My husband and I led a group of 30 which included Canadians, an Australian, a Brit plus representatives from many US cities. We visited an indigenous site, traversed the locks of the Panama Canal, visited schools, the beach, seafood restaurants and hosted receptions to promote Friendship Force.
One event touched me personally and profoundly.
During our Peace Corps years, we had lived for a time in a remote, rural community of approximately 60 homes. While our group was in nearby Santiago, I contacted Xenayda, my friend from that village. She came to the Friendship Force reception. By the time the event was over, bus service to her home had ended.
Taxis are not affordable for most of the humble, rural residents. Xenayda charmingly persuaded the driver of our immense tour bus to take her all the way home. I gasped, knowing that an extremely narrow bridge, the only entry into that community, would likely not accommodate a vehicle that size. Turning around would also be difficult.
Xenayda had judged correctly. We crossed the bridge. Our group stepped out and gazed at this modest community. The sight of the huge bus brought everyone running from their small cinderblock homes. They joyfully embraced me and my husband. A flurry of activity engulfed us. I could not walk because of the children clinging to me. They had grown, of course. Those kids that I had played with, read to, sung with (“Jackie, eef joo hoppy ahn joo know eet, clap the hands!”)
Fluent English rolled off the tongue of one boy who had completed a year in Springfield, MO. We had helped him through the application process for this learning opportunity, and he now has an English teaching job. He said that he considers us a second set of parents! One former teen, now in her early 20s, has a job as a receptionist in a nice hotel. She said she never would have that job if we had not encouraged her English studies.
We were happy to see squares of cut up mosquito net stretched across many window-like openings in the cinder block walls. The villagers had been intrigued when we employed this simple trick to keep bugs out at night. They adopted the technique!
I had been struggling to describe life in this community to our group, never dreaming that we would all be there together, witnessing the unbreakable bonds of friendship, forged when people from different countries take the time to know one another. We had been part of their community, having shared chores, taught lessons, broken bread together -- and they remembered. They still valued us and loved us.
Whenever I feel burdened by obligations in my life, pulled in many directions, overwhelmed by circumstances, I need only recall the exuberant Panamanians who never forgot me. They valued my time with them. Only now can I fully see the impact of our volunteer work. It was meaningful. We did make a difference.
The warmth of my former neighbors flooded my heart with peace and gratitude, a gift more precious than anything I ever bestowed on them.
Jackie Wald teaches Spanish at Richland Community College. Her email address is jwald@.... For more information about Friendship Force International, go to friendshipforce.org. For Peace Corps ifnromation, visit peacecorps.gov.
Dallas Morning News opinion piece by Jackie Wald, RPCV/Panama
Jackie Wald: My Peace Corps impact continues without me
6/15/13Unexpected delight always awaits me in Panama. Three years have passed since the close of our Peace Corps Service there. Mid May found us returning as ambassadors of Friendship Force International with the mission of establishing a Panamanian chapter. This 35-year-old organization promotes intercultural exchange in 59 countries worldwide, including Costa Rica and Colombia, which share borders with Panama. Knowing our love for the isthmus, the national office in Atlanta charged us with introducing the organization to Panama.