The Herald Bulletin

March 27, 2011

Locals fondly recall Peace Corps service on agency's anniversary

Work life-changing for volunteers

By Abbey Doyle
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — More than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries in the past 50 years. President John F. Kennedy officially created Peace Corps in March 1961 with an executive order with the first group of 51 volunteers leaving to serve as teachers in Ghana that August.

Throughout those years, dozens if not hundreds of volunteers have come from Madison County including these four Anderson residents.

Here is just a sampling of their experiences and a reflection on what their service meant to them in their own words.

Ervin and Lois Rockhill

Turkey, 1965 to 1967

Ervin and Lois Rockhill married on a Saturday and the following Friday the newlywed couple left for Peace Corps training in Oregon. A month later they were serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Turkey.

The couple met at Anderson College where they quickly fell in love and decided to marry. For Lois, the Peace Corps was filling a void — with graduation and degrees in sociology and social work upcoming, she had no idea what she wanted to do. An Anderson College alumnus had spoken to students about the Peace Corps. That would be her next step, she decided. This was all before Ervin was part of the picture.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for Lois,” Ervin Rockhill said jokingly. “It wasn’t anything that had ever occurred to me. She’d applied and been accepted before we even started dating.”

But he said he wouldn’t change the experience for anything.

“It certainly opened up my eyes to a bigger world,” he said. “My understanding that there are other cultures with a lot of richness that I would not have been aware of without the experience. I’m sure I’m more receptive to difference among people and cultures, more tolerant of different ways of living and points of view. I have more of a world view of things as opposed to a parochial view.”

The two worked for a year in eastern Turkey in a small village — Tekyol Koy, which literally means single road. They did a bit of earthquake relief after the country suffered a large earthquake and then moved to Erzurum where they worked at a university with library staff.

“We used to laugh, here we are — very, very young at the time, new graduates out of Anderson College in our early 20s — and we are to determine the needs of village people that have lived there thousands of years and make changes,” Lois Rockhill said. “What we did was learn about a group of people, and they learned about us. We were so very, very different. It was a fantastic opportunity to share who we were with each other. We also learned that in so many ways we were the same.”

The Rockhills spent most their time in the village — which is what Lois recalls most vividly — on helping the villagers improve their diets by raising rabbits and chickens.

“When I look back on it, the experience wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I thought I was going to go in and make a huge difference in some kind of important way. The difference was in our lives and in the people we came into contact with.”

The idea of joining the Peace Corps’ Rapid Response Corps for returned volunteers is something the two are considering after retirement. They would “definitely” recommend service to those interested.

Jenny Deeds

Cameroon, 1983 to 1986

As an agriculture education and horticulture student at Purdue University, Jenny Deeds heard about the Peace Corps often. After hearing the organization’s mission just a few times, she knew it was what she was meant to do.

“I knew this is what I needed to do,” Deeds said. “I had been very fortunate to be born in the United States and always had the opportunities I was raised with as a U.S. citizen. I wanted to give something back.”

What she gave back was three years of service in Cameroon. Her first year she was an agriculture education teacher at a regional technical school in Abong-Mbang. She taught those who would become extension agents in the area. The next two years she worked in the capital of Yaounde as a volunteer leader in the Agriculture Ministry. She helped create a training manual for teachers in Cameroon that gave them practical, hands-on lessons and helped create programs for future Peace Corps volunteers.

“It was a very good, eye-opening experience,” Deeds said. “I already knew we were blessed here in the U.S., but going out and seeing how much we take advantage was an amazing experience.”

While amenities at home were abundant, she said those in her communities lived in huts with dirt floors. Her community did have running water and electricity, but there were no paved roads and for most of her service absolutely no television in the entire country.

“It helped me realize you don’t need all that stuff that you get accustomed to living in the U.S.,” Deeds said. “One of the things I enjoyed so much was actually sitting down and visiting with people. Because there aren’t so many distractions like television, people stayed in touch with those around them. It helped me redefine what was really important in life.”

Looking back on her service, she recognizes the effect it had on her and those who were touched by her and other Peace Corps volunteers. She extended her service by a year and then worked for a nonprofit both overseas and in the U.S. through 1998.

“It still affects me,” Deeds said. “My experiences even affect the way I live today. I don’t have all the material things. Thinking back, it makes me reflect on what I really do need.”

Like most returned volunteers, she said she would encourage anyone interested in taking part in the Peace Corps.

“It is a worthwhile experience and organization,” Deeds said. “When I retire I definitely want to get back to international work.”

Amy Bratsch

Lesotho, 1997 to 1999

Amy Bratsch joked that she was considered a “senior volunteer.” At the time she was serving in the southern African country of Lesotho she was the oldest volunteer they’d had to date.

“I had retired from teaching and quickly decided I wasn’t quite ready to retire,” the Anderson woman said. “I had met some Peace Corps volunteers and knew of someone’s daughter who had gone. I just thought it wold be something that I would enjoy doing.”

As a retired teacher from Pendleton Elementary School, Bratsch had extensive education experience. She went to village schools throughout the country and helped teachers from those schools develop lesson plans and gave them new teaching tools.

“I think I view so many things differently because of my service,” she said. “I have a different viewpoint now that I ever had before. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Even at my age, I really felt capable doing what I was doing.”

While Bratsch would do the experience again in a heartbeat, she said, she knows many of her contemporaries may not be able to handle the rural and primitive conditions she lived and worked in.

“I didn’t mind that,” she said. “Just being there and living in such a different environment and culture, it was so eye-opening. I got so much out of it.”

One moment that sticks out in her mind when she recalls her service is seeing the effects of a small library she set up in one of the schools with books sent to her by her fellow teachers at Pendleton Elementary. A young girl returned a book after checking it out the night before and said, “Thank you. This book was so beautiful.”

“It was so meaningful,” Bratsch said. “It has stuck out in my mind. You just can’t come back from an experience like that the same.”

Contact Abbey Doyle: 640-4805,