I Gave Peace a Chance: Memoir by Terri Elders

 

"There is an alternative to war. It has been with us forever." –Sargent Shriver

“My Great Uncle Loring once shook hands with Abraham Lincoln,” my grandmother used to brag, her face beaming with pride. “This was right after the Emancipation Proclamation. And everybody in our family has voted Republican since." 

I never suspected I'd be the first in the family to stray from that faithful fold. But at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy addressed a crowd of shivering students on the steps of the Union at the University of Michigan. In his speech, delivered just weeks before the national elections, he'd challenged these students to devote two years of their lives to helping people in developing countries. 

When I heard Kennedy's ringing words on the radio later that morning, I tried to picture myself boarding a plane and heading for Tanganyika where I would teach toddlers to read. Though married and a young mother, I envied those students who might have this chance to serve. 

But it was never going to happen, I told myself. First, it was unlikely Kennedy could get elected. Nobody in my family or my husband’s thought that the young man from Massachusetts could divert enough votes from frontrunner Nixon. I myself had registered as a Republican when I’d turned 21.  

Second, I was married, had a toddler, and was working towards a degree to become an English teacher. When I mentioned Kennedy’s proposal to my husband, he just laughed. “There’s children right here in Los Angeles County who need to learn to read. You don’t have to go overseas to make your dreams come true,” he pointed out. 

When I went to the voting booth on election day, I hesitated. Until that very day, I hadn’t made up my mind.  But as I entered my booth, I made a decision. Even if I couldn’t have that chance to serve, I’d still advocate for those who could. So I voted for Kennedy, knowing that my husband would tease me later about our votes cancelling each other. 

A few months later, I was privately thrilled to hear JFK’s inaugural address. I had always scoffed at the notion that I belonged to a so-called Silent Generation, an uninspiring label for those young adults of the Eisenhower years. Now Kennedy insisted that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans, one that could be vocal and active. I vowed to be part of that generation. 

My husband had been right, of course, about people needing help at home as well as overseas. I continued with my studies, eventually getting a teaching credential and settling in to become a high school English and journalism teacher right where we lived, in Long Beach, CA. 

The day Kennedy was shot, I sent students repeatedly to the nurse’s office for more boxes of Kleenex. I turned on the classroom radio and we listened together as the horrific story unfolded. I thought about Great- Great-Great-Uncle Loring, and wished I’d had the opportunity to shake Kennedy’s hand. Now it would never be.  

A few years later, after riots rocked our inner cities, I abandoned teaching to become a caseworker to help rebuild South Central Los Angeles. My parents had a tough time understanding this. They remembered the depression years, and seemed to think I was working in a soup kitchen. No matter how much I tried to explain about Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Equal Opportunity Act, they insisted upon telling friends, “Terri’s working for The Dole.”  I suspect they imagined me wrapped in a big white apron, ladling out soup.  Eventually I returned to graduate school and earned an MSW at UCLA. 

                                                                              Dominican Republic 1994

                                                                              Dominican Republic 1994

Then finally, at 50, divorced, my son grown, I joined the Peace Corps. Friends raised both eyebrows and issues: “Aren’t you a bit, how shall I put this, uhhhh, old?” "Do you think you’re up for mosquitoes and pit latrines?” "You know, don’t you, that older people have a lot of trouble learning new languages?” 

I developed some pat rejoinders. Peace Corps told me that a number of seniors join. I would most likely be placed in towns or cities, not living in a mud hut. I could relearn my high school Spanish and college French, if need be. 

                                                                      Seychelles 1995

                                                                      Seychelles 1995

I joined, rejoined and then extended. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I hacked open coconuts with a machete outside my house in Belize City. I clung to my counterpart as we raced on her motorcycle to get across streams before they flooded in the province of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic. I helped paint murals on the Youth Center fence with teens on a rare dry afternoon when the monsoon winds had died down in Mont Fleuri, Seychelles. 

I gained more than I gave. I learned to appreciate living with less. I found fulfillment in working with people from every walk of life, from government officials to village entrepreneurs. 

After a decade overseas, I returned to the States and became a health programming and training specialist at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington DC. In this capacity I helped strengthen efforts of Volunteers in dozens of countries to address malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and the infectious diseases that lead to high infant mortality rates. I heard gray wolves howl on the steppes outside Ulan Bator on the spring equinox in Mongolia. I thrilled to the spontaneous singing of Samoan chiefs and missionaries at a training session in Apia. I explored the corners of the earth, Guyana, Uzbekistan, Thailand, St. Vincent, Bulgaria. What a world indeed the Peace Corps opened to me.

 
                                                                              Samoa 2002

                                                                              Samoa 2002

On January 29, 2002, Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of JFK, and founding director of the Peace Corps, appeared at the Directors Forum at Peace Corps Headquarters to address a packed audience of about 200 staffers. Frail, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Shriver nonetheless read in a strong voice from his notes and emphasized that peace is more than just the absence of war. He described peace as "living together based on what we have in common. Our differences matter less than our kinship.”  I took notes. 

After he spoke, he shook hands with dozens of us, nodding as we told him where we had served as Volunteers. “I’m honoured to shake your hand,” I told him. “I owe my whole life to you and to President Kennedy.”  “I’m honoured to shake yours,” he said, squeezing my hand between his. 

 

In the past couple of months I've had several conversations with friends who've expressed interest in serving overseas. They range in age from early twenties to mid-sixties. I continue to participate in local recruitment events. So here I am today, still advocating for the Peace Corps…all because of a campaign speech by JFK over fifty years ago.

Surely Grandma would forgive me my 1960 vote. She, like Shriver, could recognize kinship. I picture her now in heaven, shaking hands with Abraham Lincoln…and John F. Kennedy. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terri Elders, LCSW, served with Peace Corps in Belize, Dominican Republic and Seychelles. Additionally she was one of 272 Peace Corps Crisis Corps Volunteers who worked the Gulf States in FEMA's Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort.

Her non-fiction stories have appeared in over a hundred anthologies, including multiple editions of the Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother's Book series. She co-edited Not Your Mother's Book…On Travel. 

After a nearly three-decade odyssey, she recently returned to her native California. She's happy to be back near her son, old friends, and her beloved Pacific Ocean. She blogs at http://atouchoftarragon.blogspot.com/

 

The Julien Project

 

A GARDEN THAT GROWS COMMUNITY & NURTURES MARGINALIZED YOUTH 

static1.squarespace-2 copy 3.jpg

Usually when people plant a garden, their goal is to beautify their front lawn or save money at the grocery store by growing their own tomatoes. When Sharon Stewart started The Julien Project, a local community garden, she had a much different goal in mind.

The Julien Project is a charitable organization, located out of the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, ON. It uses gardening to add social and therapeutic value to the Guelph community. Eight years ago, Stewart started The Julien Project because she was inspired after working with a local marginalized youth named “Julien.” To this day, helping marginalized youth is still a top priority for the project.

“When we first started the garden, it was important to us to introduce plant materials that would best serve our populations,” says Stewart. “Every plant in our garden is intentional. Each one provides something for our programming or for aesthetics, or brings birds and bees and butterflies.”

Rachel Farahbakhsh, the organization’s Project Manager, also pointed out that the layout of the garden strategically organizes the plants by their purpose. For example, there is a section of roses that they’ll use to make potpourri and a section with peppers and tomatoes for salsa.

This intentionality is important to the project’s practice of horticultural therapy. “In our programming, we deal specifically with adults and youth with special needs, so when we work with different populations we ask them how they want to engage with the garden’s features,” says Stewart.

With consideration of the diversity of their participants, The Julien Project’s garden is completely accessible. “We not only work with people of all gardening skill levels, but we also meet participants at their current state; whether that’s their physical state or their emotional state,” says Stewart.

Over the years, Stewart and Farahbakhsh have learned that there is a great need for their programming with males aged 14 to 17 from marginalized populations. “We’ve seen many angry, young men out there that don’t have dads or role models,” says Stewart. “When they work with our staff in the garden, they learn what it means to have a healthy relationship. Its those healthy relationships that help them develop confidence and a sense of safety and security.”

The Julien Project not only helps young men with their personal development but it also provides them with professional development training. “We noticed that for these young men, it’s especially hard for them to approach employers and gain employment. When they come to the garden, we have the opportunity to work with them and help them develop employability skills. Not only do they learn skills that they can add to their résumés, but we can write reference letters and make introductions for them with members of the community,” says Farahbakhsh.

Aside from helping marginalized youth, The Julien Project has also helped remedy local cycles of food insecurity. This summer, for example, they partnered with various neighbourhoods across Guelph and developed capacity to create community based sustainable urban gardening spaces.

“By teaching local families how to plant and harvest their own vegetables, we provide them with a way to sustain themselves,” says Farahbakhsh. “When we teach them how to cook what they harvest, they also learn about nutrition.”  The project has also worked to combat local food insecurity by donating their vegetables and baked goods to the Salvation Army and other local food pantries.

Despite all the good work that The Julien Project has done and the impact that they continue to make in Guelph, the project is in need of funding. “We are always stretched when it comes to funds, and never know how we’re going to keep our programs going,” says Stewart. As a small local charity, they receive very few private donations and stress their need for a corporate sponsor. “Every cent is stretched here; we recycle, we reuse, we don’t waste anything. We practice the lessons of sustainability that we teach to others.”

“As far as I know, there’s no other model like this in Canada,” says Stewart. “What makes us different is that we’re open to all diverse populations, whether it’s persons with autism or dementia or someone with developmental needs.No matter what, we meet them where they’re currently at. We build strong, healthy relationships first and everything else unfolds like a flower.”

To support The Julien Project donate at CanadaHelps.org.

Story and Photos by Faith Cameletti.

 

The Peace of Tomorrow

 

When I told my parents that I wanted to work in Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an international accompaniment organization, it was no surprise to me that they weren’t excited about the idea. Perhaps that is an understatement – my mom later told me that my dad threatened to withdraw all financial support in an attempt to get me to stay in Canada. I can’t say that I blame them for their concern. After all, what do we in Canada and the United States really know about Colombia? What do you really know about Colombia? 

I’d be willing to bet that if I asked the average Joe what they knew about this country I spent the last 5 months visiting, these are the three main points they would respond with. 

  1. It is the main exporter of drugs, and specifically of cocaine.
  2. Colombia has been torn apart by a long running civil war with the government pitted against guerrilla groups such as the FARC or ELN (any guesses what those acronyms stand for?)
  3. Lots of political kidnappings and assassinations happen in Colombia. It is therefore unsafe for tourist travel. 

These are some basic facts about the country I was about to fly to, and one really can’t blame my parents for being a little uncomfortable with the idea. The reality of life in Colombia is uncomfortable. But I promise you that it is more uncomfortable for its civilians than anyone else. 

Colombia is home to the world’s longest running internal armed conflict. As a result, the government has registered more than 7 million official victims, including a population 6 million displaced peoples – the second largest group of displaced populations in the world. In other words, things in Colombia are very, very bad, particularly for the regular people like you and me, who make up the majority of the country’s population. 

Those were the people I worked with during my brief time on the ground. Mostly farming communities on prime riverside land who have been displaced by the violence but returned despite everything to the land of their ancestors. And the ones who didn’t leave – who held strong through the worst of it and never walked away from the earth that is as much a part of their being as their own blood.

What’s more, though the physical violence in Colombia subsided over time, their fight is far from over. Bureaucratic, institutional and systematic violence has taken over. The same people who waited out the military, guerrilla and paramilitary forces to stay on their land and continue farming now face a legal battle to prove their right to remain. In the confusion following the violence, multi-national corporations took advantage of the opportunity to seize the rich, fertile soil along the river. After all, who can really say who owns what these days? So much was lost in the violence, and in some cases documentation never existed to begin with. 

So what do you do, if you’re a subsistence farmer in rural Colombia, with little access to legal aid, limited ability to read and write, and a family that depends on the fields you sow to eat and survive? The situation could feel hopeless. It could make you want to give up,  unless… 

Unless you really, truly, love the land you were raised on. The land your mother and father lived on. Unless you experienced the violence and turned the trauma into conviction that this should never happen again, that the world must change. Unless you kept hope alive every day and never stopped looking for a way to resist, to challenge the violence with love, and to be unmoved. Unless you knew that you were not alone, and that many other communities were living the experience with you, and ready to add their strength to yours. Unless. 

These were the people I met when I was in Colombia. Erik, who found time to crack jokes while leading his community that had faced eviction back to the land they had lost so they could watch over it at night and replant the crops that had been destroyed. 

Don Efrain, who composes music to share the story of his struggle, sends his grandchildren on an hour long walk to their school in the nearest town. They will not move closer because being on the land secures the family claim to it. 

Jose and his wife Maria, whose newborn baby will grow up watching the men hired by the palm oil company Aportes San Isidro trespass on their land and harass his father, and then see his parents stand strong and convicted in the face of five armed men on horses even when their only support is miles away in the town of Buenos Aires. 

They have never ceased their efforts for peace, and will never stop asking. They know that in order to receive, you start by asking and working. And this weekend, they are asking that you join your voice to theirs through a campaign called Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia

Ask for peace. On Sunday, May 17, they ask you to pray for them. Add them to your prayers in church, send your thoughts out to the universe and ask for peace. And on Monday, May 18, they ask you to act. Sign this petition asking the U.S. government to step away from contributing military aid to Colombia and support proposals from Colombian civil society for a lasting peace. Create a banner supporting the peace process in Colombia and share it on social media with the hashtags #DOPA2015 and #PeaceforColombia. Let them know that they aren’t alone. 

The peace of tomorrow begins today. It’s in your hands. 

About the Author

Nadders.jpg

 

Nadine Hiemstra is a human rights activist from Kitchener, Ontario. She graduated in 2013 from Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Waterloo, which included an eight month program studying international development in Ghana. Since graduating, Nadine has spent time in Mexico volunteering with Casa Colibri, a Catholic Worker house, and worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Colombia in international accompaniment. When traveling, Nadine blogs at https://unpackingpeace.wordpress.com/ on issues of language, development, peace and justice.