Kate Hewitt – Age 24
Where are you from?
I’m from Washington State.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in the Republic of Moldova in Community and Organizational Development (COD). Program Goals:
Goal 1: Community Development
Local organizations and individuals will strengthen their capacity to assume leadership roles, develop sustainable projects and promote civic engagement
Goal 2: Organizational Development
Local organizations will increase their capacity to effectively develop and sustain services that benefit the community.
I think what I really love the most about the COD program in Moldova and in Peace Corps is there really is no such thing as a “typical work day”. Often times, I head to my NGO office located at an elementary school around 10 am and stay until 3 pm. Some days I work with one NGO, other days I work with six. Some days I write grants, some days I translate, some days I deliver food and hygiene packets to our beneficiaries, some days I play with children with disabilities, some days I advocate for human rights at conferences, some days I plan events, some days I research and write business plans, some days I teach someone how to use Facebook or Microsoft Office, some days I teach English. I have the flexibility to really work wherever I am needed, in whatever form can better develop an organization or my community. Some days I am crazy busy while other days I stream a lot of American television shows. That is the reality of the situation.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
The Republic of Moldova is considered “Posh Corps” or a country of service with perhaps several first-world amenities. I live with a familia-gazda or “host-family” that consists of just a woman in her 50’s. We live in a one-story, fenced-in home with two separate entrances (one for her side of the home and one for my casa mica or “small house”) our kitchen and bathroom are located in a separate building a mere 3 yards away that is connected to the garage (storage room, a spare “summer” kitchen and betch or basement). Our home has a garden for fruits and vegetables, a garden for flowers, a patio with astro-turf carpet and a small gazebo. My room is larger than my home in America. I have indoor plumbing, a stand-up shower and tub combo, gas heating, and regular clean water from a natural spring that is shut-off twice a year for 3 days for pipe cleaning purposes. My house, however nice, is located in a muddy trash alley filled with stray dogs. I live within 10 minutes from a modern grocery-store, several restaurants, banks, a university, phone store, and several other first-world amenities.
For the first three months of service, we are required to eat at least one meal a day with our host-family. My host-mother is the director of an NGO for street children in my community. She eats most of her meals at the center and therefore it is often a hassle for her to cook with me. So after those initial three months, I began to cook all my meals. I often have chicken and veggie dishes as vegetables are inexpensive and easily accessible here, as is chicken and I like to cook with spices sent in care packages from home. Traditional Moldovan food is a lot of chicken, bread, vegetable salads (tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and oil), soups like zeama (chicken noodle, essentially) and borsht (a beet soup) and a blend of often Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian food.
While I am fortunate to have one of the nicest homes for a Peace Corps Volunteer, my situation has not been all sunshine and daisies. Many host-families welcome volunteers with open-arms, however; that has not been my case and has become the toughest part about my “lifestyle”. My host-mother and I don’t really get along, we barely even speak. She is extremely critical of all aspects of my life. Constantly putting me down for how I cook, clean and dress. She criticizes my Romanian every opportunity she gets and consistently tries to abuse the myth that as an American, I am a faucet of overflowing cash. This has been a harsh reality for me as the host-family I experienced during my initial 8-week training in Moldova was absolutely wonderful and made me feel as though I was truly a part of their family.
What are Moldovans like?
Moldovans, as a whole, are truly kind and generous people. Many families want to nurture and take care of others, usually by feeding you more in one meal than you could eat in a week. Most families make their own wine and it is delicious! At community events and family dinners, you certainly will be having someone’s vin de casa or homemade wine. Most Moldovans have farms and gardens from which their meals come from. They rarely smile, but when they do, they grin from ear to ear, sometimes glittering with gold teeth. They care about appearance, Moldovan women are some of the most beautiful in the world. Moldovans work hard for little pay and make do with what they have from day to day. They take religion and tradition quite seriously. They celebrate EVERYTHING to the extreme. Birthdays, Christmas, New Years, Easter, religious holidays, national holidays, international holidays, you name it: they celebrate it. These celebrations are exquisite and innate, filled with costume, food and drink, dancing and singing, often all day long. But for as wonderful as Moldovans are, many of them have only known a life clouded by conflict and hard times.
I believe the toughest thing about Moldova happens to be the disconnect between first and second world. While I am thankful to have all of these-first world amenities, the country is still considered second-world. There is so this obvious elephant in the room asking: how are there all these nice things here and yet, life is still so hard?
Why do I see luxury vehicles like BMWs, Audis and Porsches EVERYWHERE I look and yet this is the poorest country in Europe? How can I eat at a chain-restaurant like McDonalds or shop at MallDova (home to a Guess and Mango) and still have so many villages who don’t have running or drinkable water? Why is my internet speed the 3rd fastest in the world and yet the country seems to have the quickest mass exodus of citizens (nearly one-third of this country has left to work abroad)? How can there be a few main roads that look like they were copy and pasted from America and yet people are using those roads to desert entire villages? How is it that the women here walk around looking like Vogue models and yet some of those women are victims of the 35,000 individuals being sold into human trafficking annually (6th highest in the world according to the Global Slavery Index)? Some houses here are McMansions with three stories, beautiful gates and lavish furnishings, yet everywhere you look another home or business is left abandoned to rot. Moldova is on the path to join the EU yet rights of women and persons with disabilities are dismal and corruption runs rampant throughout every single public sector. The Moldovan currency is depreciating at an alarming rate, the government can barely get anything done, the country is home to a break-away territory primarily controlled and armed by Russia, the people are divided between pro-EU and pro-Russia, businesses are closing quicker than they are opening, they have the 2nd highest alcohol consumption rate in the world, children are being left orphaned by parents and people are losing hope.
The uphill battle and toughest challenge Peace Corps volunteers in Moldova face is purely a pessimistic mentality. It is incredibly hard to get a project off the ground when you constantly hear: it can’t be done. Too often good ideas parish because they are not cultivated with positivity or possibility.
Peace Corps has been in Moldova for 21 years and is home to four programs: Community and Organizational Development, Small Enterprise Development, English Education and Health Education. Our goals and objectives are vast. I often wonder why, after 21 years, there has not been more progress. But I have also come to believe that the unspoken objective of Peace Corps is to provide hope. Too often we overlook such a simple objective while we are busy calculating numbers and quantifying outcomes. Peace Corps does much more than building schools and teaching English, we change lives. If you can spark a fire in just one individual, you can change a community and you can change a nation. Our victories as Peace Corps volunteers are often planting a seed that may take years to grow and decades to fulfill its destiny.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
The most rewarding part of my service has been learning and sharing. It has been incredible to transfer skills like: fundraising, English, social media, grant writing, social entrepreneurship and culture; and subsequently, see those skills used by locals in ways that truly transform change. While I like to think Moldova has learned many things from me, I know without hesitation I learn something new about my community, about Moldova, about the world or about myself every week if not everyday.
Sometimes the things I have learned and the ways I have learned them, aren’t easy nor kind. Which leads me to my greatest challenge here: I was sexually assaulted a little over a year into my service. That has been one of the biggest learning experiences of my life: about Moldova, about sexual assaults and about myself. Overcoming that event is an everyday challenge that has affected my service in many ways.
In regards to how Peace Corps compares to my expectations, I would have to say it really doesn’t compare. I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I applied to the Peace Corps or when I received my invitation to Moldova. I had this romanticized idea of my service. I figured I would fall in love with the country I served, become best friends with some locals, gain another family and have an experience that would change my life in ways that would have me coming back as often as I could to visit the place I called home for 27 months. My service has indeed changed my life, I have made wonderful friendships, and done things here that I truly believe will better this community; I have not fallen in love with the country I serve and quite frankly, I do not foresee myself returning to Moldova for sometime. A lot of this has to do with the sexual assault and wanting to remove myself from a country that really took something from me. But I know with time and healing, I will return in some capacity one day.
In my opinion, there is certainly a difference in service here between a man and a woman. While women are not pressured to drink as much as men, women are on average harassed more than men and thus, must be more careful. This is also an incredibly patriarchal society where women are expected to cook, clean, get married and make babies. If you deviate from this course in anyway, it will have some effect on how you are treated and respected. I also believe however, it is an opportunity for volunteers to influence gender-roles.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
Growing up, I always wanted to either be a lawyer or the first woman President. I am still working on those two goals because I at the end of the day, I really just want to help change the world. While studying Political Science and Philosophy as an undergrad, I often found myself analyzing global conflicts and critically examining the root of human existence. After awhile, I realized that I was more frustrated reading about conflicts instead of using my hands to try to solve them. It is one thing to talk about changing the world, it is another to actually do something about it. So, I applied for the Peace Corps.
Something I have learned, during my time in the Peace Corps, is that when you love something whole-heartedly, when a passion consumes you and becomes your entire life: it has the ability to break you. Do you know how hard it is to care so deeply about an entire world and all of humanity? Let me tell you, it would be a whole lot easier if I was passionate about selling real estate. But I wake up every morning and read about the tragedies around the world and instead of getting disheartened – I get to walk out my front door and go do something about it. Those reasons I joined Peace Corps are relevant now more than ever. We have real problems today and we need real people to stand up and do something about them.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
There is a quote about the United Nations that explains quite nicely how I feel about both the UN and Peace Corps:
“The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General from 1953 to 1961
I believe the Peace Corps, like the UN, will be a worthwhile and beneficial program for as long as it continues to impact and influence any kind of positive change in our world. For as long as there is hatred, prejudice, poverty and conflict: there will always be a need for a program that puts diplomacy and hope in the hands of everyday citizens and manages to create extraordinary change. Peace Corps is that program.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Make a list of every single expectation you have, both big and small, for Peace Corps and your service. Then rip it up and throw it away. You will be more prepared then you think you are upon arrival and it still won’t prepare you for what you are about to experience. Peace Corps will change your life, in pretty much every single way possible if you let it. Coming in with any kind of expectations are the things that torture you throughout the 27-months: comparing your service to what you “expected”.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Immediately following Peace Corps, I will travel for a few weeks before heading home for the first time in over two years to see my family. But that stay will be brief because I have applied to 6 graduate schools, 3 law schools, and a few jobs. I guess you could say I’m keeping my options open. Hoping that when the right offer comes along, I will know what my next chapter will be. Also, I have a boyfriend who I met in Peace Corps and we have been together a year and a half so we are looking forward to working on adjusting our relationship to life in America.
While I have experienced as many good days as I have bad, while Moldova is a difficult country to serve in and had many uphill battles to face, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Want to read more about Kate’s Peace Corps experience in Moldova? Check out her phenomenal blog by clicking here.