With grassroots insight, returned Peace Corps Volunteers advance Creative’s mission
By Karen Ives
August 2, 2016
When Monnie Heminthavong was 7 years old, she and her family fled Laos in 1979 and traveled across the globe to Yorkville, Ill. Though they had never heard of Yorkville, she immediately felt at home in the small town.
The community, and particularly the local Unitarian churchwomen, helped her family resettle, providing support and opportunities.
Heminthavong decided she wanted to return that generosity and in 1993 joined the U.S. Peace Corps as a way of “getting back to give back.” She served as an Agroforestry volunteer in Cameroon from 1993 to 1997 and the experience left an indelible mark on her.
“It was one of the most gratifying and satisfying things I’ve ever done,” she says.
For Heminthavong and returned volunteers like her, Peace Corps service prompted a lifelong passion for development.
Established in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps fosters positive relationships and friendship around the world by providing developing countries with skilled labor that can train the workforce, share U.S. culture and learn about the host countries in which they work and live.
At that time, President Kennedy probably did not realize that it would create a cadre of well-trained, culturally aligned returned volunteers who could work on some of today’s toughest development challenges.
Heminthavong, who now serves as a Contracts Administrator at Creative Associates International, is one of nearly a dozen returned Peace Corps Volunteers on staff. For the company, these returned volunteers bring a commitment to service that aligns strongly with Creative’s mission to support people around the world to realize the positive change they seek.
“Our Creative community is richer and our technical work is stronger because of the diverse experiences of our staff,” says Leland Kruvant, President of Creative. “Peace Corps Volunteers bring a community-oriented approach and cross-cultural communication skills that help us live out Creative’s mission and values.”
During a two-year assignment, Peace Corps volunteers gain experience in a community-driven style of development. They apply skills in appreciative inquiry to identify local needs and conditions and apply an understanding of the importance of language and local culture to of cross-cultural communication.
Jeffrey Coupe, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo from 1982 to 1984, is now a Senior Associate in Creative’s Education Division. He says the Peace Corps experience carries over to all facets of development.
“It was a life changing experience—for me anyway,” says Coupe. “I continued working in development and I enjoyed working on a USAID project as part of my Peace Corps experience and I think that helped in many ways because I had professional responsibility and I had to report on my activities.”
A broader perspective on complex development
In addition to building skills like collaboration, flexibility and language ability, Peace Corps Volunteers experience firsthand the complexities of a country and region and understand how complicated and politicized those contexts can be. This is a key perspective for implementing development projects, particularly in the conflict and crisis-affected environments where Creative works.
When political unrest erupted in Burkino Faso in 2015, David Newstead—a Data Analyst at Creative and returned Peace Corps Volunteer who had served in neighboring Togo—recognized something familiar about the rebels who raided the presidential residence.
“They’re the same type of guys who used to wait at the taxi stands in Togo,” he says.
Young, unemployed and disenfranchised. Newstead had seen men like this in Togo. To him, these men weren’t just rebels, but a population who had been marginalized and down-trodden by a host of other factors, including economic and societal.
Through their experiences, many of Creative’s returned Peace Corps Volunteers say they learned the value of engaging the community in every step of a project to ensure that it achieves it goals and serves the intended target population. Community engagement is key to accountability.
As Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia, Jake Thomsen, currently a Technical Manager in the Education in Conflict Practice Area at Creative, helped the headmaster at an elementary school apply for and win a grant to build a library. It was a significant achievement his early days in development—and the library was to become a critical tool for the community.
Thomsen also helped the library procure several boxes of donated books. Unfortunately, because of some of the funds were siphoned by a school official, there wasn’t enough money to buy furniture, Thomsen says. By the time Thomsen left The Gambia, the books were still in boxes and the library was still not operational.
Nonetheless, Thomsen says it was a learning experience for him.
“To me, that was a powerful example of the need to be careful to involve the community, to make sure one person isn’t running the show and making dubious decisions,” says Thomsen.
Creative’s returned Peace Corps Volunteers also report that their experiences gave them a richer understanding of cross-cultural communication and better insight into the beneficiaries’ perspectives. Volunteers say they learned to build personal relationships across cultures and understand how these relationships can lead to positive change in the lives of individuals.
Peace Corps “gives you the perspective of a beneficiary that you wouldn’t get unless you lived with them for an extended period of time,” says Meaghan Buksas, a Proposal Manger at Creative who served with Peace Corps in Ecuador.
She says her service helped her develop the ability to observe critically in order to better understand people, situations and opportunities.
Bringing the experience home to Creative
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are applying their experiences to the work they do at Creative. Because of their experiences abroad, they bring practical knowledge and a down-to-earth approach to development.
Peace Corps Volunteers “bring practical knowledge to the work we conceptualize,” explains Heminthavong. “Being in the field helps put context into what we do”
While it can be a big transition to go from working at the grass roots level to working at the headquarters level with an established international development organization, the returned Peace Corps Volunteers at Creative are up to the challenge.
“To me, it’s a way of coming full circle,” says Newstead. “In Peace Corps, you’re really in the weeds while at development organizations like Creative you get a birds-eye view.”
This birds-eye view often means working in development capacities most Peace Corps Volunteers haven’t encountered during their service, including work at the policy level.
“Here we deal a lot with policy,” says Thomsen. “We’re working with governments to help them perhaps develop their policy or improve their education policy or implement and operationalize their policy, but it’s a learning experience.”
For Creative, these returned Peace Corps volunteers help advance the organization’s mission with their insight into on-the-ground implementation and fierce dedication to the communities Creative partners with and serves.
The Peace Corps “made me a stronger and better person,” says Heminthavong. “I want to continue to provide service and uplift the way I have been uplifted.”