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From Africa to Albania

Featured Photo from From Africa to Albania

Imagine devoting 27 months of your life to public service in a foreign country. Imagine trying to learn a new language and adjust to a new environment while simultaneously impacting an unfamiliar community in need. When the initial excitement of being in a new place on a life-changing assignment fades, how does one cope with such immense change, challenge, and expectation all at once?

Imagine devoting 27 months of your life to public service in a foreign country. Imagine trying to learn a new language and adjust to a new environment while simultaneously impacting an unfamiliar community in need. When the initial excitement of being in a new place on a life-changing assignment fades, how does one cope with such immense change, challenge, and expectation all at once?

The answer: You stay focused and push through it, you adapt... but it’s not easy. As the dust settles, figuring out what needs to be done in the community you are serving becomes clearer and your purpose molds around the most pressing issues and needs in your area. It’s no small decision to halt the comfortable predictability of everyday American life and plunge into a foreign land with ever-challenging work, but for Peace Corps volunteers, it’s the thought of making even the smallest difference in the lives of people in communities around the world that makes it worth the commitment and the inevitable ups and downs.

Lake Mary High School graduates and current Peace Corps volunteers Stephanie O’Connor, Brent Moser, and Hilary Richardson each have unique reasons for joining the Peace Corps, but together they are unified in the organization’s mission: to further the social and economic development of the international community and inform the global perspective of Americans.

Please read on to discover what these young men and women are working on to better their local communities and what life is like on the other side of the world.

Stephanie OConnor– Location: Lesotho–A high-altitude, landlocked country encircled by South Africa

Stephanie O’Connor’s Peace Corps assignment took her first to a small village and then to a nearby camp town called Mafeteng, where she lives with the local chief. The nation is currently dealing with a devastating drought that could last until March.

“The drought is a challenge for all of us in the village, but at the same time this experience has shown me what I’m capable of,” says Stephanie. “I can do no water, I can do no electricity, I can do rough living situations; the harder part is the language barrier and dealing with loneliness and missing home. You have to face the reality of being by yourself and learning how you deal with it.”

Stephanie originally lived in what most people would envision as a remote African village life. To get to the nearest town, Stephanie had to walk an hour from her village to a main junction and hitch a ride. She has since been relocated to a bigger and more developed village.

“The community looks out for me and makes sure I am safe,” says Stephanie. “It’s a very loving culture, and I can tell they want to protect me.”

Stephanie received her master’s degree in social work from the University of Central Florida and always wanted to do humanitarian work in Africa. In April 2015, she began her 10-week immersive language and culture training in Lesotho as a Healthy Youth volunteer. With a 23 percent prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS, Lesotho is one of the world’s countries hardest hit by HIV.

“By Lesotho standards, ‘the youth’ consists of 10- to 35-year-olds, and my job is to teach health education and prevention as well as life skills like self-esteem and empowerment,” says Stephanie. “I want to help however I can while I’m here. Sometimes I’m out in the village, and I hear people repeat things I’ve been trying to communicate. That’s when you know they’re getting it, and I know I’m doing something worthwhile.”

Brent and Bonnie Moser–Location: Zambia–A landlocked country in Southern Africa

Brent and Bonnie Moser sat under the stars overlooking a hilly landscape as they made pizza in a nearby cooking shelter with a couple of curious Zambian children huddled around them. It’s just one simple scene among many that will be etched in the Mosers’ minds forever.

“These kids are our little brothers and sisters, and they’ve come to know us well in the village,” says Brent. “Everything is very open, and the people are welcoming. It’s awesome how communal and family-oriented the culture is here. But yes, the living situation is hard at first with no electricity and no running water. It’s a huge adjustment, but you’d be amazed how quickly you can adapt. It’s the culture and being an outsider that can be challenging.”

After graduating from Lake Mary High, Brent met his wife Bonnie at the University of Florida, and they married in June of 2011. Together, the couple participated in mission work in Haiti when the determination to join the Peace Corps crystallized. After five years in the working world and with plans to start a family later on, Brent, an engineer, and Bonnie, a landscape architect, felt that the time was now to leave their life in Central Florida and pursue their Peace Corps service.

Their first assignment took them to Liberia in June 2014, but after seven weeks, they evacuated due to the Ebola epidemic. In February 2015, Brent and Bonnie were reassigned to Zambia and got right to work with two goals in mind: to increase food availability through agroforestry and to improve the locals’ capacity to generate household income.

“I’ve been working with 20 ladies and teaching them how to sew,” says Bonnie, who points out that Zambian women often struggle to command the same amount of respect as men. “I also conduct business workshops to teach the women about income-generating activities. It’s been very successful so far and many more ladies in the village want to learn, as well. Despite the challenges, I’m learning that it’s all about the relationships we form with the women, men, and children in the villages.”

Brent has been working with the villagers on beekeeping, nutrition, and learning how to grow high value-crops. The Mosers also garden daily to demonstrate crop diversity and irrigation. They teach literacy twice a week in the local language, Chinyanja, and they conduct courses in English while helping with malaria and HIV education. Outside of their day-to-day work, Brent and Bonnie run their award-winning blog, Under The Rubber Trees, and spend time facilitating concerns in the local community and researching how to do things requested by the villagers.

“Occasionally we get punched in the face by cultural differences, and we realize that southern Africa is 9,000 miles away from family and friends,” says Brent, “but for the most part, we are very comfortable here and this is home for Bonnie and me.”

Hilary Richardson–Location: Albania–A Southeastern European country in the Balkan Peninsula

The Peace Corps took Hilary Richardson to the urban and regional planning office in the city of Lushnjë, Albania. Her primary assignment, which started in March 2015, is to work with the Bashkia or municipality government assisting with its plans for territorial reform, which is happening as result of recent elections.

“Albania decided that instead of having 360 small local government units, they formed 61 municipality governments, so these 61 municipalities have absorbed the smaller local governments,” Hilary explains. “Lushnjë absorbed more than 100 small villages and now needs new plans to help provide services to the new residents of Lushnjë, which is where I come in. It’s all very exciting, and I’m learning a lot and really using both my bachelor’s degree in international affairs and now my master’s.”

Hilary is doing her Peace Corps service as part of a master’s international program for urban and regional planning at Florida State University. Prior to starting her assignment, Hilary lived with a host family and studied the language for six hours a day, six days a week.

“It’s a difficult language to learn, but the people appreciate me trying to learn it,” says Hilary. “My boss doesn’t speak any English, but I know enough to get by, and I figure it out as I go along and get my tasks done.”

Along with her work in the Bashkia, Hilary also helps local students and adults learn English. Through the Peace Corps, Hilary is part of the gender and diversity committee to help with LGBT issues and awareness in Albania, and she is working on another side project to fix bathrooms in local schools.

“The people here are wonderful and will do anything for you. They love Americans,” says Hilary. “Sometimes when I’m at the market buying fresh vegetables, the vendors won’t even let me pay. It’s their way of being good hosts and showing appreciation for me being there and helping the community. It’s been a great experience so far.”

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