Madeline Kellner/My Turn
Just seven weeks ago my husband Clint and I evacuated from Peru, abruptly ending our Peace Corps volunteer service.
This was our second service, having served 27 months in Peace Corps Guatemala, 2016-2018. For the first time in its 59-year history, Peace Corps pulled its global force of volunteers, over 7,300 of them in 61 nations, and returned them to the United States.
Everyone’s service was closed, allowing the volunteers to access services and benefits to help them adjust back home. Both the Peru Peace Corps and US Embassy staff worked diligently with the Peruvian government to safely evacuate 180 Peace Corps volunteers, US Embassy staff and families, and private citizens to the United States. It was a herculean effort to consolidate the Peace Corps volunteers from across challenging geographies and with road, transport, and airport shutdowns.
We were eight weeks into our 12-month Peace Corps Response project in the northern Amazon of Peru. Minga Peru (www.mingaperu.org), the non-profit to which we were assigned, brings vital health and other important messages to over 100,000 indigenous residents living in isolated communities along the Amazon through their radio program, ”Bienvenida Salud” or Welcome Health.
To reinforce those messages, they run a program to train “promotoras”, local lay women health promoters, so they can help women and their families in their communities by providing education, support and links to services. To share the non-profit’s success with interested outsiders and to market locally-made artisanal products, Minga started an educative tourism program called Minga Tours. Our charge was to work shoulder to shoulder with Minga staff to strengthen and advance these programs during our 1-year service. We were based in Iquitos, located in northeastern Peru, where the two large tributaries come together to form the Amazon River.
When we arrived back home, we were thrown back into a very different reality here in Marin.
In eight short weeks, the world stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We followed the required 14-day self-quarantine and then entered the almost as strict shelter in place. There was no “homecoming” as we could not come in personal contact with family or friends.
Everyone seems distracted and more inwardly directed. We can feel the disappointment others are experiencing, with cancelled weddings, stalled charitable fund raisers and memorial services for loved ones, postponed surgeries, and delayed trips. Also palpable was the fear, the anxiety, and the panic when in the grocery store, on the streets and trails, and in the media. None of us has ever experienced a situation like this with so little certainty, no definable end in sight, and no assurances that this cannot happen again.
What has brought us a renewed perspective in the midst of so much change?
Since our return, we learned that Minga Peru now faces new critical challenges with funding shortfalls and a higher demand for services. The Peruvian Amazon is the most marginalized region in the nation, home to over 1,000 rural communities, most located in isolated riverine areas, with poor access to essential services such as health, electricity, water, hygiene and sanitation, and communication. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacts this region already besieged by a Dengue epidemic, shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen, and medical professional. Poverty rates are high and residents suffer from food insecurity. As a result of the pandemic, tourism activity has stopped, an important source of revenue for the riverine communities.
What we cannot do in person in the Amazon, we can now do remotely in the United States.
We are contacting past and potential donors to help fund Minga’s emergency response plan, beefing up the radio program’s COVID-19 messages and advice and providing essentials like soap, cleaning supplies, and vegetable plants for familiar gardens.
Keeping the faces of the indigenous women and their families that we met in our sights, gives us the motivation we need to make the ask. It also gives us focus outside ourselves while still not breaking any of the shelter in place rules. We don’t know “what’s next” and if we will be able to return to the Peruvian Amazon to finish our project work as Peace Corps Response volunteers. In the meantime, we help out from the confines of our house and maintain a strong link to both the people and place that were becoming our new 1-year home.
Madeline and Clint Kellner, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Peru Response 2020 and Guatemala, 2016-2018
(Madeline Kellner is a 27-year resident of Novato and a former mayor of the city.)
Madeline Kellner/My Turn