Reviewed by Helene Ballmann Dudley (Colombia 1968–70, Albania/Slovakia 1997–99)
One aspect of a good memoir is its ability to identify commonality in the human experience. I thought Kay Gillies Dixon had borrowed my mother and my life for the first section of her book. Kay, like myself, wanted something more than the rather limited path laid out for her to follow. Her roots were deep in western Pennsylvania, but her eyes were scanning the horizon for adventures unknown and definitely not understood in her small town.
While Kay paints a vivid picture of growing up in Pennsylvania, including more than I ever wanted to know about Thanksgiving turkeys, she left me wanting more about her Peace Corps experience. Perhaps it was because, as she writes “Our efforts in urban community development work had only miserable failures.” That was my experience too, in 1968 when our group abandoned the UCD approach at its 6 month conference. Perhaps we were all just too young. With the wisdom of a few more years of life experience Kay certainly exhibited development skills in adapting and establishing Girl Scouts in Saudi Arabia.
Kay’s description of raising 4 young daughters in Saudi Arabia was the high point of the book for me. High expectations crashed against the reality when they arrived in country to learn that the promised housing was still months from completion, the nearby school with high quality education for ex-pats was already full, and their shipment of household goods was delayed. Disappointments that are mere inconvenience for young singles take on a whole new level of importance when they affect our children. Kay had met her husband, Kevin, in Peace Corps and their shared PC experience prepared them well to overcome the temporary setbacks. That’s what Peace Corps did for Kay and Kevin and what it does so well. It prepares its Volunteers to be involved citizens of the world, to be flexible, to find a window when a door closes, to make the most of any opportunity. It is an empowering and broadening experience.
But it does not only change the Volunteers. Peace Corps often has a profound impact on our children as well. The Dixon’s sought to make their daughters citizens of the world. Their PC experience helped them overcome health and safety concerns and have the courage to deviate from the standard school routines and give their daughters a broad world view and the capacity to respect and embrace differences. At the end of the book, Kay describes a reunion with family who mostly lived close to their roots, some with a narrow range of tolerance reflecting their narrow range of experience, while her brood had developed wings.
Kay sums up her philosophy in the Epilogue: “Have the courage to explore the world in which you live and have the grace to contribute to this world.” Those are good words to live by.
Helene Ballmann Dudley (Colombia 1968-70, Albania/Slovakia 1997-99) is an avid reader and member of two RPCV-based book clubs in Miami and still intends to write a book - someday. In 1999, upon her return from Slovakia, she applied the non-profit and grant administration experience she gained in Peace Corps Slovakia to join with other Colombia RPCVs and Colombian ex-pats to create a micro-loan program to help displaced communities in her first Peace Corps country. TCP Global, which evolved from that effort, now provides pro bono assistance to organizations wishing to add micro-loans to their tool kit of anti-poverty programs.
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