Fresh out of college in 1981, I went from my college dorm room to a wooden shack in the remote coffee-growing Costa Rican village of Pejibaye. I spent the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer working with small farmers in running a coffee and sugar cooperative, helping them to manage their business and increase their family incomes. At the same time, I worked with a group of cheese producers, helping them to market their product to urban areas. I also reached out to a nearby village to assist a newly formed women's cooperative that was trying to market jam and jellies. I put together a proposal for the cooperative that won a $5,000 grant, allowing the women to build a small facility for their business.
It is a cliche to say that I got much more out of the Peace Corps experience than I gave, but I know that it's true. I learned, for example, how incredibly resourceful people can be in earning a living, providing for their families and jointly resolving challenges at the level of a small, rural community. I also learned that fancy, high-tech solutions are not always the answer and that money is not the key ingredient to resolving problems, success, satisfaction, or happiness.
After my stint in the Peace Corps, which included a third year in the country's capital, San Jose I landed a job for a year, also in San Jose, as a USAID contractor working on President Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative. My job was identifying U.S. markets for the kinds of cooperatives with which I had been working as a volunteer. Because of a bureaucratic snafu, I went for months without pay, with only my meager Peace Corps savings to sustain myself. One day, walking to my home in San Jose, I came across a USAID official I had known in the past, and pleaded for help. That did the trick. Shortly after, I received my first paycheck in months.
Twenty-five years later, as Charge d'Affaires at the American Embassy in Santo Domingo, I welcomed the new Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams, to my office. Director Williams had done his Peace Corps Service in the Dominican Republic, and he was happy to learn that I was also a former PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer). In the course of reminiscing about my time in Costa Rica, Director Williams noted that he too had been in Costa Rica in the mid-1980s, working for USAID. And then, in one of those coincidences that make Foreign Service life unique, I realized that the young USAID official who had resolved my paycheck problem all those years ago had been none other than the current Peace Corps Director.
This year, both USAID and the Peace Corps are celebrating their 50th anniversaries. I was blessed to be a Peace Corps volunteer, a life-changing experience that continues to inform my perspective today.