Volunteer returns home for the holidays

PERU Elissa Everett planned a surprise visit home this Christmas. Unfortunately, Elissas parents, Tom and Debbie Everett, learned about her upcoming visit because the friends Elissa has made over the past 18 months didnt quite realize just how far this young woman had traveled to live among them. Only six hours after she had waved goodbye, they wanted to speak to her and made a phone call to her parents home in Peru. They were calling from the remote village of Sori in the African country of Benin where Elissa has been working as a Peace Corps volunteer since July 2006. Benin is a small country of about eight million citizens in central West Africa. A former French colony, it gained independence in 1960 and has one of the few democratic governments in Africa. Sori is a small farming village in the northern part of the country. After learning the Peace Corps had assigned her to Benin Elissa Everett said, I had to Google it to find out where it was. Today, shes enchanted with the country and its people. The people are very friendly. I love the people I live with, she explained. A 2002 graduate of Peru High School and 2005 graduate of the State University of New York at Binghamton, Elissa said news stories and a college job fair aroused her interest in joining the Peace Corps. There are a lot of reasons, Elissa said of her volunteering. I wanted to travel. Its good experience. Ive lived an extremely charmed life and I wanted to challenge myself. Elissa was one of 60 volunteers who arrived in Benin in July 2006 to work in various assignments throughout the country. While she is teaching English, other volunteers work in health and environment, small enterprise development and information and computer technology. Elissas life in a farming community in Benin differs considerably from those in a farming community in the United States. The main crops are corn, cotton and yams. Elissa lives in one of two buildings where five families of schoolteachers reside. She has her own latrine a hole in the ground and a shower a shed with a bucket. Theres no electricity, so most people go to bed at sunset and get up at sunrise. The water in the village is not good for drinking so Elissa has learned to carry a bucket filled with water, weighing 40 pounds, atop her head from a pump about a half-mile away. All the families go for water together, she explained. We go together as a family. The school where Elissa teaches is modeled after the French education system. The 860 students learn to speak English by immersion. Each student pays $28 a year to attend the school. Since families are very poor, students often drop out of school and return when they have the money. Along with teaching school, Elissa has helped conduct AIDS education workshops and programs that teach women study skills, their legal rights and family planning. Elissa is the only Peace Corps volunteer in Sori, but there are six other volunteers within a 10-mile radius. Theyre just a bike ride away, Elissa said. For projects and for some sanity we have each other. Communication with family and friends at home has sometimes been difficult. Until recently, Elissa had to travel to Kandi, a city about 30 miles distant, to find cell phone and Internet service. A few weeks ago, however, cell phone service was provided to Sori, so calls home will be much more frequent in the future. This remote African farming village probably has better cell phone coverage than several parts of Elissas native town of Peru, in upstate New York. A logical question after hearing about her lone bicycle rides and life in general had to be, do you feel safe in Benin? Elissa responded, Yes, I do feel safe, though I do lock the doors at night. Elissas parents feel secure about her safety after having visited her in Sori last August. Shes been reassuring us and since weve been over there and seen her village we feel quite comfortable, said Debbie. Shes quite safe. Debbie did, however, express some reservations about the safety of transportation recalling the 10-hour bush taxi ride to Sori. There are no rules of the road. Vehicles were going everywhere, Debbie said. On Jan. 6, Elissa will begin her journey of thousands of miles back to Sori, Benin. Her assignment comes to an end this September when she plans to return home and work for a period of time before beginning graduate education in a yet to be determined field. Undoubtedly, the cell phone calls to and from friends in Sori, Benin will continue.

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