MONT CLARE - Chantal Pasquarello, 24, of Mont Clare, has a fresh perspective after completing her Peace Corps duty in Togo.
She was in the African country, which is between Ghana and Benin, from September 2002 to November 2004, then visited Tunisia, then Morocco and finally Spain, before heading home. She returned to the Phoenixville area on Dec. 23, 2004.
Although she was there to help the people of Togo, she says it was "an amazing experience" for herself as well.
"The two main principles, goals, are cultural exchange - 27 month periods per volunteer session - and aiding in technical assistance and development via capacity building... We trained for three months, during which I lived with a Togo host family," said Pasquarello. "There I was trained about cultural norms, language, bike maintenance (we used bikes to get around, not cars), health and, in particular, our program goals, and that is when I learned to work in schools there.
"I arrived in September, trained during December of 2002. After completing training and passing the exam, they swear you in as a volunteer," said Pasquarello. "If you don't pass, they send you home. A lot of people drop out, too."
Pasquarello's service agreement of two years began after being sworn in. "As long as you finish your service time, you get about $4,000 for 'resettling' costs."
While in Togo, Pasquarello lived in a village with no running water and woke up every morning on a straw mat placed on the floor.
"Since they are farmers, the people in Togo wake up between 4:45 and 5 every morning," said Pasquarello. "Then they'd go out to the field."
Pasquarello, a vegetarian, sustained herself mostly on a diet of "fufu," which is starched potatoes pounded into a big glob and made with sauces created with leaves, said Pasquarello. "I usually went to bed between 7 and 8, as soon as the sun went down, because I didn't have any electricity available.
"I was the only Peace Corps volunteer at that village, so I was the only white person for miles, but I'd have to say I was safer in that village than most places in the U.S.
"The village of about 800 people became my family and they took care of me like I was the 'village daughter.'"
"I was a girl's education and empowerment extension agent," said Pasquarello. "It's a unique program, the only one in the Peace Corps designed specifically for women and girls."
Pasquarello worked against the sexual harassment of Togo girls, wrought mostly by their teachers, but also inflicted by classmates and heads of the community.
"The overall goal is to better implicate women in the development of the country, because right now, they are not at all involved," said Pasquarello.
The women of Togo aren't treated well. Sexual harassment and improper sexual conduct by teachers and students happens often. Women aren't valued in Togo, an agarian country which still follows many old traditions.
"Most days, I would go to the school and we would teach what I call 'life skills,' which can include anything from future planning, health and sanitation, disease prevention, study skills, and anything not limited to those things," said Pasquarello.
She explained that she would often be responsible for teaching the teachers, but, "You can't just go and say 'this is right and this is wrong,' but you can demonstrate and tell about the long-term and short-term benefits and costs of things like the pros and cons of teachers harassing girls, girls getting an education, working together, etc."
Togo is actually a military dictatorship. "It's like a textbook oppressed society. Everyone is oppressed," said Pasquarello. "The key to the development of the country is education. So there is hope for Togo, as long as people can be educated."
Pasquarello said the Peace Corps is currently active in about 80 countries, and a lot of people don't understand that the U.S. government funds USAID, and USAID funds the Peace Corps.
"It's actually called the United States Peace Corps," said Pasquarello. "Each country has a director. The 'main hub' is in Washington, D.C., and the programs are different in each country."
"The Peace Corps was created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, who established the Peace Corps to promote world peace and understanding," said Pasquarello.
The government has recently lowered the amount of funding set aside for the Peace Corps' missions.
"Bush said in his State of the Union address that he praised the Peace Corps as an important vehicle of change," said Pasquarello. "He said the organization encouraged positive change. He had said he wanted to double the number of Peace Corps volunteers and increase the number of countries that the Peace Corps reaches, but then he slashed Peace Corps' budget. It was cut 75 percent during the two years I was in Togo. A lot of that money was to fund projects to be established in other countries. It severely inhibited the ability for us to do our jobs."
"Right now there are Peace Corps volunteers in Thailand providing relief due to the tsunami," said Pasquarello. "For the most part, volunteers are involved in education, agriculture, health ... in Africa, there are a lot of doctors helping with the AIDS problem ... business and more. It's an amazing experience, but for me, it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime deal."
"After getting my Master's in International Human Rights and Development, I'm probably going to get my doctorate," said Pasquarello, who graduated from Spring-Ford High School in 1998 and Lafayette College, in Easton, with a BA in International Affairs, in 2002.
Pasquarello recently passed her written exam for entry to the Foreign Service Department, which is a branch of the state department, and represents U.S. affairs in other countries.
"If I pass the oral exam, I'll be trained in D.C. to work in embassies all around the world," said Pasquarello. "So, down the line, I'll be an ambassador or something."