Setting out on mission of service

Volunteers: Peace Corps gives two Bel Air residents a chance to see the world and make a difference.

July 25, 2004|By Joseph Eaton | Joseph Eaton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tonga will be Peace Corps volunteer Lauren Drexel's home for the next 27 months, while she works on a project to teach schoolchildren about the environment.

A 2000 graduate of Bel Air High School, Drexel, 21, is one of several young Harford County residents postponing traditional careers or graduate school for service in the Peace Corps. Five other volunteers from the county are serving in destinations from Malawi to Bulgaria, according to the Peace Corps.

By the fall, five other area volunteers will be serving on Peace Corps missions. The appeal of the Peace Corps, said Drexel, is that it offers a chance to do important work, see the world and experience a foreign culture.

"You can read about these places, but you will never know what they are really like until you go there," she said.

Three days before she left July 8 for her first Peace Corps mission, Drexel sat on her bed and plotted how to pack long skirts (to fit in to conservative Tongan culture), Tupperware (to keep mice out of her food) and a sleeping bag into one large suitcase and a backpack that were already full.

In Panama, the summer after her freshman year at the University of Maryland, she tagged nesting sea turtles as part of an extracurricular volunteer conservation program. A year later, she spent a semester in Australia studying environmental science.

"Once you get out a little bit, you want to go a little bit further," she said.

Tonga is a chain of 171 tropical islands in the South Pacific. And it promises to be an adventure for Drexel, whose father said is the kind of person who brings home stray dogs and takes spiders outside to let them go instead of killing them.

Drexel will not find out where she will live until after she finishes three months of language and cultural study with other new volunteers on Tongatapu, the largest and most populated of the Tonga islands. She could be assigned to Tongatapu, or she could spend nearly two years on a remote island. "It's not really up to me. I'll go wherever they decide that I am needed," Drexel said.

Heather Lee, a local Peace Corps recruiting coordinator who served in the Dominican Republic in the late 1990s, said that for volunteers like Drexel, the first challenge after arriving overseas is learning a foreign language. It is essential for volunteers to master the language of their community quickly to work effectively, she said.

Ben Schapiro, a 21-year-old from Bel Air who is planning to leave for Central or South America this fall, said learning a foreign language is one of the most attractive benefits of joining the Peace Corps. The 2000 John Carroll High School graduate hopes mastering Spanish will make him more competitive in the job market when he returns.

Like Drexel, a yen for travel and environmental conservation work led Schapiro to the Peace Corps. Convincing his parents, however, was a challenge.

"They freaked out," he said, when he told them he had joined but before he knew where he would be placed. "It was like, `Oh, my God, he is going to go to Africa, and we will never see him again. He is going to get sick.'"

But Schapiro was persistent, and his parents gave in. He applied for the Peace Corps during his senior year at the University of Maryland and was accepted six months before he graduated with a degree in environmental science and policy in May.

"It's great because I've been studying about biodiversity in the rain forest, and that is where I will be," he said. "I will be able to experience this area that I have learned so much about."

Peace Corps volunteers work on projects that range from building houses and improving agriculture to running HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns and promoting eco-tourism. Since the program began in 1961, 170,000 volunteers have served in 136 countries, according to the Peace Corps Web site.

This summer, Schapiro is working at Gunpowder Falls State Park teaching children about the plants and animals that live near the Gunpowder River. He hopes to do similar work for the community he will live among in the Peace Corps.

"Maybe I can show them things they have never seen before, maybe pass on the things I have learned at school. Maybe I will just be another set of hands that is willing to work," he said.

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