Culture exchange: Former Peace Corps volunteers to educate public on program

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

CONYERS -- Armed with a bachelor's degree in home economics from the University of Georgia and a heap of idealism that only a 20-something could have, Debbie Manget traveled to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1978.

She planned on sharing her homemaking skills with villagers. It turned out she learned just as much from them as they learned from her.

They taught her how to cook in a coal pot over an open fire. She taught them how to sew dresses from patterns, and about the importance of proper nutrition for their children.

"It was more of a cultural exchange," said Manget, who has served as director of the Conyers-Rockdale Library System for 25 years. "If I had to say what I accomplished the most it would be making friends and showing people what an average American was like."

Manget, along with her niece, Callie Manget Garcia, who also served as a Peace Corps volunteer, will present a program, "One World, Many Stories: The Peace Corps Experience," in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Corps this year. The program takes place on Thursday, March 10, at 7 p.m. in the meeting room of the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library, 864 Green St. in Conyers.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps as a means for Americans to reach out to the international community and promote a better understanding between Americans and people from other cultures.

Volunteers typically commit to a two-year term abroad and provide a service to the communities in which they live. To date, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 host countries.

"One of the goals of Peace Corps is to use return volunteers to promote it. They feel like the ones who have done it are the best to tell the story," Manget said.

Garcia, who holds a bachelor's degree in political science and environmental ethics from UGA, spent her Peace Corps service in Nicaragua from 2005 to 2007.

She said she knew of the Peace Corps from her aunt's experiences but it took a former Corps volunteer who spoke to her 10th-grade class at Salem High School to really light the fire of motivation.

"From that point out, (the Peace Corps) was pretty much a goal," Garcia said.

Garcia taught elementary school children environmental education, covering topics like organic gardening, tree nurseries and compost. She also provided teachers with basic classroom management skills, such as reward systems for good behavior.

Toward the end of her service, she worked at a maternal care center where she helped residents improve their garden and make a large worm composting box. The center sold the worms and put the profits back into the center, which provided pregnant women pre- and post-natal care.

"It really is life-changing, so you really have to know that you want to do it," Garcia said.

At her home in Nicaragua, Garcia had running water (for one hour each day) and electricity, luxuries she didn't expect. She traveled to her sites on foot, by bike or by riding a horse or mule.

"The best part of it for me is that I wanted an adventure and it was definitely an adventure," Garcia said.

Both Garcia and Manget felt welcomed by their host families, and others they met, during their Peace Corps years.

"They were really amazing, lovely people that I was able to live with and become friends with," said Garcia, who married an English teacher she met in Nicaragua.

Garcia and her husband, Franklin Garcia, and their 1-year-old daughter now live in the Atlanta area. Garcia teaches Spanish to elementary school children in Decatur.

During the presentation, Garcia and Manget will discuss their Peace Corps service, share cultural artifacts they brought home with them from their host countries and share general information about the Corps.

"It's not just for those interested in joining, but it's also for those interested in other places in the world," said Manget.

Manget said she returned to St. Lucia eight years after her Peace Corps service to visit, and she continues to stay in touch with a friend there.

"It has enriched my life immeasurably," she said.