A Peculiar and Extraordinary Journey:
From Virginia Western Community College to the
Mekong Delta of Vietnam and the Townships of South Africa
By Steve Darr
In the visionary days of Community College Ministries in 1984, I was fortunate to work with Charles Downs, president of Virginia Western Community College. His vision for higher education, community, and culture was truly global, and he constantly worked to bring global interests to bear in the vocational and technical world of the community college. Charles and I had talked about ways to involve community college students in global experiences, when along came John Killian, a brilliant Biology professor. I suggested that we try a project with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic by sending VWCC students with John Killian to work on a rural project developed in the Haitian bateyes near La Romana. Charles agreed. John jumped on board and learned Spanish in three months and was off to La Romana with a host of students by the spring of 1985.
Later on, I wondered if this could not be a bigger opportunity. Could our ministry’s program to take students to the Dominican Republic appeal to other colleges? In fact, there is no other educational institution whose resources match the needs of the developing world and our own local communities better than the community college.
A Peacework school garden in the Zamane Township of South Africa
At the same time, the Contra war was raging in Central America. I joined a peacemaking trip to Nicaragua and Guatemala sponsored by the Presbytery and wondered if the same student volunteers who worked in the Dominican Republic could not also serve as agents of peacemaking and change in a place like Nicaragua where homes and schools were being destroyed in the war. Could volunteerism be that powerful? Could we, in fact, bring together, volunteers from two sides of a global conflict to demonstrate the compelling need for peace? It seemed like a simple idea. It took two years to find the right partners. The model of engaging local citizens in the bateyes of the Dominican Republic served as the model for bridging the Cold War in Nicaragua. I had to come up with a name and chose Peacework.
The phone rang at 7:30 am ET on April 21, 1989. I’m glad I was home and not in the shower! Yuri Alexandrin was calling from the Soviet Peace Fund in Moscow. They were ready to accept my invitation to support a joint peacemaking volunteer effort in Nicaragua. CEPAD accepted the challenge of hosting this tri-lateral effort. In August 1989, 8 volunteers from the US and 8 volunteers from the Soviet Union rebuilt 5 houses for war-displaced families in Esteli. Word spread. Before the first project ended, we were planning a similar event in Mexico and a second in Nicaragua.
A global volunteer program was about as far from the imagination of the board of directors of Community College Ministries as any concept could get. However, it made sense to the board of directors to support a new program called Peacework that would promote the involvement of college students in global service, regardless of the college or church or other connections they have or where they are enrolled. Peacework was thus launched as a completely independent, non-aligned 501(c)3 non-profit organization so that the new volunteer program could work with anyone, anywhere, at any time without any predisposition whatsoever to religious or national affiliation, ethnicity, political persuasion, or culture. In fact, this element would be fundamental to the new idea. Peacework was a product of the people and interests of Community College Ministries, including the college president Charles Downs, and launched from those ideals that make the community college an open-door institution. One of the inaugural volunteers, Deborah Spencer, was a Virginia Western Community College alum and later obtained her Ph.D. in international development at Notre Dame.
The idea has grown steadily since its inception in 1989, working on projects such as housing in Nicaragua and Mexico, health care in Malawi and Peru and Guatemala and Haiti, education in Belize and Trinidad and India and the Dominican Republic, engineering and construction in Vietnam and Cameroon and Russia, working with children in Russia and South Africa and India and the Czech Republic and Ghana, and a host of other projects and sites. Peacework has developed projects with academic departments, programs, campus ministries, chaplaincies, student organizations, or professional schools with Gettysburg College, Milton Academy, Northeastern University, American University, George Washington University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Mary Washington, Virginia Tech School of Construction and Architecture & Urban Studies and Agriculture and the Pamplin College of Business, Patrick Henry Community College, Virginia Western Community College, Lynchburg College, Roanoke College, Southern West Virginia Community College, Virginia Highlands Community College, Penn State, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Duke University’s Global Health Program and Duke Engage, North Carolina State University, Meredith College, Rhodes College, the University of Arkansas Colleges of Engineering and Education and Business and Agriculture and Medical Sciences, the Clinton School of Public Service, Hendrix College, Oklahoma State University, Northeastern Oklahoma State University, North Central College, Gateway Technical College, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Boise State University, Arizona School of Health Sciences, Rochester National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Wake Forest University, St. Lawrence University in Toronto, the University of Toronto, Waynesburg University, DePauw University, Siena College, and others.
Several campus ministers were instrumental in launching Peacework and its projects. Rod Sinclair brought a Soviet delegation to his campus in 1987 to speak about peacemaking. It was a member of that delegation from Moscow who said his organization, the Soviet Peace Committee, could not sponsor the project but that he would find an organization that would. Woody Leach started the Global Issues Advocate program at Virginia Tech that sent students to Haiti. Clyde Robinson made the initial overtures to a Vietnamese group that would launch our post-war efforts in the Mekong Delta, Nha Trang, Dalat, and Hanoi. Kathryn Adams at Youngstown State is one of dozens of campus ministers who have taken delegations to the former Soviet Union with Peacework and is still doing so today.
I also learned a valuable lesson from the community Hunger Hikes at Virginia Tech– the power of multiplication. One walker can get a contribution for one dollar for one mile. But ten dollars per mile for ten miles walked by 300 volunteers generates $30,000 in donations. It works for individuals, too. Nearly 20,000 volunteers have participated in Peacework projects with hundreds of community partners in over 25 countries. I would estimate that those 20,000 students and others have touched the lives of a million children and their communities around the world, and those children have changed the students’ lives in profound ways. It all started with an idea and a phone call.
Peacework operates today under seven key principles. (1) The bottom line is improving the lives of people who live on the margins of society and who often lack basic resources and where modest investment of sweat and funding will launch a new project or bring an important community project to completion. (2) When students live in a community and work alongside local citizens, their own lives and careers are profoundly changed. Every one of us enters these experiences knowing very little about the conditions in which people live and work around the world and our worlds are forever changed by this experience. (3) Peacework’s foundational principle is not “helping people” but rather “working alongside” local community or village partners in the process of their own development and with a full appreciation of indigenous self-determination. This is not our concept. It belongs to Jerry Aaker who worked with Heifer International. Read his book Partners with the Poor –especially page 137. (4) Our organization wants to match the human and material resources of those who have them with those who don’t. (5) We take care of you. Security and safety is the highest priority. (6) No one’s culture or customs are better than another’s. Everything is planned with respect for the culture and customs of the participants on all sides. (7) Good things can come in both large and small doses. I like short-term projects that are manageable and effective, but I love to see long-term partnerships in development come from these relationships. Long-term relationships best utilize resources and offer the most effective outcomes.
I hope those outcomes will have specific, measurable benefits and lead to positive, lasting social change and foster new opportunities for young people where there were no or very limited opportunities before. I also hope that these experiences will inspire those who participate to be change agents throughout their lives.
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