By Patricia Breakey
Local counties, varied cuisines and vivid memories bonded a group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who gathered in Oneonta on Tuesday to celebrate Peace Corps Week.
March 1 marks the 47th anniversary of the international volunteer service. The local returned volunteers were at the Universalist Society on Tuesday night for a potluck dinner.
Edna Brown began contacting local residents who are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and hopes to find others in Otsego, Delaware and Chenango counties who have served. She said she has already compiled a list of 25 RPCVs from Otsego County.
"We are all very different people who had similar experiences, and it's fun to get together and talk about them," Brown said Tuesday.
David Rutherford, 49, said joining the Peace Corps was something he always wanted to do , though he can't remember why.
"When I graduated from college, I taught for a while and then I applied," Rutherford said.
Rutherford said he met Brown on the first day of training. Although they were both in Kenya, they were three to seven hours apart because of the quirks in the public transportation system.
Rutherford said he was teaching math and English and was the deputy headmaster at a boarding school, where he lived in a block building with a tin roof.
On Tuesday, he said, he and Brown were preparing ugali, a cake made of cooked grits, and sukuma wiki, fried collard greens with onions and tomatoes, to share at the potluck dinner.
Rutherford described his two-year stint as "one big positive experience" even though he was living in poverty-like conditions.
"It was a good life," he said. "The children were incredibly happy and you didn't get a sense of poverty. It was pretty remarkable."
Robert Chiappisi, 42, of Oneonta, said he was inspired to join the Peace Corps after meeting someone on his first job, when he was 17, who was preparing to leave for her Peace Corps assignment.
Chiappisi later met and married his wife, Marie, and they decided to join the Peace Corps. They were assigned to Nepal, where they lived in a town on the border with India. They arrived in September 1995 and left in early 1998.
"We lived quite comfortably," Chiappisi said. "We had a house with two bedrooms, inside bathrooms, running water and electricity most of the time and a refrigerator, which was unheard of."
Chiappisi said their experience was so wonderful they are talking about going back in the Peace Corps for a second stint.
"I don't think I ever met a better group of people," Chiappisi said of the volunteers. "We formed enduring friendships, and quite a few marriages came out of the group."
Jeje Viek, 79, of Cooperstown, said she and her late husband, Nicholas, joined the Peace Corps when she was 62 and he was 64. She is a retired teacher and he was a doctor.
Viek said the idea of joining began one day when they were coming back from the dump after dropping off a load of recyclables.
"Nick said he thought we should recycle our brains," Viek said. "We were taking a master gardening course and went to Cornell, where we saw a poster that said The Peace Corps wants you.' I said, Look, maybe that is what you want.'"
The Vieks were assigned to Malawi in south central Africa, though she had requested someplace that was not too hot.
Viek said their experience in the Peace Corps was wonderful and launched their interest in traveling.
Teresa Michael, a Peace Corps recruiter from Middletown and former Peace Corps volunteer, said there are large RPCV groups in Ithaca, Albany and New York, but she was surprised to discover so many returned volunteers in the Oneonta area.
"The returned volunteers are all so different, but they are like peas in a pod when they get together," Michael said.
Michael said she joined the Peace Corps when she was 25 because she "wanted to give something back and see the world."
She was in Southeast Asia from 2003 to 2005 and said it was a tremendous challenge, but also a wonderful opportunity.
Brown said interested people may call the Peace Corps today at (800) 424-8580 or visit www.peacecorps.gov.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or schools and organizations interested in hearing presentations on other countries from RPCVs may contact Brown at 272-1134 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Breakey can be reached at 746-2894 or at email@example.com.