My 95 year-old grandfather died this week. The one I felt most affinity to, the one I looked like most.  The one who loved me unconditionally and was proud of my every move.  And I was not even related to him.

 

Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps for John F. Kennedy, died this week and I feel a dull pain, the same as when my real and only grandparent died. I look around my house and see things from Thailand or inspired by Thailand and realize that without that man having lived a life dedicated to good and public service, I would not have done much of meaning in my own.

 

 I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand from 1990-93 when I was in my twenties, I later worked for the the Peace Corps in DC and the non-profit alumni association and later as a campus recruiter in New Orleans.  Did Peace Corps make me who I am or just bring out the genetic predisposition? It took me from an Ivy League education and people who wanted to work for Solomon Brothers in New York, to my real tribe of friends walking through vibrant green rice paddies with sunlight reflecting off the water and water buffalos meandering by.  It taught me the value of getting to know people by sitting on a floor and sharing a dish of som dam-spicy papaya salad and sticky rice rolled in a ball taken from a straw basket container.  Eating with people before trying to talk business. Taking it all in without trying to comment or make suggestions, just being.  Who knew a Massachusetts kid who grew up in an asparagus field would brush her teeth everyday spitting off of the porch of her teak house on stilts, to the soft sound of the wooden cow bells of the cows coming back from the nearby Burmese border six kilometers away? I have stood in a huge field at night, way out in the country with thousands of Thai schoolchildren with torches and candles as they sang about being a part of the boy scouts and girl scouts and their agricultural groups. Under the stars there, the only white person and person over 5’8” I felt connected to something so much bigger than I ever have.

 

In graduate school I found the seven Thai students in my program and attempted a vicious payback by trying to guide them through the confusing aisles of WalMart and customs associated with carving Halloween pumpkins.  I kept a piece of paper between me and my Thai friend during class where I would scribble down important words I did not think she would catch but would need  like titrate, indigenous, inculcate, and equally important phrases like plumber’s crack, fixin’ to git, and Smoothie.  When Katrina hit I really worked to help all the foreign students navigate those first awful days to get out of the city, and how to get back in, much like the Thais took care of me during the two coups and uprisings that happened while I was in Thailand. I believe in the Karma Credit Union:  you cannot usually repay directly the kindnesses you have received through life, but you can pay it forward to someone else.  The kindness I received in Thailand ripples through the lives my foreign friends help in lands like Egypt, Israel, Peru, Namibia, India, Nigeria, and New Orleans.

 

I can attribute all the good I have dedicated my life to one amazing human being, Sargent Shriver.  Me and 200,000 other grandchildren are feeling that dull pain today but are thankful to have been touched by his great vision. My life would be so very different if Sargent Shriver had just gotten rich running some corporation. I am grateful for him.  Peace Corps is synonymous with development. Development has a myriad of meanings.