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Fall 1999
Marge Shannon Snoeren, Editor
Vol. 4, No. 1

Now I was in Charge-God Help Me

Children of Africa
Souvenirs-A Column of Memories
FON Fans the Flames
Joanna, Human Rights Advocate


by  Murray Frank, (Staff) 61-64
October 14, 1961, was the day the postcard affair began…the day that Peace Corps Nigeria almost came to an end before it started.

Nigeria I had been in Ibadan for only a week or two.  Training that had started at Harvard was continuing at the University of Ibadan, then the University College of Ibadan and part of the University of London.  Volunteers were living at the University, a few in several dorms.

I was the Western Region Representative.  My family and I arrived only a few weeks before the Volunteers.  The other regional reps were to follow soon.  Brent Ashabranner had earlier left AID to become the first Peace Corps Director and helped us settle into a house in Boudeja, the middle-class development between Ibadan center and the university.   Not quite the Peace Corps mold, but comfortable for a family with children aged two and four.  Dave Sealey, the Harvard training representative, and his family were housed nearby.

I had nothing to do with the training.  My job was to arrange volunteer assignments:  visit a potential location, meet the principal and staff, establish that there was a vacant position that a Volunteer could fill, and check out living conditions.  I had not gotten very far by Friday, October 13.  But, I was getting to know the Volunteers as assignments developed.

Congresswoman Claire Bolton came to Ibadan October 12; she had been visiting Peace Corps sites for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  My wife Ginna and I arranged for her to meet at our home with a  group of Volunteers.  They were quite impressive.  As she left full of good cheer, she leaned out of her car window and said what a great job they were doing, and “See you in the newspapers.” 

Volunteers went to classes Monday through Saturday mornings.  Friday night, October 13, PCV Marjorie Michelmore wrote some letters and postcards to the folks back home.  She mailed them on the way to class Saturday morning.  One of the cards was to a friend, describing Marjorie’s first impressions.

When the Volunteers arrived at their dorm dining rooms for lunch on Saturday, October 14, a word-for-word copy of that postcard was at each place.  Marjorie’s  comments described how the average Nigerian lived.  While not inaccurate, her comments were not flattering, and to a Nigerian student—especially one concerned about Western imperialism—the comments seemed downright insulting.

A couple of the Volunteers hitched a ride from the university to bring me the news.  Protest rallies were beginning to take place on the campus.  Volunteers were being ostracized.  This was clearly not a training issue.  Now, I was in charge—God help me! 

I arranged for all of the Volunteers to come to my house; then, went to the USIS Library to phone Lagos.  I didn’t have a phone.  I told Ashabranner what I knew; he cabled Peace Corps Washington.

By coincidence, the second in command at the American Embassy, the Deputy Chief of Mission, was on his way back to Lagos from a trip up North when the story broke.  I met him at a local rest house with Marjorie and we agreed that she would go with him to Lagos.  There was an AP stringer at the rest house.  He could see that something was up.

I went home to meet with Nigeria I.  We talked that afternoon and again on Sunday.  We needed to talk more; also, it was good for Volunteers to get away from the hostility on campus.  Ginna fed us all.

All the Nigerian Sunday papers carried articles with the postcard text and editorials about it.  The story hit American, press thanks to that AP stringer.

The postcard was mailed 38 years ago.  The memory is older than any of us were then, but it is still vivid.  Beyond the fact that I was unprepared for the responsiblity, the affair was a powerful experience for many reasons.  Three things stand out.

First, is the intensity of the  university students’ feelings.  Nigeria was newly independent, but I don’t know if we fully absorbed how deeply this fact influenced Nigerian behavior.  If we had, the Volunteers and I might have better understood, perhaps even sympathized with, the students’ passions.  The signs of the colonial period were still all around; white people especially symbolized a colonial past.  But a Nigerian self-image of  freedom was developing.

Nigerians—or at least this group of young intellectuals—demanded respect.  I understood it better after attending the  ceremonies when University College of Ibadan became the independent University of Ibadan.  Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik), the father of independence, was the main attraction.  When it was his turn to speak, the electricity in the crowd was palpable. I still remember that  z-z-Z-Z-Z-Z-ZIK cheer wherever he went.  Zik insisted that the University of Ibadan was “our” university, free of London’s influence, part of Nigeria’s development.  It was thrilling—the closest I had ever come to  intense nationalism.

On October 14, 1961, we confronted that spirit for the first time.  All of us had experienced student protests in the States.  But this was quite different.  It was not really about a postcard.  We knew there were those who opposed foreigners invading their country, and those who would use the incident for their purposes.  But, we felt, most feared that “these Americans will not really be able to help if this is how they write home about us”.

Second was the group of Nigerians who had been trained in America.  British-trained Nigerian professionals received preferential treatment by the English for employment and advancement during the colonial period.  With independence, the American-trained Nigerians organized and worked to gain recognition.  The Nigerian-American Society defended us in meetings and letters to the editor.  It offered friendship and helped to change the climate.

I remember particularly H. A. Oluwasanmi, who taught agronomy at the University of Ibadan and later was Chancellor at the University of Ife.  His support and advice on how to understand the situation was invaluable.  Richard Taiwo, an engineer in one of the Western Region ministries, was a likeable, garrulous supporter—praising the Peace Corps everywhere.  He helped organize a party for us at a very visible Ibadan Club—with plenty of Star beer and Highlife. 

Another outspoken and effective supporter wasTai Solarin, principal of the Mayflower School, which he founded and named for our Mayflower.  Without the support and advice from the Nigerian-American Group, the storm would have been far more difficult to weather.

Third, was the spirit and maturity of the Volunteers.  We were young.  I believe I was the oldest at 34.  We were newly-transplanted into a very different culture, confronted with a situation with which none of us had any experience.  All of Nigeria I crowded into my living room that weekend and we talked for hours.

Initially, there was anger—at Marjorie for getting us into this, at the Nigerians for making so much of the postcard and holding us all responsible for one person’s comments.  We wondered if we should issue a statement disassociating ourselves from it.  To whom?  How?  We got by that quickly and went on to try to examine how representative these students and their feelings were of the country and especially of the people we would be working with.

We tried to answer many questions:  what were we doing here; should we leave, as many Nigerians and newspaper editorials demanded; should we try to stay and prove that we belonged and had something to give?  Did we really have a choice; wasn’t the possibility of success already compromised?  These were questions for us to answer. 

We knew Nigeria needed teachers.  We could teach.  We were not imperialists, nor CIA agents, nor ugly Americans.  We knew who we were.  We could make a difference. 

There were no directives or advice from Washington or our Embassy.  As best I can remember, the only message from Washington was a cable from the State Department.  It asked if there were really 250 words on one half of one side of the postcard.

We were agitated, but the discussion was mostly calm, always serious; it was hard work.  Consensus was a long time in coming.  I saw my role as the discussion leader.  The Volunteers were the folks who would be on the firing line.  They had to decide for themselves what to do.

After many hours, we made a decision.  We wanted to stay; we could do the job, and by doing it, would earn respect.

The Volunteers continued to take some meals and sleep at the university dorms, but were always isolated.  One Volunter, Aubrey Brown, had experience in non-violent resistance.  He told the Nigerian students in his dorm that he would not eat if he couldn’t eat with them.  After a while, when they saw he meant it, they brought a dinner tray to his room; he refused it.  They soon invited him to join them at meals.  Other PCVs and students did the same, and dialogue began between the students and the Volunteers—probably more valuable than had the incident not taken place. 

The behavior of the Volunteers during this period was special.  They remained calm and were not retaliatory with Nigerians who taunted them.  These young men and women balanced individuality with group allegiance, knowing that the issues were not personal.  They were reasonably self-confident and able to listen and learn.  

I assume that there will be PCVs going to Nigeria soon.  I hope they will be as good as Nigeria I volunteers were.  They couldn’t be better.

Editor’s Note:  After a final year at Peace Corps Washington, Murray taught community organization and did Peace Corps India training at Columbia University  before earning a PhD in social policy administration at Brandeis' Heller School.  He taught at Rutgers and the University of Massachusetts, and designed career development training programs for the New York City municipal employees union.  He is now reitred and lives on Martha’s Vineyard where he gardens, does woodworking, and is active in an effort to create a single-payer health care system for the Island.
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by Alfred Olusegun Fayemi
Editor's Note:  The author is the Nigerian-born Director of Patholgy and Laboratories, Franciscan Health System of New Jersey.   After medical school in Israel, he came to the States in 1970 for a pathology residency at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York.  He and his radiologist wife, who was a fellow Nigerian medical student at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, became U.S. citizens and raised three remarkable children— a son and daughter are Harvard trained doctors, the second son is a businessman from Yale.

Reportage about Africa is invariably negative and usually consists of natural disasters, civil wars, political violence, massive bloodshed, despair and desperation.  Totally lacking is a multi-dimensional overview to shed light on the problems, as well as the glories, of the continent.

Western media present the typical African child as hungry, malnourished, lethargic and disease-ridden: the epitome of misery, a victim of misfortune.  To raise funds, charitable organizations shock television viewers with images of potbellied, emaciated children in stark surroundings devoid of any comforts.  These brief images are so powerful that they perpetuate a persistent, negative image of the African child.

It is true that during economic crisis, wars, and natural disasters, children bear a disproportionate, larger burden of deprivation.   When living standards decline, infant mortality rises and malnutrition increases; when there is famine, children succumb first.  Thus, children have become the focus of Western media and charities and they truly deserve the attention.

However, this deep concern for the unfortunate and disadvantaged has shifted focus away from the vast majority, the millions of African children who live relatively normal lives. 

Horrific pictures of the African child fail to take into account the remarkable progress that African countries have made to improve their childrens’ lives.  Africa is now experiencing relatively high rates of immunization and drastic reduction in death rates from communicable diseases and dehydration.  Today most African children survive and thrive is spite of adversity and gloomy predictions about the future of the continent.

I have been documenting the African way of life in photographs for twenty years.  My work started when I discovered that in my hometown of Ifaki-Ekiti there were no more thatch-roofed houses.  I decided to record what was, and had been, before modernization swept away traditional Africa. 

My photos began to find their way into exhibits, and in 1990 I published Balancing Acts:  Photographs from West Africa.  My visits to Africa became more frequent, and, to date, I have photographed in 15 African countries.

In my travels, I have watched, played, and spoken with African children across the continent:  on city streets, on back roads of towns and villages, in schools learning a trade or other survival skills, in homes doing chores or playing mischief.  As I observe them, I see a reflection of my childhood and adolescent years in southwest Nigeria.

I have just published Voices From Within, a book of photographs of children from Africa south of the Sahara.  It celebrates the every-day lives of ordinary children.  The photographs reveal the essence of the African child.

These are the pictures that jump out at one strolling through crowded cities like Accra or Harare well as  villages such as Tubulolo, Ethiopia or  Aiyede, Nigeria.
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by Jacques E. Wilmore, (Staff) 62-64
It’s an old story:  idealistic, college grads join Peace Corps and their lives are changed forever.  They end up in Foreign Service, or with international NGOs, or, like most FON members, committed to vital Third World issues.  But that process  is not limited to those fresh from college.

In 1961 when I joined Peace Corps staff, I was in my mid-thirties and married with three children.  I was posted as Eastern Regional Director  under Brent Ashabranner and later, Sam Proctor.  When I arrived in Enugu, the 20 or so Volunteers who preceded me made it clear that they needed me like a hole in the head.  I assured them that I was preparing for the coming legions and, if they kept their noses clean, I would seldom bother them.

And, indeed, legions did follow.  My routine became standard:  verify postings, check out jobs and living arrangements for the new group, rush to Lagos to meet the Volunteers, brief them, accompany them by bus to the East, and help them settle in.  Then repeat the process for the next group.  During my two years, PCVs in the Eeast went from  20 to over 100.

We made great improvements in the trip from Lagos east.  We arranged for music and entertainment at overnight stops.  On each trip, the challenge was to get the bus on the Niger River ferry to Onitsha.  There was always a long line of lorries waiting to cross, and if we got in the  queue it  could take days.

The memory of one trip to the East  still causes me to chuckle; it involved a stopover somewhere in the West.  The band was playing.  Volunteers and local Nigerians were dancing while I sat in a corner sipping a beer.  A tall, gawky, local youth— not a very good dancer under the best of circumstances—asked a male Volunteer for a dance.  The PCV was clearly shocked (males dancing with males, in those days, was unacceptable).  But, being a good PCV, determined to adjust to the local culture, he consented.  What a sight as the two moved across the dance floor.

My enjoyable madness ended after two years when Bill Saltonstall became Country Director and asked me to come to Lagos as his Deputy.  During the next year, I was transformed into a faceless bureaucrat, a paper-pusher, as I helped churn out endless reports, budgets, and forecasts demanded by PC/Washington.

Before Peace Corps my life had been the civil rights movement—Urban League, NAACP, American Friends Service Committee—in the days when our activities never made the local newspapers.  I found myself sitting in Lagos when Martin Luther King called for the march onWashington and gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.  I told Saltonstall I had to return to my earlier calling. 

I was hired by the Civil Rights Commission as Southern Area Coordinator, working out of Memphis and after Dr. King’s assassination, as North East Regional Director in New York.

Thirteen years later, I was sitting at my desk at the Federal Building in New York, watching a boat slowly making its way up the East River.  The civil rights struggle was not over, but it had changed drastically from my earlier experiences.  The enemy now was something called institutional racism and sexism. 

I was restless.  I wanted a change, a new challenge.  My mind drifted back to

the days in Eastern Nigeria.  I picked up the phone and called the Peace Corps and told them I was available.  In January 1979, I arrived in Dar es Salaam as Country Director—sans Volunteers, office, or residence—assigned to reestablish the Peace Corps after an absence of ten years. 

Four years later, it was off to Zimbabwe for Save the Children, later to Malawi, and still later back to Tanzania to start a retirement business.

Somehow 20 years slipped by in Eastern and Southern Africa — but it all began in Nigeria.
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by Karen Keefer, (26) 66-68
Editor’s Note:  This is the third of a three-part series taking a critical look at the NPCA, Peace Corps, and country of service groups.  The author was a charter member and director of the first FON which was active from 1986 to 1991.  She is currently a Senior Program Officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Most RPCVs took away more from Nigeria than we gave.  I feel as if I merely existed prior to my “Nigerian birth” when I began to live.  The warm, glowing embers of my service in Nigeria burned hotter and deeper in the pit of my being after my return.  Family and friends didn’t understand the changes Nigeria made in my life.  I felt I was alone fighting injustice in the world.   

The Third Goal wasn’t clear.  We shared our experiences with others who cared to listen, but that wasn’t enough.  In 1977, I came to Washington and worked at Peace Corps headquarters.  But Peace Corps was not addressing the Third Goal. 

It was up to RPCVs to addresss the Third Goal. 

Three of us started African Agenda which spearheaded ACTION Alumni Association of the Greater Washington Area.  Later renamed RPCV/Washington, this group threw its weight behind the fledgling organization which became the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA).

The Returned volunteer movement has been led primarily by Nigeria RPCVs.  We lit the fires and fanned the flames.  I was RPCV/Washington’s first President, and NPCA Chair of the Peace Corps 20th Anniversary Conference.   

Katy Hansen, 66-68, was the initial driving force behind the NPCA, first as Newsletter Editor, then as long-serving President.  Roger Landrum, 61-63,  was one of the longest-serving Presidents of  RPCV/Washington.  Timothy Carroll, 63-65, was the first Sargent Shriver Award winner and the first NPCA Executive Director.  Nigeria Volunteers, all.

The 25th Anniversary Conference spawned a number of country of service groups like FON.  Sandra Fraxier, 66-68, its president, and five others of us tried to involve Nigeria RPCVs nationally but most sent money and didn’t work on projects.  In 1991, FON dissolved, giving the balance of its funds to Ashoka (see the Spring 1999 issue) to support Nigerian Fellows—

Innovators for the Public—the first in Africa.

How can this reincarnation of FON succeed?

1.  Global Approach   FON now has officers and directors from around the nation.  This approach is vital.  With the use of computers and email, even a global approach is working as FON communicates with members from Fiji to Zimbabwe.

2.  Achievable Goals  FON’s goals must continue to be actualized in the newsletter and at  gatherings like the meeting and dinner at the recent NPCA conference.  FON Newsletter informs us about what Nigeria RPCVs are doing to “bring the world back home.”  It keeps us abreast of significant events in Nigeria.  When we learn about certain issues, the newsletter allows us to  network with the membership to work towards resolving problems or supporting worthwhile projects. 

3.  Unbrella Organization  FON should act as an umbrella with spokes that spawn advocacy groups which like-minded members may choose to support.  FON can assist the formation of such groups that wish to lobby Congress, governmental agencies, or other entitites, for goals that individual members wish to address. 

Only if FON is an umbrella organization that facilitates independent actions by its members will it have longevity.

4.   Support  Development Projects   FON should  serve the Nigerian people.  Since there currently is no Peace Corps in Nigeria, FON should  partner with established NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at work there.   This is  more efficient use of time, money, and energy than developing new projects with questionable avenues of implementation and oversight. 

At the general meeting in August, FON members had an excellent discussion about supporting worthwhile organizations like the Ashoka Society.  Another worthwile organization is Grameen Bank which makes micro-credit loans to small business people in developing countries.  These loans go primarily to women of the poorest families and statistics show that, on average, five family members benefit from each micro-loan.  We should urge Grameen to make loans in Nigeria.   

I am concerned about the destruction of tropical rainforests and the consequent ozone depletion.  I would like to see FON members support projects such as reforestation of deforested tropical rainforests.  Trees for the Future has an African initiative where host country technicians plant Leucaena seedlings which can grow as much as 24 feet a year.  We should lobby this organization to extend its projects into Nigerian villages.  And its quite cost-effective.  I only takes $30 to plant 200 seedlings.

By supporting such projects, FON leaves implementation to established groups.  Once Peace Corps re-enters Nigeria, FON might initiate projects assisted by Volunteers.  Until then, FON should partner with groups who have  paved the way.

5.  Charter Trips  Finally, my vision for FON involves it helping me return to my “birthplace” and reuniting with my extended family.  I’m sure most of us would like to do this.  Hopefully, the Obasanjo administration will build us the long-awaited, safe roads “home.”
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by Marge Shannon Snoeren, (9) 63-65     
Joanna Hunt didn’t join the Peace Corps the way most of us did.  First she went to Nigeria, and then she signed up.  In January 1967, the 20-year-old, University of Nebraska student, walked into the Kaduna Peace Corps office and said, “Here I am.”  She was hired as a special assistant to Associate Director Owen Bair, given a place to live and a subsistence salary, and was on the job within days. 

“I worked in Kaduna, Zaria, and Kano, doing everything from secretarial work to teaching English, and when I left, I was given the regular PCV separation package.”

But Joanna’s experience was unlike that of most volunteers in other ways, too.  She was already losing her hearing to a degenerative ear disease; through Peace Corps she would meet people who would steer her into international modeling, and, as a PCV, she went home weekends. 

Riding her Honda 50 from Kaduna, Joanna visited her parents in Zaria where her father worked for AID.  Back home in Michigan, when Peace Corps was processing an application from Joanna, her father received the assignment to Nigeria.  She decided to go with her family to Nigeria rather than wait and hope Peace Corps sent her to West Africa.

“We lived in third world countries in Asia on and off during my childhood, but Africa came alive for me in a fifth-grade textbook.  I wanted to go to West Africa more than anything.”  And Nigeria didn’t disappoint Joanna.

“I kept a horse in Zaria and rode most weekends at the country club and around the city.  It was great.  I learned so much about the people and life inside and outside the city walls.” 

But by 1968, Joanna met someone at the country club who introduced her to an ugly side of African life—female genital multination (FGM).  She became acquainted with Dr. C. J. Franklin, a French surgeon and champion of women’s human rights.

“I knew he was a doctor, but didn’t know his special interests for several months.  Then, his Belgian nurse and I were invited to see a ladies' ceremony in one of the small villages outside of Zaria.  We thought we would learn how to make peanut stew or something.

“We walked into a hut to see a three-year-old girl on the floor with her legs spread, two women holding her down, and an old man cutting away at her genitals with the top of a tin.

“I can still hear the sounds that child made—the pain and shock were beyond her screaming.  I have never heard anything like it before or since, and when I recall that scene, my instinct is to slam my eyes shut.  Thirty years later it still affects me.” 

Joanna and the nurse did not know what they were walking into and could not have stopped it.  But Dr. Franklin knew that that shocking experience might cement their commitment to work for female human rights.  He was trying to prevent FGM with education and logic, but he mostly treated the after-affects of such mutilation.

Dr. Franklin won Joanna’s support, and she helped him with education programs among Nigerian women for over a year, in addition to her Peace Corps duties. 

“Our goal was to make sure that everyone knew how dangerous the procedure was and that it should not be done.  We drew stick people on the walls of the clinic to represent each female who died there as a result of FGM.  

“FGM was a touchy subject, but CJ was a master at diplomacy and, I believe, he saved many little girls from this horror.  We stayed friends for 30 years.  He died last year after a fierce battle with cancer.  His kindness and dedication to women’s health, and his sensitivity to customs and traditions of other cultures were exceptional.  He will be greatly missed.”

Both Dr. Franklin and his wife have been two of Joanna’s strongest supporters of her current human rights project to help young women—La Casita de Esperanza (Little House of Hope).  Mrs. Franklin heads the four-person Board of Directors and provides generous financial support to La Casita. 

“My friend Elizabeth Dunn and I started La Casita in 1991.  It serves preteen girls who survive by selling themselves to the Maquiladora (US industries’ workers), local adults, and ‘sex tourists’ from other countries.”

La Casita houses 15 children; girls aged six-13, who are either homeless or forced to support families by prostitution.  Residents receive medical care, food, clothing, a bed, personal items, and some counseling.  They must attend school and the church of their choice, help with chores, and take care of their personal needs.  In return for cooperation they also earn a small allowance.

“Right now we have two children with AIDS and three that are pregnant—all under 13.  We see many cases of STD, lice, and sex-related injuries.  Our girls have come from Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.”

In the past eight years La Casita has served about 750 children who stayed a week or longer.  A few have completed high school and two have gone to college.  The program aims to serve the urgent, basic needs of sexually-abused young girls.  La Casita also supplies diapers and other items to street mothers and infants—some mothers are only 12 or 13, mere children themselves.

“We have an area in the house, too, where street children can come in and shower, get a change of clothing, and have a meal of beans, rice and tortillas.”  La Casita is run by two Mexican housemothers who are responsible for the care of the girls and daily administration of the house.  Joanna hires and supervises them.  There is no formal process for finding the girls—children as young as six show up at the door.  The beds stay full.  

“We survive entirely on monetary donations, 100% of which go directly to the project.  The only paid employees are the housemothers and, occasionally, a guard.  When we started out, Elisabeth and I did additional jobs to earn the money.  Then we did fundraising until the publicity got out of hand.”

Joanna is careful to protect the girls and recalls that early attempts at fundraising publicity resulted in the media trying to sensationalize the story of La Casita to the children’s detriment.  Fundraising is now more difficult.  When she can find the time between teaching and running a home and La Casita, Joanna still models to help pay bills for the project.

“Now we have a second facility near the factories in the planning stage, but we lack funds to staff it.”  Elisabeth and Joanna met in a graduate school psychology course.  Their friendship became, Joanna says, a bond of love, learning, and mutual support—a rare connection.  Elisabeth was raised by a single, welfare mother and claims she found a way out of the ghetto because of programs and educational opportunities in the United States. 

“Elisabeth visited me several times in Texas, and we visited Reynosa, Mexico.  After we saw what was happening to children on the streets there, we talked about what we should do.  She said Mexico offered no way out for these girls.”

La Casita started as a clinic Elizabeth, a nurse, ran once a month.  Soon then it became overnight care.  And finally, with Joanna’s help and their combined funds, they rolled it into a live-in facility in 1991. 

Joanna assumed big risks when she started into this project.  She was a widow raising a young daughter, Raya.  But her life is a testament to her courage and strength, and the deep sense of service she learned from her father. 

“My dad exposed my sister and me to a life of service through his religious beliefs and sense of social responsibility.  His messages were presented to us in a quiet, comfortable, non-threatening manner.”

Today Joanna and ten-year-old Raya live in McAllen, TX, where Joanna teaches gifted elementary students in Mission, TX.  She has been losing her hearing since her own elementary school days, and now has a profound hearing loss.  Her students have learned to speak directly to her, though, and to patiently repeat when Joanna does not understand what they have said.

 Summers, Joanna and Raya travel.  Joanna gives butterfly seminars for children at festivals and museums.  “My interest in butterflies began in 1986 when we lived on a ranch in Rio Grande City.   Some days there would be clouds of butterflies swirling around me as I worked outside.  It was thrilling.  Amazing.  The wonder filled me with childlike joy.

“Butterflies are an indicator of a healthy environment, and to see so many fills me with a sense of hope for our planet.  Butterflies balance out my life.  They are my passion!”

Joanna is the founder and President of the South Texas Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, Co-Chair of the Texas Butterfly Festival, author of the Kids Page in Butterfly Garden News and Coordinator of Butterfly Programs for the Mission, TX, School District.

When Joanna was still in the Peace Corps, Owen Bair’s wife Susan designed a line of woman’s wear from native woven and dyed cloth.  Joanna took part in a very large, successful fashion show at the American consulate.  Later Dutch and German designers who were in Nigeria buying material spotted her and, as Joanna explains, “they hooked me up with an agent in London.  I still model today for the designer I met at that time.”

 In 1976, Joanna met Rosendo Ross Rivera at a party in the apartment complex where they both were living.  “He was an ethnic studies professor at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University and the most intelligent person I ever met.  He had a wacky sense of humor that endeared him to most everyone.  He could move from a snobby charity ball to a field where migrants toiled and come away with life-long new friends.”

By 1980, Joanna had gone back to school to earn additional certification to teach the gifted and returned to the profession she started in the Peace Corps—teaching.  Ross and Joanna adopted Raya in 1989, several years after losing a child of their own.  “Raya is the light of my life.  We adopted her at birth.  She is both Hispanic and Anglo—dark brown hair and huge blue eyes.” 

When Raya was three, Ross died in his sleep of a heart attack.   “Every night Raya would gather up Kermit the Frog and set two little chairs by the window to wait for Daddy to come home.  We struggled and grieved for quite a while.”

With strength she forged from dealing with a hearing loss and the loss of a child, Joanna found the strength to go on again.  She focused on others.  And she started La Casita.

“But now I am at a crossroads.  My friend of 20 years, Elizabeth, is slipping away from us and I am pretty much on my own.  She and I have been a team for 10 years and it is so strange to be without her.”

 Elisabeth has Alzhiemers.

Elizabeth always wanted to open a safe house in Nuevo Progreso, about 35 miles from McAllen, but the team had no time to start it.  Joanna talks about working on it next year, alone.

“There are times when the demands of this project seem overwhelming, and times when the rewards and little successes bring tremendous joy.  It is simply a part of my life.  It is what I do because I have to.

“We do a whole lot in Mexico with very little money and many prayers.  Both are equally important at this point.  It would be wonderful if RPCVs would support us in either area.”
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