LI’s former Peace Corps workers look back (Newsday Article)

♦ This past Sunday, Newsday published an article on the 50 year anniversary of the Peace Corps. Sarah Lansdale was highlighted in the piece and discussed parallels with her work today as Executive Director of Sustainable Long Island and previously as a volunteer in the Peace Corps.

♦ Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. Paul Arfin was a junior at Adelphi University.

“I was a business major and directionless. All my friends had clear goals, and I didn’t know what I wanted,” says Arfin, 70, of Hauppauge. “So when I heard Kennedy’s announcement, I applied.”

In 1965, armed with new skills such as how to shoe and ride horses, he headed for the mountains of Colombia, where he would organize a community market and theater. When he left, he was no longer directionless: “I decided I wanted a career in social justice and community service work.”

Fast forward a few decades: Farhat Jilalbhoy, 25, a graduate of Smithtown High School, returned in May from a two-year stint in Costa Rica, where she taught life skills to at-risk youth and worked with a women’s group to start an organic farming micro-enterprise.

“Now I use what I learned there every day,” said Jilalbhoy, who now works at the nonprofit YouthBuild International in Boston.

The two bookend the experience of Peace Corps volunteers from Long Island, which has sent 4,010 abroad so far. Currently 122 Long Islanders are among the 8,655 volunteers working in 77 countries.

During the Peace Corps’ half-century, more than 200,000 Americans have served. And much has changed.

“In 1961, education and agricultural support were the skills provided,” said Vincent Wickes, New York regional director. Education still ranks high, at 37 percent “of what the group does,” he said, but agriculture has dropped to 4 percent. Now volunteers work with health and HIV/AIDS awareness (22 percent), business and information communication technology (14 percent), environment (13 percent) and youth development (5 percent).

In the early years, communication with the outside world meant using the mail.

“Where I was in the Philippines I was isolated from the world because there was no TV or radio,” Linda Restaino-Merola, 65, of Eastport, said of her 27 months spent there. “In 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, I learned about it by chance from someone who came by on a motorcycle.”

Peace Corps alumni interviewed said that their experiences left them wanting to give back to their communities — and that they have tried to do so both through careers and volunteer activities.

When Arfin returned from Colombia in 1967, he began a career in nonprofit work and would go on to establish Long Island’s first intergenerational day care centers and start the nonprofit Intergenerational Strategies, which promotes intergenerational programs and policies on Long Island.

As the Peace Corps has reached through generations, the alumni maintain connections through the Long Island affiliate of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, which has a membership of 200.

Among them:

Bette Bass, 66, was a high school student in Brooklyn when she heard Kennedy’s 1961 call. Five years later she graduated from Brooklyn College, married and, with her husband, Bob, headed to Ethiopia, where they taught classes in the secondary school. They lived in a house with a tin roof and no indoor plumbing. “It was a wonderful way to get to know your spouse,” says Bass, of Massapequa.

Restaino-Merola, 65, left for the Philippines in 1967, three weeks after she graduated from the State University at New Paltz. She trained teachers and started a library.

“My father had a hard time with me going,” said Restaino-Merola. “He said, ‘You went to college to make $60 a month?’ ”

Sarah Lansdale, 36, executive director of Sustainable Long Island, went to Guatemala in 1996 as an agricultural extension agent, working with farmers to install irrigation and produce cash crops. Lansdale, of Huntington, says her father’s military service inspired her to serve the country. She was also influenced by Peace Corps commercials:

“I still remember the image of people digging a well and the voice-over saying, ‘The Peace Corps, the toughest job you’ll ever love.’ ”

Christina Lombardi, 31, of Lynbrook, joined in 2004, just nine months after graduation from Boston University, “because I didn’t want to change my mind. So many people say they wanted to do it but other things got in the way.” She was influenced by her parents and by Restaino-Merola, who had been her sixth-grade teacher.

Lombardi spent two years in Grenada as an HIV/AIDS health volunteer and survived two devastating hurricanes. “That teaches you to be creative in order to get jobs done. And that has helped me with my career,” she says. She’s a speech occupational therapist at AHRC Nassau’s Barbara C. Wilson Preschool in Woodbury.

The local group assists returning volunteers. “They were in touch with me and supported my family while I was in the service and when I came back,” says Lombardi. “The reverse culture shock is intense. You see so much that people at home may never see, and then you’re thrown back into the New York pace.

“The RPCV group understands that, so they help you to talk about your stories and adjust.”

The group also does speaking engagements and performs service projects such as Pedals for Progress, which each April takes unwanted bicycles and parts and ships them to developing nations.

“A lot of what we do is to meet the third goal of the Peace Corps, which is to bring the world back home to make people aware of other cultures,” said Restaino-Merola, who taught reading for 31 years at Selden Middle School. Bass said she spent years volunteering with Cub Scouts, the PTA and other community groups and worked several years as a special education paraprofessional. Today she’s a naturalist and outdoor educator at the Nassau BOCES Outdoor and Environmental Education Site at Brookville.

In her seven years as executive director of Sustainable Long Island in Bethpage, Lansdale said she has used her Peace Corps experience to encourage community leaders and elected officials to “rethink, rebuild and renew communities across Long Island.”

She draws a parallel with her work in the Peace Corps: “There, as here, I worked with communities to identify their needs and imagine what that future world could look like.”

Jilalbhoy said she grew up visiting India and was moved “by the poverty people experienced. I wanted to work on a grassroots level to do something about it.”

She believes her Peace Corps experience will have a lifelong impact. “I did not change the world during my service, and nothing came easily,” she says. “But now when I come across a challenge, I remind myself of what my community and I were able to achieve with those tools and feel confident in my ability to overcome whatever obstacle is in my way.”

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