One could be forgiven for having “unprecedented” fatigue. We are weary to the bone from the unrelenting record-smashing, at times calamitous, events spanning global health, racial justice, climate change, politics, and, yes, even the Olympics. So numerous were the “seismic events” in 2020 that the OED couldn’t settle on a single Word of the Year, instead recognizing a slate of “Words of an Unprecedented Year.” But on March 15, 2020, when then-Director Jody Olsen confirmed that “every Peace Corps volunteer on the planet” would be brought home, it was, indeed, a global evacuation unprecedented in the history of the agency.
Two hundred forty-eight of the returning volunteers listed Washington as their home of record, and you probably know some of them. Our next two spotlights introduce four such SEAPAX members whom I’ve been fortunate to meet through NPCA’s Emergency Response Network and our work as Covid-19 contact tracers and public information resource coordinators for Public Health-Seattle & King County. This month we’re talking with Hillary Holman and Kelsie Wring.
|Jan-Mar 2020, Community and Organizational Development Volunteer
|2017-2019, Community and Organizational Development Volunteer
|NPCA Emergency Response Network, Public Information Resource Coordinator with Public Health-Seattle & King County
|2019-Mar 2020, Knowledge Management & Communications Volunteer with CARE International
|2017-2019, Agribusiness Advisor
|Public Health-Seattle & King County COVID Vaccines Planning Team
NPCA Emergency Response Network, Public Information Resource Coordinator with Public Health-Seattle & King County
Q: How were you informed of the evacuation? How much notice did you receive?
Kelsie: On Sunday, March 15, 2020, I traveled to Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, for a doctor’s appointment and stayed at one of the PC approved hostels with another 4 or 5 volunteers. At about 6 AM on Monday morning, we all received an email from PC Director Jody Olsen stating we were being evacuated. I was told to go ahead to my doctor’s appointment and then traveled to the bus station to head home for the last time. I got back to my post at 7 PM and had to be packed up and in the PC car at 1 AM the next morning. I was lucky that my coworkers and friends helped me pack! On Thursday, March 19, I flew home.
Hillary: Late at night on Thursday, March 12, 2020, Albania PCVs received an email announcing we would be evacuated. Given the country’s proximity to Italy, we had been put on Alert in February and given paper bags with 2 face masks each. Not long after that, we were each given another paper bag with 2 face masks. I thought this was being overly cautious. I am from Seattle and was keeping up with the situation there, which seemed to be getting rapidly worse, but it honestly never occurred to me that we would be evacuated. I was still in Pre-Service Training (PST) at the time, about 7 weeks in. We were notified to spend the day packing all our belongings and be ready when busses came to our training sites to pick us up the following afternoon. I packed up most of my stuff and then met up with several of my site mates on the beach (our town was on the coast). We figured we should enjoy the last of our time there.
Q: What were you permitted to bring?
Kelsie: I had two checked bags, a carry on, and a personal bag. We almost had to leave items behind because 4 individuals and their luggage had to fit into one Landcruiser.
Hillary: We were allowed to bring one carry-on, one checked bag, and the equipment we needed to return to PC (water filters, fire extinguishers, manuals, etc.), but there wasn’t space for second suitcases. The other suitcase I left with my host family for PC to pick up and ship to me later. I think I received it in July.
Q: Did you come straight back to the States? Did you have difficulty finding a place to live?
Kelsie: To get back to the U.S., we all had to fly through Ethiopia, one of the last countries to close its borders. On the morning of Saturday, March 21, Uganda closed its airport. There were still volunteers there Friday night! PC had to get the last half of the volunteers out of the country by chartering a plane which was picking up stragglers from other evacuating posts. I moved home with my parents.
Hillary: When I returned home, I came to a state that was one of the first epicenters of Covid-19 in the U.S. Everything was locked down, and it was so strange to suddenly not be in PC, not have to take my Language Proficiency Interview (LPI), and just be sitting on the couch. It was also strange to be back “home,” yet not be able to see any of my friends or go to any of my favorite places. I was fortunate to be able to stay with my dad, so finding housing wasn’t a problem.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced after arriving home?
Kelsie: I have a very supportive family that was more than excited to have me home, but I struggled to get a job and was unemployed for 5 months—unemployment benefits never worked out. My current jobs are both temporary positions, so I am not sure what will happen after the pandemic ends.
Hillary: Definitely, the job search was a struggle! I spent 6 months actively job searching before finally getting hired for a temporary position. I feel fortunate to be an RPCV because I had a great support network. I can’t count how many NPCA job webinars I attended, and ultimately the job I got was as a contact tracer for Public Health-Seattle & King County, through NPCA’s Emergency Response Network.
Q: What about reassimilation or culture shock?
Kelsie: Coming back to the U.S. felt so strange! I still feel like the U.S. is (lacking the vibrancy of life in Uganda), and that was only made worse by the pandemic. People asked insensitive questions, but PC builds your ability to ignore inappropriate questions.
Hillary: My situation was a bit different than most, as I had lived abroad previously and had also recently spent a few months back in the U.S. after completing service in Peace Corps Moldova—I didn’t experience any culture shock.
Q: Do you know what became of the projects you had to leave behind?
Kelsie: My coworkers were able to continue working on the projects; I stay in touch with coworkers and friends through WhatsApp and Facebook.
Hillary: I was in PST, so I didn’t have any projects that were abandoned. We had just completed our language training and were preparing to take our LPI. But we never got to! PC Albania ended up using the scores from our mid-PST practice LPI in order to swear us in the night before we boarded flights out of the country. We had consolidated at a hotel right next to the airport. Our cohort swore in, and the others that were in country each had their own COS ceremonies. I am thankful that we did get to swear in and officially become PCVs in Albania before we had to leave, but I’m sorry I missed out on the opportunity to serve in Albania.
Q: What lies ahead for you two?
Kelsie and Hillary both plan to continue working in some aspect of international development. An Eastern Europe focus remains a particular passion for Hillary, while Kelsie is keen to explore opportunities in the humanitarian arena. Wherever their careers take them next, we’re certain Kelsie and Hillary will continue to thrive and draw on an array of skills and connections built through the Peace Corps experience. As Kelsie put it, “Everything in PC, including evacuation, taught me about resiliency,” something we can all agree on!