we didn't lose electricity because we didn't have any to lose."
A sociology and women's studies major at Union, Mendes was working as a health extensionist in Honduras when the hurricane struck. Upon returning to Honduras after being evacuated to Panama for safety reasons, she continued her collaboration with the Ministry of Health and worked with midwives and village health workers to improve the primary health care in her community by giving lectures and providing information about causes and treatments of common illnesses.
"My goal was to try to reduce the maternal and infant mortality rates, which are very high in Honduras," she explains. "I gave small presentations called 'charlas' to different groups of people in my community in hopes of increasing their knowledge of how to prevent illnesses that are easily preventable, such as diarrhea and respiratory illness. I also worked with midwives to reinforce proper hygiene during labor and teach them how to better monitor the health of pregnant women.
"But my favorite part was working with a group of adolescent girls in the high school in my town, teaching a course called 'How to Plan My Life,' " she continues. The course dealt with sexuality, reaching goals, planning for the future, self esteem, careers, parenthood, and preventing HIV/AIDS. The highlight of the course was when the students shared their knowledge of proper HIV and AIDS prevention with the entire school in individually-prepared lectures.
"With the girls, I could tell that I was making a difference, and that meant a lot," Mendes says. She saw evidence of their increased self-confidence and understanding of the material she had presented.
Mendes enjoyed her time as a Peace Corps volunteer, but says that there were definitely ups and downs. "Getting over that initial cultural boundary was difficult," she says. "It took some time to become comfortable with the people and with the fact that I would really be spending two years there." Yet after the first year, the time passed quickly. "It was a great experience, and I highly recommend it for those even remotely thinking about it," she says.
After completing her time in the Peace Corps in April, Mendes traveled for two months to Equador, Peru, and Boliva, e-mailing home travel updates of her journey. "It was a lot of fun, but I was ready to come home," she says. Now, she's eager to pack her bags again as she searches for a job in an international organization, perhaps working on disaster relief. "I would like to live abroad again. You learn a lot about yourself and the world when you live overseas," she says.