LEARNING TO APPRECIATE the United States has become an ongoing residual benefit of the Peace Corps experience. After becoming totally blind at age eleven, I grew up in an urban environment with good sidewalks, good public transportation, and a society that respected the need for me to use a white cane. In Panama safety was always an issue. There were open manholes, drivers who would yell at me because they thought I was trying to hit them with my cane, pedestrians who thought I was an aggressive American because I wouldnt walk around them on the sidewalk, and a society that didnt believe that blind people could make it.
I taught in a school for blind children where the only real benefit was the salaries paid to the poorly trained teachers and the money squandered by administrators. To live for two years with the blind people of Panama and make them believe that they had a chance for a dignified future was constant discouragement. However, Ive returned for three visits and have seen improvements. Even some of my ideas have been implemented.
Since my group left Panama in 1967, I have published an annual newsletter for the other group members. We know where all 35 of us are. One has died. Now I have a cadre of wonderful ex-Peace Corps friends all over the country and even one in Norway where I coincidentally go almost every year. Two of my fellow group members have gone into work with the blind.
Theres no doubt in my mind that I gained far more from my experience in Panama than I gave to Panama. There is also no doubt in my mind that I would never have cared so much about the quality of my life and that of those around me without the Peace Corps experience. Deep inside me is the underlying certainty that each of us can make this a better world. Living with the extreme of wealth and poverty has shown me how the human spirit can accept reality and see hope in it from almost any level.
The Peace Corps in 1965 took a chance on a young blind man who was fresh out of college. The U.S. work force wasnt nearly so receptive, at the time. How glad I am that things turned out as they did.