Transformed lives: Stories from Vail Valley Peace Corps volunteers
Vail Peace Corps volunteers encourage others to try ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love’
VAIL — John F. Kennedy was an officer in the war corps during World War II, and when he became president he started the Peace Corps in 1961.
Some were dismissive, calling it “Kennedy’s Kiddie Corps,” but it was transformative for those who served, including several with deep Vail roots. Colorado ranks near the top for Peace Corps volunteers per capita.
“The domestic dividend of Peace Corps service cannot be overstated,” Peace Corps Director Jody K. Olsen said in an email to the Vail Daily.
Among Vail’s volunteers, we tracked down Bob “Buckwheat” Buckley, Tony White and Brooke Franke Gagnon.
They all said it was tough, that they loved it and suggested that if you try it you’ll love it too.
Brooke Franke Gagnon
Brooke Franke Gagnon lived in a barrio in Paraguay, working with HIV positive children living in an orphanage across the street from a slaughterhouse.
She talks about how tough it was in the same breath she tells you how much she loved it.
“It was so rewarding,” Gagnon said.
Her children are now 6 and 8 years old. She’d like to take them to Paraguay to see what life is like for much of the world.
“People should do it. Rent your place. Take a sabbatical. Older volunteers are great,” Gagnon said.
In her village, people’s homes are made of whatever they can find. The residents petitioned the municipality to bring in more trash. Picking through it is how many of them make their living.
Many of the homes in the region where Gagnon was stationed do not have sufficient running water or modern bathrooms. But they do have cell phones. That’s how she stays in touch.
A nearby neighborhood was featured in “Landfill Philharmonic,” a documentary about kids who build instruments from the trash they find, learn to play them and create an orchestra.
Gagnon was born and raised in Vail. She attended Red Sandstone Elementary School, Minturn Middle School and Battle Mountain High School.
She toyed with going to the University of Colorado in Boulder, but didn’t really want to. So she checked the box that said she was a convicted felon. She wasn’t, of course, and CU accepted her anyway.
But the heart wants what the heart wants and her heart wanted Franklin College in Switzerland, where she majored in international relations.
While at Franklin she decided the Peace Corps was for her, so she applied. It’s a lengthy process, so she headed back home to Vail to wait and work seasonal jobs. Ironically, she met her husband before she left for South America. He visited.
“He’s a great pen pal,” Gagnon said.
There was some culture shock. Volunteers had a couple of days of training in Miami, then the Peace Corps put her on a plane for South America, where she spent three more months training for eight hours a day — half culture and half Guarani language training.
“You live with a host family, so you’re jumping in head first,” Gagnon said.
After three months you commit to two and a half years. Or not. Some people decided they’d had enough and went home, White and Gagnon both said.
“There’s a misconception that you’re going to tell people what to do,” Gagnon said. “You work with the community to come up with projects. What they want and need.”
Because she was near the capital, she could piggyback on other organizations like Doctors Without Borders. The embassy was in the capital.
“They’d drive me home in an armored vehicle. They looked out for me,” Gagnon said.
She’s fluent in Spanish and German and can get around in Guarani, the language of rural Paraguay, so she taught English to HIV-infected kids in an orphanage. She also taught them basic hygiene, washing their hands and brushing their teeth.
Two and a half years flew by and it was time to come home.
“Part of me wanted to stay. Two and a half years seems like a long time, but it takes time to build trust,” Gagnon said.
She wouldn’t change anything, and recommends it highly, no matter your age.
Tony ‘Mustafa Ka’ White
Just call Tony White “Mustafa Ka,” his name in Senegal where he did his Peace Corps stint.
Tony grew up skiing in Vail and graduated from CU Boulder in 2001.
“In skiing, if you’re not falling, you’re not trying. That’s also true of the Peace Corps,” White said.
After graduation, he hit the road to backpack around Europe and Southeast Asia.
“Cambodia was still in pretty rough shape back then,” White said.
He wanted to scratch his travel itch, but he wanted to go somewhere and put down some roots. He did, literally and metaphorically, doing forestry, creating community gardens and building life-long friendships.
He came back to Colorado from Asia and mailed in his hand-written Peace Corps application. Six months later he was in Morocco, but when the Second Gulf War started in Iraq, so did the death threats to Americans. He was among 150 Peace Corps people relocated. They asked him how Senegal sounded. His father was an airline pilot who flew to West Africa regularly, and Senegal sounded great.
“What’s not to love?” White said. Senegal is on the coast. The capital, Dakar, is the Paris of West Africa.
“It was lots of work and lots of fun,” White said. “You meet a lot of people and make some connections you’ll never forget,” White said.
There was this super volunteer who’s still there running a nonprofit called Trees for the Future.
The culture shock hit him going and coming, he said.
“At the training, they try to get you immersed in the language and country,” White said.
He calls the training “the demystification period.” His group had 32 people. Two left the first week, around 40% by the first year, he estimated.
He spoke French and learned Wolof, the local language.
He was visiting Dakar about a year into his tour and was speaking Wolof with a cab driver.
“Where do you live?!?” the Dakar cab driver asked. “You talk like a hillbilly!”
White was thrilled. “I’m officially a Senegalese villager now!”
He didn’t know much about agriculture and forestry, his Peace Corps assignment. He learned fast.
“They knew what they wanted to do. I was lucky to have people around me who were knowledgeable, who knew that you don’t do it this way, you do it that way,” White said. “I thought, ‘OK, they know better than me.’”
Sometimes it was grunt work, planting as many trees as possible in a day, White said. Sometimes a day meant tagging along with local police, following smoke trails and arresting people burning trees for charcoal.
He made it through his service but had some gall stone trouble fixed in Senegal. U.S. doctors fixed him again when he got back, he said. He has the scar and a great story to go with it.
“The biggest culture shock was coming back. It was the day after Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “I was shocked, wondering how this could happen to these people in the United States.”
When he finished his Peace Corps tour he came back to Vail. He worked as a ski tech for Gorsuch and skied as much as possible. After a couple of years he said it was time to “become an adult.”
He earned his master’s degree at Indiana University because IU gave scholarships to Peace Corps volunteers. White landed inside the Beltway with the Department of Education.
He returned to Senegal for a visit and was thrilled to see the trees still growing and the gardens improving.
“I got more out of it than I could give them,” White said.
Bob ‘Buckwheat’ Buckley
You might remember Bob Buckley as “Buckwheat” from his years with Vail Associates, the Vail Town Council, the hospital board, but perhaps most as the man whose golden retriever was the mother of Bart (Packy Walker’s dog of Bart & Yeti’s fame).
Buckley wrote “Don’t Get Too Comfortable,” three small e-books about some very big lives.
“‘Don’t Get Too Comfortable’ was written while I was recovering from a double dissection (stroke) of my vertebral arteries,” Buckley said.
It’s a collection of stories from his early Colorado pioneer ancestors that had been passed down through his family, other stories of his Peace Corps years serving in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia and stories from 13 years later when his wife, Donna, and he packed up their three children — Brian, John and Amanda — and returned to the outer islands in their version of Swiss Family Robinson.
Buckley was a Regis University senior in 1968, and the Tet Offensive was going full tilt. As he strolled across campus to lunch, he chatted up a Peace Corps recruiter. At the same time, anti-war demonstrators were marching on campus.
That afternoon, he took a Peace Corps test, figuring he had nothing to lose. A couple of months later, a letter showed up saying he’d been accepted and he was on his way to Micronesia, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
It’s also where he saw cholera for the first time and the decimation it could cause.
“You could wake up in the morning with cholera and be dead that night,” he said.
When his Peace Corps tour was up he left the tropics for Vail, got married, had some kids and went back to Micronesia several years later, ostensibly to work on a stalled church project.
“I thought I was going out there to help build this church. I didn’t work a day on it. Instead, I did all these medical procedures,” Buckley said.
He carried a canvas bag stuffed with the kinds of medical supplies he hauled around as a Vail ski patroller and found that basic medicines applied the right way yielded miraculous results.
You can hear Buckley tell his own stories. His e-book is available free on Amazon.
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The tragic incident left a nearby camper wondering if more could be done to remove dead-standing trees from popular camping areas.