“I follow my heart when I take jobs,” said Beth Cleary, whose résumé gives credit to her claim. For the past year, Cleary has served as president of the board for the Santa Barbara Peace Corps Association, and, when I met her, she was a week into her other job, doing community relations for Girls Inc.-which is not the first local nonprofit to benefit from her services. Cleary has also worked for the Citizens’ Planning Association and SEE International.
Hailing from Madison, Wisconsin, Cleary came to Santa Barbara for college in 1992, majoring in aquatic biology at UCSB. She joined the Peace Corps upon her graduation in 1995, and completed her three years of service in Cameroon, teaching agriculture and fish farming in a small village with no running water or electricity, “using my degree from UCSB,” she said jokingly. Before leaving for Cameroon, Cleary said she was worried that she wasn’t prepared for the massive cultural shock she knew she was about to endure. “They live by the weather and the sun, not the clock,” she explained.
Since her return, she’s remained actively involved with the Santa Barbara Peace Corps Association, helping with membership, special events, and organizing volunteer opportunities within the community. Additionally, she supports local Peace Corps volunteers before, during, and after their service: hosting send-off dinners for new initiates and open-to-the-public panel interviews with former volunteers; supporting volunteers while they’re abroad with a mini-grant program, which funds such initiatives as building wells, libraries, and the like; and helping returning volunteers reestablish their lives in the U.S.
Cleary’s advice to those considering joining? Think long and hard before you do it; talk to as many former volunteers as you can; and ask them every question you can think of. Most importantly, “Go with a completely open mind,” she said. “It’s a whole different culture, so you can’t go with too many expectations.” Also, be aware that, although you can request a certain area of the world, there are no guarantees. Cleary requested South America, so she could utilize her knowledge of Spanish, but there wasn’t a need for additional volunteers in that region at the time, so she found herself packing for Africa and French-speaking Cameroon instead.
One of the toughest aspects of Peace Corps service may be that volunteers-with the exception of married couples-must go it alone. “They want you to be part of the community, not just hang out with other Americans,” Cleary explained. Also, the Peace Corps favors hard work rather than handouts. “Their philosophy is to teach people to work with what they have-not to go with money or supplies.” Though both ideas make good sense, the solitary, oftentimes rough, conditions cause some volunteers to call it quits early. But Cleary thinks those who stick it out have much to gain.
“You come back with a certain awareness, this life-enriching experience, this insight into a whole other world,” she said, smiling, “It was amazing-the most interesting, rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”