Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Sharing a Service Adventure, From Baltimore to Peru

By Maggie Switzer (with Erin Thomas)

Upon graduating from college in 2016, I knew I wanted to do a year or two of service. I turned first to AmeriCorps VISTA, because I deeply respected the call to serve in the United States and support the effort to eradicate poverty at home. I joined the VISTA team at Strong City Baltimore in July 2016, and served for a year as a VISTA volunteer with Crossroads Community Food Network, in Takoma Park. Working with Crossroads and Strong City taught me a lot about applying social justice work in real life, community organizing, sustainable development, and basically just getting things done. At the end of my term with VISTA at Strong City, I decided to take my service work even further and join the Peace Corps in Peru as a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education volunteer.

A funny thing happened in January 2018 when I was added to my training cohort’s Facebook group. A woman named Erin Thomas messaged me and said: “Hey! We’re in the same cohort again!” Small world. Erin and I had been in the same VISTA cohort at Strong City, where we had seen each other about once a month for our Professional Development Meetings (PDMs). We both knew it was an interesting coincidence that we spent a year together as VISTA volunteers in the same cohort, and would be in the same Peace Corps cohort for two years. Albeit different programs: Erin is a Community Economic Development volunteer, which speaks to her experience at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Baltimore, working in financial literacy with refugee populations. I knew she was interested in Peace Corps, but never got the chance to talk to her about it. However, as fate will have it…

We left for Peru in March 2018 (fittingly, we sat next to each other on the plane to Peru) and completed three months of training on June 7, 2018. Shortly after swearing in as an official Peace Corps volunteer, I arrived in my site, El Parco, in Amazonas, the hot, humid high jungle region of Peru on the border with Ecuador. Erin was sent to Chacas, in Ancash, the colder, mountainous region north of Lima. Throughout training, we both realized the similarities between the Strong City VISTA program training and Peace Corps training and how effective both must be. For example, I remember doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis with the VISTA cohort members, and in Peace Corps we learned to do a FODA analysis: Fortalezas, Opportunidades, Debilidades, Amenazas, within our respective communities.

We recently completed four months of our 27-month service. My time has consisted of teaching many hand-washing lessons/classes to improve household hygiene practices. I enjoy very much working with my Centro de Salud (local health center) to promote safe drinking water and using my VISTA experience to talk about nutrition and other preventative health practices. I also installed a chlorination system so we can become one step closer to safe drinking water!

Working with VISTA gave us capacity building, persistence, flexibility and sustainable development skills that will serve us well in Peace Corps. We are both very grateful for the experience with Strong City that has propelled us to be better-equipped Peace Corps volunteers and global citizens.