ELLEN SILER Kingston, Jamaica 1971-73
Ellen Siler had dreams of joining the Peace Corps after she finished college.
Then she got married during her sophomore year and instead of heading to some exotic foreign land ended up settling down in a small town near where her husband was born. They had two children, a house, a car and the other trappings of the American dream. They both felt like there had to be more to life.
"Then two things happened in the same week," she said.
When her husband's family suggested they pick out funeral plots, it added to the sense of being trapped in a life that wasn't their dream. And when the Peace Corps announced a new volunteer program for families, it led them to sell everything except for what could be stuffed in five duffel bags.
Within two months, Siler, her husband and their two young girls were boarding a plane, heading for Jamaica.
"I felt so alive and energized," Siler said.
What awaited them was a life that was simple and hard. And Siler says she loved every minute of it. Not everyone else had the same reaction, though. Many families got to their destination and dropped out long before the end of their two-year service, leading the Peace Corps to discontinue the family program.
The Silers stayed. Ellen taught swimming. Although Jamaica is a tropical island, at the time only 4 percent of the population knew how to swim.
When Siler returned home, she continued to serve. She has spent the last 25 years running domestic violence centers and retired as CEO of Hubbard House. And when she is asked if the Peace Corps is still relevant, she talks about the impact of working side-by-side with someone from another country, breaking down stereotypes and building relationships.
To explain the level of respect for the Peace Corps in the 1970s, she recalls what happened when they were returning from a day trip to the other side of the island.
It was a volatile period in Jamaica. With an election approaching, it was common to see tanks patrolling the streets and hear gunfire at night. On this trip they got delayed and ended up traveling at night. They entered a small town and became trapped in the middle of a political rally, with people banging on their Volkswagen Beetle, rocking it from side to side.
They rolled down the windows a crack, held out two fingers and said, "Peace Corps! Peace Corps!"
The chant was picked up by the crowd and spread, the people parting to clear a path.