Tag Archives: Volunteering

Swords into Plowshares, by Carole Howard

As soon as I press the “publish” button for this post, I’ll head to the airport for a week-long volunteer vacation in the (warm and sunny) Dominican Republic, where I’ll be turning swords into plowshares.

Well, not literally.

But it’s the same idea. I’ll be part of a team building a medical clinic (a good thing, like a plowshare) out of empty plastic bottles and plastic bags (bad things, environmentally speaking). Pretty cool, right?

Of course, first I’ll have to learn how to do it. And that’s just as appealing to me as the doing itself, especially as I’m interested in sustainability. (See “It’s Never Too Late”)  Being part of a team will also be energizing for me. And, of course, let’s not forget that I live in the Northeast, so it’s not a coincidence that I signed up for a trip to somewhere warm and sunny.

I don’t need any of the abundant research that’s been done – some scientific, some spiritual/psychological – to tell me that helping someone else feels good.  Whether it’s because my brain produces more dopamine or because it makes me hyper-aware and hyper-grateful for how lucky I’ve been and still am, whether it’s because of the human connections or the escape from my head, I just know from experience that it works. Have you had that experience too?

If you need convincing, you can check out the gazillions of hits on Google.  For instance, this or this. Of course, that raises the question of whether it’s really altruism if it pleases you. However, I’m now officially old enough to give myself permission not to worry about things like that.

I haven’t gone on a volunteer trip since 2009, and never to a Spanish-speaking country, and certainly nothing that involved building anything out of anything. New experiences, new ground, new people. And warmth and sun and water in January.

I’ll tell you all about it in my next posting, in exactly a month. I’ll have access to the internet while away, so if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know or see, let me know. Meanwhile, hasta la vista.

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in West Africa and published by Indigo Sea Press.





Filed under Travel, writing

Tikkun Olam, by Carole Howard

If you ever want to feel every one of your years (I was feeling 57 of them on the night in question), try to sleep in one of those smelly, orange, molded plastic chairs in an airport.  Not for a nap, but for the whole night.

My husband and I were among the hundreds trying to contort our bodies into the elusive “comfortable position,” occasionally giving up in favor of the gritty floor, on Christmas night 2002.  This was not at all the way we’d envisioned starting the two-month volunteer assignment that was the kickoff to our retirement.

It had been a crispy-cold blue-sky morning, snowing lightly, when we left for the airport.

“We’re doing it, really doing it, Ca!”

(“Ca” meant Geoffrey was very excited.)

“Do you think I packed enough Pepto-Bismol?”

“Stop worrying, it’ll be fine.”

Yes, I thought, it would probably be fine. But that didn’t mean there weren’t gazillions of details to worry about. And, besides, it wouldn’t be fine if we didn’t have enough Pepto-Bismol, which I knew from experience you can’t get in other countries.  Certainly not in a village in the north of Senegal.

I knew I wouldn’t get any co-worrying from Geoffrey – “It’ll be fine” was his mantra – so I kept it to myself.  Well, mostly.

As we drove, the falling snow accelerated until we felt as if we were inside a snow globe.   Still, we had no idea of the night to come.  We waited at the gate, then boarded the plane – Hooray! At last!  Then we sat.  And sat.  We were de-iced, we pushed back. Hooray!  At last!

Eventually, we had to return to the terminal – airport closed, no cars or planes in or out –  to spend the night.  Uh, why was I doing this again?  Because it would be fine.  And fun.  Right.

*          *          *

In a way, kicking off our retirement with a travel adventure made perfect sense, since we loved to travel and had done plenty of it in our 30 years together. Looking at our extra passport pages was almost like looking at our photo album.

It’s just that we hadn’t planned to retire quite so soon.

We’d had satisfying but somewhat untraditional careers as consultants. For the last twenty years, we’d worked together, out of our home.  Ten steps from the bedroom to the office, hoping the dog didn’t bark while we were on the phone with a client, leftovers for lunch in the living room.  As far as I was concerned, the work – teaching various communication and management skills in a corporate setting – earned me a living, kept me mentally challenged, and allowed for great scheduling flexibility.  It didn’t, however, ignite my passions.

When my parents died within two years of each other, I got the message:  Mortality is real, life is short.  Putting things off can be a mistake.  We’d always intended to join the Peace Corps when we retired; maybe now was the time.  On reflection, though, we realized two years was too long to be away from Geoffrey’s elderly parents.

Then something amazing happened.

I was leafing through “World Vision,” the magazine for returned Peace Corps volunteers (of which Geoffrey was one).  I almost never looked at this magazine but that day I flipped the pages and spotted an ad for “Volunteer Assignments from One Month to One Year.”

We checked out the sponsoring organization, American Jewish World Service (AJWS).  It was primarily a funding organization, providing grants to non-profits around the world, but they had a small Volunteer Corps through which they paired mid- or post-career professionals with non-profits who’d requested people with specific skills.

All we had to be was skilled (check, got that) and Jewish (check, got that – sorta).  We applied.

Our interviewer asked us about our motivation and our experience with culture shock.  He wanted to know about our transferrable skills.  Most importantly, to us, he assured us that secular Jews like us met the requirement as well as our more religious counterparts.  The idea behind the organization was not to spread Judaiism, but to encourage American Jews to  follow the ancient Hebrew imperative, “Tikkun olam” (“Heal the world”).

Tikkun olam:  We’d never heard of it before but knew instantly we’d always believed in it.  We signed on to work with an organization in Senegal, a predominantly Moslem country, that was introducing irrigated agriculture so villagers no longer had to depend on the sparse rainfall.  We’d help them write a Strategic Plan.  Cool.

*          *          *

The morning after our torture-chamber night in the British Airways terminal, the snow stopped and the airport opened.  We were glad we’d kept toothbrush and toothpaste in our carry-on luggage.  We flew out.

As it turns out, I’d taken enough Pepto-Bismol with us. And aspirins, Tylenol, toothache medicine, canker sore medicine, cold and flu medicine, cough drops, bandaids and lots more, all in hermetically sealed Ziploc bags.  And it went fine, as we’d both known it would.  Much more than fine.

During our stay, we learned a lot about irrigated agriculture.

During our stay, we learned a lot about irrigated agriculture.

Have you ever done volunteer work?  How did it turn out?  And, if not, do you think you ever will?





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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.



Filed under Travel, writing

“Ask Not…..,” by Carole Howard

If you were around when John Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961, you can easily finish the famous statement from which the title of this piece is excerpted.  For the rest of you, it’s: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Still good advice, in my opinion.

He didn’t waste any time in giving us a new way to do something for our country: he started the Peace Corps two months later.  The agency’s mission, then and now: to promote world peace and friendship. We sure could use some of that, then and now.

To date, there are more than 215,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (or RPCVs, as they’re called), including prominent names in government, industry, the arts and media. For example: Christopher Dodd, Paul Tsongas, Donna Shalala, Reed Hastings (founder/CEO of Netflix), Michael McCaskey (chairman of the board, Chicago Bears), Taylor Hackford (movie producer), Lillian Carter (mother of former President Carter), Paul Theroux, Chris Matthews, Bob Vila. Actually, they’re all over the place – you probably know some yourself.

And, yes, the Peace Corps is still going strong today with more than 7,000 volunteers serving in 65 countries.

Geoffrey (the bearded one), building a well in Djembering in 1964

Geoffrey (the bearded one on the left), building a well in Senegal in 1964

Less famous than the people named above is my husband, Geoffrey, who was one of the early PCVs, spending 1963-1965 in Senegal, West Africa. As he tells it, “The Peace Corps was two years old, Senegal was two years old, and I was all of 21 years old.”

It was a formative experience in his life. When he tells the story of how he found out from a village kid that JFK had been assassinated, I still get chills. (If you want to read all about it, you can do it here.)


Next week, we’re hosting the first-ever reunion of Geoffrey’s 1963-65 fellow RPCVs, fifty years (yikes, how can that be?!) later. There will be many stories and reminiscences, much catching up on each others’ lives. There will undoubtedly be laughter and probably tears; there will be music and dancing. And there will be African food prepared by a New York City Senegalese restaurant.

An old grainy shot of us in Senegal in 1974

There we were in Senegal in 1974

I spent two and a half years in West Africa with Geoffrey, ten years after his original African experience, when he was a Peace Corps Deputy In-Country Director. So the stories, music, and food will resonate with me, too. In fact, many of my African experiences (transformative for me) inform Deadly Adagio, which is set in Senegal.

In my next post, I’ll report on the goings-on at the reunion and include a few up-to-date photos of some of the RPCVs.  Stay tuned.

Any RPCV’s reading this?  If you’re not an RPCV, have you ever thought of joining the Peace Corps?

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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Second Wind Publishing, in which the setting is Senegal and the Peace Corps plays a role.



Filed under Travel, writing

Art is Art by Carole Howard

During our two months in Accra, Ghana in 2009, I started looking forward to our Saturday excursions to the beach, and to Bob’s sculptures, around Wednesday or Thursday.

He always set up shop in the same place, and he was always there by the time we arrived.  Short, stocky, with an easy smile on his round face and intense concentration while he worked with an eclectic bunch of tools, he usually had sand scattered all over his shorts and tee shirt.

A sample of his work:  A seated African elder in a flowing robe holding a cylindrical drum under his arm.  A couple stretched out lazily on the beach, she with her hand cradling his head, he with one hand coyly flirting with her bikini bottom.  An elephant with elaborately wrinkled skin crouching on his forelegs.

All – the fabric folds, the elephant wrinkles, the bikini – made from sand.

You could call them “sand sculptures” if you want, but that evokes images of kids’ sand castles, made with pail and shovel and maybe some shells stuck in the top.  Wrong image.

Just call them sculptures.  Representational, sensuous and beautiful. Sand and water, rudimentary tools, talent and creativity in abundance.  I’d never seen anything like them, and still haven’t.

We started going to the beach on weekends as a way to escape the heat, which was oppressive and crushing. I almost took it personally, the way it pressed me down and kept me from going forward easily and breathing freely, like a hand on my chest.  It was exhausting. We’d been to West Africa many times, even two other countries in the steamy part under the Western hump, so we expected heat and humidity.  But this was worse.  Or maybe it was just because we’d gotten older.  Either way, it was brutal, almost more than we could take.

At first, we felt a bit sheepish:  we didn’t think of ourselves as the kind of travelers who went to the beach every weekend.  No, we were more adventurous than that.  We traveled, we visited villages, we learned about the culture.  (Snobbery comes in many forms!)  But not this time:  We worked as volunteers, Monday to Friday, 9-to-5.  We were H-O-T.  We weren’t as young as we used to be.  We went to La Beach, “La” being the name of the neighborhood, not the definite article, as in French.

On the way, the first treat was passing the shops of whimsically carved and decorated coffins – a Ghanaian tradition since the 1950s.  Think Pepsi bottles, race cars, fish, cell phones, all carved and brightly painted, all coffins.  Every week we’d spot different ones.  They were as amazing as Bob’s sculptures, but we only saw them from the taxi.

Once there, we settled in under the awning outside the restaurant.  The restaurant guys knew us and greeted us as we arrived, starting us off with my husband’s ice-cold beer and my ice-cold Coke, hold the ice cubes. We ate, we lazed, we people-watched.

There were Africans and Westerners, young and old.  There were even Arabic women in black headscarves and veils, seemingly oblivious to the heat. Passing by the restaurant was an unending parade:  Vendors sold jewelry, trinkets, fabric.  Musicians with unusual homemade instruments put on a show.  Child acrobats with exaggerated smiles jumped, ran, tumbled, and made human pyramids.  Horse-back riders sold rides, meandering pedicurists sold the possibility of pretty feet.

We enjoyed whatever breeze we could catch. We swam in the narrow channel where swimming was permitted: it had a very long and gradual run-out to water that was thigh-high.  It wasn’t cold, but cool water filled the bill.  Aaaahhh.

We might not have been visiting villages, but seeing Bob was like going to a museum, a living sculpture museum.   Art is where you find it, and we found it at La Beach in Accra, Ghana.

Have you found art in unexpected places?

* * *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.


Filed under Art, Travel

A Bell-Ringing Morning

One of the volunteer things I’ve done the past two years is to serve as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign during the Christmas season.

The kettle idea started in 1891 when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee of San Francisco wanted to find a way to help the impoverished. Many were going hungry and that greatly troubled McFee. He determined he would provide dinner on Christmas Day to 1,000 of the city’s poorest people. The next decision was how to raise the money to pay for such a large project. He thought of the large iron kettle he had seen, called “Simpson’s Pot,” located at the Stage Landing in Liverpool, England where people left money to help the poor.

Captain McFee placed a pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing with a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling,” and raised enough money for his extensive Christmas dinner. Within six years, the idea of using kettles for collections spread from the west coast to the Boston area, and helped fund 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy in 1897. Currently, the Salvation Army assists more than four-and-a-half million people in the United States between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Bell ringing is a way to attract people’s attention to the kettle. It also helps keep your hands warmer in below freezing temperatures, I discovered. Some people sing, dance, or perform in other ways. I was content to simply smile and say “Good Morning,” or “Merry Christmas,” to those who looked my way, and “Thank you!” to those who left gifts in the kettle.

Before my first bell-ringing experience, I was a little uncomfortable approaching a store with manned kettle. I felt led to either apologize for not having any cash, or to not make eye contact with the bell-ringer at all. Now I know the first is not necessary, and the second is not polite, in my opinion. Most of the ringers are volunteers who are standing outside in all kinds of weather and appreciate a friendly “hello” from others.

I enjoyed watching the people as they made their way toward me and the red kettle. Some were seemingly oblivious I was even there. Others glanced my way, but ignored me when I greeted them. The majority acknowledged me, smiling, saying “hi,” or reminding me how cold it was, in case I didn’t notice.  A couple of people hugged me. Some stopped, dug money out of their wallets, and dropped dollars and coins in the kettle.

What surprised me was the number of people who came prepared with dollar bills folded in four, the right size to fit through the kettle slot. Many were children. It touched me that a week before Christmas, when there are any number of last minute details to finish, a large percentage shoppers included donating to those less fortunate in their list of things to do.

When my stint was over, I handed over my bell to the next volunteer, a bit frozen, but glad for the experience. I drove to another location where my niece was bell-ringing so I could snap a picture of her. It was only 13 degrees F, damp, and breezy, but she was smiling. I gave her a hug, took her picture, then went home thinking about the morning. 

Anna bell-ringing by the red kettle

 Caring, generous people can accomplish a lot, especially when their efforts are combined with others. Those thoughts, (and a wind-burned face), gave me a healthy-looking glow for the rest of the day.

Christine Husom is the Second WindPublishing author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River.


Filed under life, musings