Peace Corps volunteers remember Ecuador in 1960s - Albuquerque Journal

Peace Corps volunteers remember Ecuador in 1960s

Lois Hamamoto greets John Poling as Sharon Bowen looks on. All three were Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador from 1966 to 1968. On Wednesday, members of that Peace Corps contingent gathered at Santa Fe’s Sachi Organics, owned by Hamamoto, for food, tea and reminiscing. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – There’s a street in the town of San Juan Bosco, Ecuador, called Jaime Agett Calle.

It’s named in honor of Jim Agett, a New York state native who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador from 1966 to 1968 and helped build a school in San Juan Bosco. Agett’s been back to Ecuador a half dozen times since his Peace Corps service ended.

“They throw a parade for me every time I go (to San Juan Bosco),” he said. “Every school kid is in the parade.”

While you are trying to grasp the tremendous impact Agett must have made on that town and its people, he tells you, in a voice made hoarse with feeling, what his experience there meant to him, how much it continues to mean to him.

“I grew up there,” he said. “I learned to lead there. I learned to love back.”

Extraordinary, unrecognizable

President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps in March 1961. It is an independent agency of the government that trains and deploys volunteers to work with people in other countries on development projects.

This past week, Agett and about 20 other former Peace Corps volunteers who worked in Ecuador from ’66 to ’68, gathered for a reunion in Santa Fe. Some were accompanied by spouses and all of them are in their late 70s. It was the most recent of several reunions the group has convened over the years.

Memories differ as to how many volunteers went to Ecuador during the ’66-’68 tour, but probably a few dozen. They came from all over the country and from all kinds of backgrounds.

And they were spread out in Ecuador, often working as the only Peace Corps member in a town or village, or on a project in a more remote area.

The fact is the volunteers did not see much, if anything, of each other while in the South American country. Those attending the reunion last week say they became close during their pre-deployment training in Lubbock, Texas, and Bozeman, Montana. It was more extensive training than the three months of instruction previous Peace Corps groups received.

“We did training after our junior year (in college) and after our senior year,” said Judy Henry, a White Plains, New York, native and self-styled “hippie who went West,” and now makes her home in Santa Fe. “And they took us to Lubbock in Christmas of our senior year.”

Another of the Peace Corps veterans, Sylvia Patton, was born on a cattle ranch in Colorado and went on to become a public defender in California’s Los Angeles County. She said it is extraordinary that, after more than 50 years, members of this Peace Corps contingent still get together.

“But I think everyone in this group is extraordinary,” she said. “Peace Corps people are unique because they are really concerned about the people of the world.”

Last week’s reunion was the first attended by Paul White, Pablo Blanco to his Peace Corps colleagues. He said that, besides being exceptional, he found everyone in the group unrecognizable.

“People can change a lot in 57 years,” he said.

‘I was glad to do it’

One afternoon last week, the reunion party gathered for food, tea and reminiscing at Sachi Organics on West Cordova Road. The business, which makes and sells natural latex mattresses, pillows, meditation cushions and wool bed toppers, is owned by Lois Hamamoto, another of the Ecuador volunteers of ’66-’68.

While at the store, the former volunteers talked about life before, during and after their Peace Corps experience.

White, who was born in Boston and now lives in Hull, Massachusetts, went on to a career as an administrator of criminal justice agencies and, later, as a teacher of criminal justice. He said President Kennedy is the reason he joined the Peace Corps.

“I heard his speech about do what you can for your country and I made an application,” White said, his Boston accent apparent.

He was assigned to work with a chicken co-op in western Ecuador and strived to create a sales-rotation system that guaranteed everyone made money. Easier said than done, of course.

“The most valuable lesson I took out of Ecuador was ‘keep trying,’ ” he said.

Kennedy’s speech also inspired Henry, who was a high school student at the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, when she heard it.

She was enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College when she volunteered for the Peace Corps. In Ecuador, she was assigned to work with an agency that would be similar to an agricultural extension service in this country.

“I was glad to do it,” Henry, now a retired nurse, said. “I was not an expert in anything, but we had the books. I did not feel like I did all that much, but it was a good-will thing. I felt like we were low-level ambassadors. It gave me an understanding that there are other beautiful places in the world.”

Bootleggers and mud

Agett, who now lives in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area, had a career in education and construction, which seems fitting for someone who helped build a school in Ecuador. “I thought I had the rest of my life to help people in this country, so I might as well go help people in other countries,” he said, explaining his decision to join the Peace Corps.

He was on a mountain in Ecuador when people approached him and asked for his help building a school in their town. Something must have been lost in the translation when they told him how far away that town was.

“They told me it was a four-hour drive,” Agett said. “What they did not tell me was that, after the drive, it was a 12-hour walk through jungle mud. I was there for five days the first time and I wasn’t sober one day. These people were bootleggers.” Apparently, there is a good supply of sugar cane in the area.

After departing the town that first time, Agett returned and worked on construction of the school until it was time for him to leave Ecuador. He left his mark on the townspeople’s hearts and his name on a street sign. They, in turn, changed his life.

“I think the reality is that we got more from them than they got from us,” Patton said of Ecuador’s people. “It expanded our view of the world. It was a life-changing experience.”

The lure of language and the unknown propelled Patton into the Peace Corps.

“I was really interested in speaking Spanish, and the thought of going to some other country was really intriguing,” she said. “I didn’t have any other plans, and it sounded like a great adventure.”

She was assigned to work with the 80 female students in a 500-student agriculture school for grades 6 through 12.

“I taught nutrition, health and PE,” she said. “I taught a geography class. I was the only volunteer in that town. I got the women in the community together, and educated them about nutrition and health.”

And she became fluent in Spanish, a valuable plus in her position as a public defender in California.

More than Spanish

John Poling, a retired Presbyterian minister from a family of Presbyterian ministers, was born in El Paso, but now lives in South Phoenix. In Ecuador, his Peace Corps assignments ranged from a forestry project in the swamps of the country’s northern coast, to teaching English and basketball, to time with a pig co-op, and then to work aimed at developing communications among some of Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples. He found the latter particularly exciting and also helpful in his pastoral career.

“Learning about dealing with conflict in areas that might be resolved was valuable to me in church work,” he said. “There are positive aspects to conflict if the conflict is identified and worked on by a group of people.”

Kay Wetherwax grew up in Piqua, Ohio, but lives now in California’s Castro Valley. She has made social services her career, running a food bank, serving as a child welfare caseworker and working in a rental-assistance program in Alameda County, California.

But she admits it was not a passion for service that prompted her to join the Peace Corps.

“I was a Spanish lit major in college and had always been drawn to Latin America,” she said. “I didn’t want to teach. I just wanted to go there and speak Spanish.”

She stayed in Ecuador three years, one year beyond the normal assignment period.

“I lived in a provincial capital and worked with an agriculture extension agent,” she said. “I was infinitely unqualified for the job. I spent the first year figuring out what to do to help, the second year learning how to do it, and the third year doing it.”

She worked with women’s groups, teaching cooking and other facets of home economics, and she worked with youth agricultural organizations. And, perhaps most satisfying of all, she engaged in agrarian reform, assisting a small Indigenous group, most of whom did not speak Spanish, legally wrest the land they lived and labored on from an absentee landlord who exploited them.

Her time in Ecuador came to mean much more than just speaking Spanish.

“I had never been out of Ohio,” she said. “It opened my eyes to the world. It made me realize there is more than one right way to do things.”

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