Family raised, couple will re-enter the Peace Corps
DeKALB - After Ray and Jan Ott served in the Peace Corps in the early 1980s, they always swore they'd go back someday. With their two children grown and on their own, someday has arrived. “We liked it a lot and had a good time, but we wanted to come back and start a family,” Ray said. “That's what we did, but it was always with the intention that once our kids were grown we would join again.” Jan chimed in that 19-year-old Josh and 22-year-old Sarah have spent their whole lives preparing to see their parents go on another Peace Corps mission. “They've always been expecting it,” she said. The Otts will report for training in Los Angeles in early June. After three days, they will fly out to Western Samoa in the South Pacific, where they will continue to train until September, learning the Samoan language and culture. Then they will be assigned to a village, where they will spend the next two years helping village leaders identify and solve problems. “We don't really have a clear idea yet of what we're going to be doing,” Ray said. “It's village development work, which means pretty much figure out what needs to be done and do it. It could be a water system, a school, a library.” From 1981-1983, the Otts worked for the Peace Corps in Marrakech, Morocco, where they taught at a technical and vocational school. Ray taught electrical engineering while Jan taught woodworking to women. As their students graduated, both teachers got grants from the Peace Corps to put the students to work. Ray's students learned how to install solar panels for solar-powered water heaters, while Jan's students began a co-op making crutches and wheelchairs with women who had been taught welding. “These were street kids,” Ray said, describing how most of the vocational school's students had fallen through the cracks at Morocco's traditional French schools. “But one thing we found out is they're not dumb, they're just poor. Once they saw it working and had the money to buy supplies, they got it and (solar panels) began popping up all over town.” Jan said her students needed a co-op because in a Muslim country, the women couldn't get jobs using the woodworking and welding skills they had learned. “For some reason it petered out after a couple of years,” she said. “But one girl's little sister got very sick, and she had made enough money at the co-op to buy medicine and keep her from dying.” The Otts said their previous experience was so fulfilling, they were excited to take on a new challenge with the Peace Corps. “The most exciting things are 1, going and learning a new culture, and 2, feeling your job really matters to someone,” Jan said. The Otts will accrue vacation time while working for the Corps, just as they would working for a company in the United States. They will earn two weeks off after the first year, but said they don't plan to come back to the United States until their stint is finished. “Re-entry was the hardest part (last time),” Ray said. “When you go, you're looking for adventure. Then when you come back, you're expected to just drop back into your groove.” “You're excited when you come back and want to tell everyone about it,” Jan added. “But the experience is so different, it's hard to relate, and the conversation quickly turns to gossip and common things.” The Otts learned about their assignment in January. Since then, they have been reading up on Western Samoa, which neither of them knew anything about. They described the island country as two main islands with several smaller keys. All together, the country is about twice the size of DeKalb County. It is about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. “Hopefully, people will come visit us while we're there, like the kids,” Jan said. “My mother says she'll come visit for her 85th birthday next year. ...When we were in Africa in the '80s, my brother came to visit us, and he thought it was so cool he joined the Peace Corps. He's in Cambodia now. He's never come back home.” The Otts have been packing items and figuring out what they can take with them, since they're limited to two pieces of luggage, a carry-on and a rucksack each. They're looking forward to traveling and immersing themselves in a new culture. “It changes your whole life, and really changes your attitude,” Ray said. “I would encourage anybody to do it. It's interesting to see the United States from the outside for a while.” Ray said he also sees himself as something of an ambassador when he travels. “A lot of people don't like the United States right now, so it seems like a good idea to just go somewhere else and be pleasant,” he said with a laugh. Once the Otts are established in Western Samoa, people will be able to read about the couple's experience on their travel blog at www.travelpod.com/traveler-profile/rayandjan/tpod.html. For more information on Peace Corps programs, visit www.peacecorps.gov. Dana Herra can be reached at email@example.com.