A native Newporter will be among the first Peace Corps volunteers to return to service overseas since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the organization’s international work three years ago.
Jane Leys, a recent college graduate, will serve as an agricultural volunteer for the Peace Corps’ rural extension program in the western mountains of Guatemala, where she will work alongside local farmers, organizations and community leaders over the next two years to increase household food security in rural areas of the Central American country.
“I’m really looking forward to fully immersing myself in the culture,” Leys said. “I’ve heard the people there are incredibly nice. I’m looking forward to sharpening my Spanish and getting to make a difference, while meeting awesome people.”
Faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic, the Peace Corps suspended global operations and enacted an unprecedented global evacuation in March 2020, bringing home about 7,000 volunteers from more than 60 countries. Leys, a graduate of Rogers High School, was attending St. Michael’s College in Vermont at the time.
“My college career was affected so much by the pandemic,” she said. “I’m excited to have this opportunity to get out there, and hopefully there’s not another crazy COVID-related development. It feels great to be among the first group of volunteers to be able to get back out and continue this important work. I hope to grow my world view and understanding of people whose life is vastly different from my own upbringing in New England.”
Leys graduated from St. Michael’s last May with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. Unsure of where to begin her professional career, she looked to the past in order to move forward, taking inspiration from her father, Paul, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana in the 1980s.
“When I was growing up, he was always talking about all these stories and all these amazing people that he met and things he did in Africa,” Leys said. “I’ve always wanted to travel, and hearing his stories really inspired me. It was definitely something I could see myself doing.”
Leys applied to the Peace Corps upon graduation and was accepted in August. Volunteer cohorts for the agency, which bears a mission of world peace and friendship, consist of both first-time volunteers and volunteers who were evacuated in early 2020. Invited volunteers will collaborate with their host communities on locally prioritized projects in one of the Peace Corps’ six sectors; agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, and health or youth in development. All will engage in COVID-19 response and recovery work.
The Peace Corps is currently recruiting volunteers to serve in 56 countries at the request of host country governments, and volunteers have already returned to 48 countries. The agency continues to monitor COVID-19 trends in all its host countries and will send volunteers to serve as conditions permit.
“I know the pandemic is still affecting places like Guatemala more than it is the United States,” Leys said. “I don’t know completely what it will look like, but it will be a lot different than Newport.”
Leys boarded a plane for Miami on in March, undergoing a two-day orientation with fellow volunteers there. She spent her last night in the U.S. attending a Miami Heat – Atlanta Hawks game.
Upon arrival in Santo Tomas Milpas Altas (which, Leys points out, roughly translates to “tall corn plants”) on March 7, Leys met her host family. She is now taking part in a three-month training program, with a heavy focus on learning the language. After the program, Leys will move to a new location in the country’s western mountains, where she will spend the duration of her assignment.
While Leys said she is slightly nervous about the language barrier, she does not think it will be an issue, having previously taken Spanish courses at Rogers. Then the work begins, totaling a 27- month term of volunteer service.
“I just finished packing, actually,” she said just before leaving the States. “Usually, if I have a trip, I’m packing up until the very last minute before I leave. But not for this one. I’m very excited to get started and I have to really think about what I’m going to bring. It’s a long time.”
Leys has since been spending free time playing soccer, shopping at local markets, hiking and hanging out with her host family. An avid athlete, Leys also joined the local gym.
“This week we made friends at the park and have started playing soccer against the local kids,” she wrote in a recent blog post detailing her time in the country. “They are really good but we’ll beat them soon enough. So far everything is going smooth and I am super happy.”
Erin Curran, a Peace Corps public affairs specialist, said the length of service is one of the reasons people are attracted to the Peace Corps.
“You’re not there for 30 days or a couple months,” she said. “Twoplus years is a very long time, and it provides quite a different experience than a mission trip or something like that.”
April 16-22 is National Volunteer Week in the U.S., with President Joe Biden declaring the time of observance through proclamation. The week is meant to shed light on the lasting contributions of volun- teers at home and abroad.