Cameron Beach, who has been living in rural Malawi for more than a year since COVID-19 swept the globe, cut short her Peace Corps stint abruptly, is now back on her own.
In March 2020, the Peace Corps, an American government program, had 7,000 volunteers in 62 nations. They were given little time to pack before being put on a plane and sent back to the United States that month.
“It was especially painful for me because I was given 24 hours to leave a place that I’d called home for almost two years,” Beach said during a recent video call from her home in Malawi, a landlocked country in southern Africa.
Beach was trained to speak Chichewa and had been teaching English at the Mkomera Community Day Secondary School in Dedza, located in a compound about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of the capital, Lilongwe. The 25-year-old Greenville, South Carolina, native paid her own way back to her post nine months after evacuation and is living on savings, but says she would “absolutely” rejoin the Peace Corps if it became possible.
The possibility is that it could be: The organization plans to start returning volunteers to the field in late 2012 or early 2013.
Although Peace Corps volunteers will need to be vaccinated before they can return home, the country in which they are sent back will determine their vaccination status. Carol Spahn, acting director of the Peace Corps, said that approximately 2,400 volunteers who had been evacuated expressed an interest in returning to their country. There are also about 10,000 applications.
Spahn stated that volunteers who had been evacuated expressed great interest in returning to their country or service immediately after the evacuation. “Obviously, people move on with their lives as time passes, but I can assure you that we have a strong pipeline of people who were evacuated, those who were invited but could not go, and those who are showing new interest.”
The speed at which they can be sent overseas will depend on how effective the global fight against the virus. This is complicated by the recent appearance of the more transmissible Delta variant and slow rollout vaccines in developing nations — many of them hosting Peace Corps programs.
Spahn believes it will take several years for the Peace Corps to regain its full strength. While volunteers from select countries have been evacuated before March 2020, President John F. Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps meant that all its volunteers had to be evacuated at once.
Since its creation in 1961, more than 240,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in scores of countries. Its purpose is to assist countries in meeting their developmental needs through a variety of programs, including education, health, and agriculture. This also helps to promote understanding between Americans.
The typical service lasts for two years, after a period of training. This depends on the country and program. Most Peace Corps staff, including local employees and citizens from the United States, survived the pandemic and continued to work on some programs. Former volunteers worked remotely for development projects in the United States and received a small stipend.
It is still a difficult task to return overseas, given the amount of training required and the rebuilding of programs. The knowledge that is usually passed to successors by volunteers, as well as the cross-cultural and institutional knowledge, will be lost in areas with few returning volunteers.
The Peace Corps is not the only one that has been called upon to help with the evacuation of thousands of people from faraway places and the subsequent recovery.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had to send home about 26,000 missionaries tasked with recruiting new members to the faith known widely as the Mormon church. Many chose to do missions in their own countries, with an emphasis on online work.
The church began sending missionaries into the field in November and in June, it reopened its missionary training centres in Utah, Mexico, and the Philippines.
Sam Penrod, a church spokesperson, stated that all missionaries from the United States serving overseas must be vaccinated. Missionaries who do not want to be vaccinated will be assigned to missions in their home countries.
He stated in an email that the church was taking a cautious approach to assigning missionaries abroad, according to local conditions and following guidance from government and health officials.
As the years go by, potential recruits as well as returning employees are moving on.
Cullen O’Donnell (25), originally from Mentor Ohio, taught English for two years in Ecuador with the Peace Corps. He was then extended for another year. He was planning another year, working on the Galapagos Islands, when COVID-19 hit.
He still wants to go back, but “then again, with Peace Corps it is very vague: ‘Yeah…we’re hoping to return to the field’ but it keeps getting pushed back.”
He’s now moving on with his daily life. He has a satisfying job at a school in Pennsylvania for at-risk students and was recently accepted to graduate school.
While the Peace Corps is accepting new applications throughout the pandemic period, the agency started planning for a return trip to Belize in June after Belize’s government asked for volunteers to help schools recover from the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There is no indication of when the first trainees will be sent to this tiny country, which lies between Guatemala and Mexico.
Spahn stated that although some volunteers refused to leave, their Peace Corps service was terminated. Volunteers are eligible for all the benefits that come with two years of service, despite the fact that they were not allowed to leave. These include resettlement payments, preferential hiring status for federal jobs, and scholarships.
Spahn stated that former volunteers, such as Beach, could help to revive the Peace Corps.
Beach couldn’t say goodbye. She was missed by her students.
Aness Leman Filimoni is finishing her senior year at high school. She said that “Madam Beach left Malawi when many things went wrong, especially in our class.” “Madam Beach was teaching English, but the school couldn’t find a suitable replacement when she left.”
Beach now teaches her two classes per day, five days a semaine. Beach is also finishing up the girls’ dormitory that was built with part of a Peace Corps grant.
There were 108 volunteers in Malawi just before the pandemic. Amber Lucero – Dwyer, Peace Corps Malawi Director, has seen a few former volunteers return on her own, although she believed most were just visiting and not staying as long as Beach.
“We tried to be as creative and imaginative as possible to determine what we can do, what core Peace Corps work we can do in the absence volunteers,” Lucero Dwyer stated.
Beach was initially sent to Malawi only weeks after she graduated from college. She was due to finish her service in August 2020. If she is able to return to the service, she does not know how long.
Regardless, she’s found her niche.
Beach stated that she feels called to Malawi and the Peace Corps because it is what she believes she was meant to do. It wasn’t an easy road.