On my last day in America, I stood in my parents' kitchen, hugging my dad as he cried and said to me, "I tried to think about the positives of the people you could help, but it didn't work. I'm going to miss you." One of the hardest parts of Peace Corps service is not coming back to America for 26-27 months. I thought it would be nice to take this Father's Day to honor dads and families who are missing their loved ones in the Peace Corps by asking my dad, Paul, and my mom, Fran, a couple of questions. I should also mention there are a lot of moms, dads, grandmothers and grandfathers serving in the Peace Corps who miss their kids and grandkids.
My dad grew up in Bethlehem, PA when it was home to the steel giant of the world. After graduating from high school in 1962, he hitched a ride to Chicago and enlisted in the Navy. He served 3 years narrowly missing Vietnam. He returned to Bethlehem, where his Burt Reynolds looks and heartfelt charm eventually found a vibrant, beautiful blonde. They fell in love, got married in 1967 and had three boys. I am the youngest. My dad was an insurance agent for almost all of my life. I'll always cherish my childhood memories with him. Moments teaching me how to play basketball, rake leaves, barbecue on the grill and most importantly the listening and love he provided.
In his high school yearbook my dad wrote that he dreamed of doing an African safari. When I got to Botswana we made plans for him and my mom to make that dream come true. Sadly, a couple of months after we made the arrangements my dad called me to tell me my mom had breast cancer and everything changed. It's one of those moments when you wish your body could follow your words through the phone.
Peace Corps does have a generous policy to send volunteers home if a close family member has a life threatening illness or has died. Luckily my mom caught the cancer early. We went through the ups and downs cancer provides. After a mastectomy and chemotherapy I am happy to report my mom is in remission. I didn't need to use the policy. Now we're working on rebooking that trip.
In the two years that a volunteer serves in the Peace Corps a lot can happen at home. Volunteers and the ones they love make sacrifices during this time. When I signed up for the Peace Corps I knew about the births, weddings, engagements and other things I would miss. The unexpected problems are a bit more shocking. However, the challenges families face in the US can be balanced by the new experiences, friendships and lighter moments a loved one is having abroad.
Here's what my parents had to say:
What did you think when I told you I was going to join the Peace Corps?
Dad, "We were happy for you and your decision. We always try to be as supportive of you as we can be." Mom, "We had a lot of anxiety & concern when we were waiting to see where your assignment would be, because we knew you could end up in a remote place. Not knowing where your kid will be for 2 years can be hard, but we were happy when we found out you would be in Africa."
What are the hardest parts of having a child in the Peace Corps?
Mom, "Being so far away from you is hard because we don't get to see you in person. When we have special celebrations and holidays you aren't there with us." Dad, "When you lived in California you lived far from us, but at least there was a chance to see you. We knew if something happened we could get to you quickly and we don't feel that with you in Africa."
What kinds of things do you do to cope with missing your child?
Mom, "We have full lives filled with some work and lots of pleasure. We take trips to see friends and family in different parts of the country. We ride bikes, go for walks and volunteer to help people in our community." Dad, "Life is different with you away." He paused and took some time to feel the words he was about to say, "We think about you every single day. There are times when it's hard. We worry sometimes and hope you'll be home soon. We just try to stay active."
Do you see any parts of yourselves in your son's volunteer experience?
Dad, "I think always tried to model behavior that would make a change. Even if it was small things I have always tried to be involved." Mom, "Yes. I used to teach English as a second language to Chinese people and talked about it with you. I also volunteered with people who have mental illness to give them a friend and get them out of their homes. I was always proud of you for the work you did and hoped the volunteering I did led to it. You always took it to a higher level."
What has most surprised you about this experience?
Dad, "It was surprising to experience how we were all able to transition into our new roles. We were used to you living 3,000 miles from us, so I think that helped." Mom, "Being able to e-mail you, talk to you on the phone every week, read your blogs and send you packages has helped us feel more connected. We sit down to read your blog every Sunday. We've been through a lot of hard times as a family and they've made us stronger to move forward."
Has the experience impacted your life in any way?
Dad, "We are more empathetic towards people less fortunate than us. When I walk around our city and see homeless people I used to feel bad for them, but now I think I am more understanding than before. You are dealing with people in Africa who are in difficult situations and hearing about it has deepened my empathy for everyone."
What are some of the happier moments of having a child in the Peace Corps?
Mom, "The fact that you're trying to help people and make their days or lives better. You're giving your time to others, which in some ways outweighs whatever we are experiencing at home." Dad, "I can only imagine what you see over there and I know you probably smile and laugh as much as you did when you were home. We're proud to tell people you're in Africa serving in the Peace Corps."
Happy Father's Day from Peace Corps volunteers all over the world!
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