The answer to my question “why try and fix the world” became clear. For whatever reason, in 2002 I’d been introduced to the world of international service and it changed me. It gave me purpose. I hoped that PC would give me more insight into how government volunteer programs work, and how NGOs went about reaching their goals.
I have no doubt that my non-profit work history plus the recommendation of two of those NAP Board members was a major factor in my being accepted into the Peace Corps. It certainly wasn’t my academic credential. Those that know me, know there’s a few holes in my early resume. Let me speed date you through the highlights of my first 30-something years on the planet. Left high school in the last quarter of senior year, had a child out of wedlock, married wonderfully complicated man, who was manic depressive sans meds. Mine was life on a downward trajectory; like an ever-expanding Florida sink hole.
(Fast fact: My circumstance growing up in life was not one of privilege, as most Americans would define it. I do believe that every bit of this early history gave me a greater empathy and respect for the rural Africans I was later honored to meet. I got to skip any temptation I may have had for moral judgments.)
On changing course.
I spent five years in a small cabin in the mountains, running our family deli business. In my spare time, I read every self-help book ever written. Thank you, John Bradshaw, inner child guy. Thank you, Louise Hay, self-esteem lady. Thank you, Natalie Goldberg for help “Writing Down The Bones.” Free time was also spent on long walks in the woods with a few breaks riding bikes in Mexico.
At 40-something, after a lot of self-study and evaluation, I was ready to re-engage with the urban world. My work history started taking a more upward path, spending nearly twenty years in non-profit arts marketing and administration. Turns out I was pretty good at it, slowly working my way up the ladder, earning the title ‘Director’ of my department and collecting nice pay checks. Still, I never found much personal satisfaction selling touring Broadway shows. But the vacations after 2002 were magical.
Believe in yourself.
I’m telling you my early history, not because I’m proud of my mistakes, but because I overcame them. I tell you this so that if you’ve made a few questionable decisions in life, it does not define who you are. With enough tenacity and belief in your own potential, you can take control of that narrative and change it at any time.
The Sandy motto: Believe in yourself. Be courageous. Be of service.
A special message for the bean counters and tax payers: If you’re an American tax payer, you’ve probably asked, “Sure, but how much does the government spend on this whimsy.” Younger folk serving in the Peace Corps offer great potential for our country; our future leaders in training. The older folks can have a powerful short-term impact, but we’re (probably) not gonna go home and run for Congress. A young PCV might want to improve their resume, their understanding of life abroad, or travel a little before settling down. Mine was to learn. If anyone joins for the paycheck, they will be disappointed. There is none. In my case my transport to Africa was paid by our government. My rent and transport in country paid by Justice and Women, a South African entity. Our government supplied a very small monthly stipend for food and electricity and a resettlement bonus for returning home. More is spent by our government on the military band than is spent on Peace Corps. But the rewards for those that serve and for our country are priceless.
It is not my intent to diminish the reputation, prestige or mystique of the Peace Corps (or the touring Broadway industry) by telling the world someone like me became a part of their ranks. Quite the opposite. My greatest hope is that someone reads this and says ‘Hey, maybe I can do this, too.’ Every life needs to give something back. Why not try Peace Corps at 64.
We all have a super power developed and honed over years of trials and tribulations. The world needs all the wisdom hidden in those super powers it can get because if you haven’t noticed, the world is an ash heap of cautionary tales in constant need of a course correction. And who better to redirect the train then someone who’s already taken all the wrong turns. It just takes a first step… get out of your lazy boy, turn off the news – and start making your own. It may just be the thing that saves your life too.
Special thanks: I dedicate this blog to my beloved daughter, Jennifer Leigh Kemper, a true global citizen, who harassed me mercilessly until I got around to writing down these bones.