Local Peace Corps stories part of global anniversary

February 2nd, 2011 by admin

Canandaigua resident Jennifer Brownell during the late-1990s, served with the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Here she is seen holding a baby at one of the clinics there where she helped with health care for women and children.

By Julie Sherwood, staff writer
Messenger Post
Posted Feb 01, 2011

After Peace Corps founder R. Sargent Shriver died this month, President Obama called the in-law of President John F. Kennedy “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.”

Shriver’s accomplishments spanned several decades, and his work led to the Peace Corps, sending almost a quarter-million volunteers to aid 139 countries around the world over the past 50 years.

Among those who left their comfortable, middle-class lives in Ontario County were three recent college graduates, a director of nonprofits and a retired couple.

Their stories of life in the Peace Corps are varied. They range from an unexpected, swift evacuation from a violent political rebellion in Haiti to a period of agonizing homesickness followed by tears of sadness when it was time to leave a West African village.

A different, better person
“I had lived a relatively sheltered life up to then,” recalled Canandaigua resident Jennifer Brownell, who grew up in Geneva.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, at age 22, she fulfilled an urge to do something significant by joining the Peace Corps.

“I wanted to do good, wanted to do positive work,” said Brownell.

It landed her in the French-speaking Republic of Cameroon, West Africa.

“I didn’t unpack my bags for the first six months,” said Brownell, who ended up serving from 1992 to 1995.

The dropout rate for Peace Corps volunteers is more than 60 percent. Brownell thought she’d become part of the statistics.

“It’s not easy being lonely,” she said.

The nearest fellow volunteer was hours away. The language barrier and cultural differences were more than she thought she could bear.

At that time, women in Cameroon lived in a polygamous society with few choices, she said. They weren’t allowed to own land, have their own business or a bank account. Their choices were mainly to either stay with their father, get married or be a prostitute.

Brownell’s role was to work with health care professionals to raise the quality of life for mothers and children. It involved teaching moms about nutrition, pre-natal care and other ways to be healthy and raise healthy children — not an easy task in a country where meat in a home goes first to the men.

Peace Corps work “is not for everyone,” said Brownell, now executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Ontario County.

But it was for her.

“I came home a different person, a better person,” she said.

The changes also made her less tolerant of the American way of life. In Cameroon, people take care of each other and behave as a true community, she said. Even strangers are welcomed as guests and given the best food and best bed in the house.

There, “it was like one big family … here, it is every man for himself.”

She cried when it was time to go, said Brownell, but this time, for a different reason: “I didn’t want to leave.”

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