Something to Hang My Hat On

Peace Corps is a giant exercise in managing expectations. Before volunteers board the plane to their country of service, and even before they submit their applications, visions of “serving others”  dance through their heads: helping little disadvantaged children in poverty-stricken (but happy in their simplicity!) villages/digging wells/learning to basket weave/whatever the hell Westerners think the Majority World gets up to. I’m of the opinion that every volunteer wants to be the Indiana Jones of Development in their heart of hearts.

Indiana Cait and the Ankle Sunburn of Doom

I was quickly divested of any delusions of grandeur–grandeur in the White Savior Barbie sense. There’s no saving to be done here, only serving. I put down my whip.

What surprises me most about my Peace Corps service is not the what I’m doing, but the who I’m doing it for. Who have I served in my three years here? Yes, I have served the people of Indonesia, but a great deal of my service has been to other volunteers, emotionally and otherwise–and in a roundabout sense, service to other PCVs is service to the people of Indonesia as well. I have long since accepted that this is my place and legacy in Peace Corps Indonesia.

One of the things I am proudest of is leading the Sexual Assault Response training session for the newbies of the last three training classes. For three years running, I have shared my story of being sexually assaulted during service, going on medevac, and returning to site. I’m extremely happy to do it; it gives me a sense of purpose. I won’t say that everything happens for a reason–no one gets raped for any reason other than that people are the worst–but something about lemons and lemonade might be appropriate.

I am proud to say that I put a face to a very scary process; that after those sessions, women and men have thanked me for making it seem manageable; that I gave them someone to talk to and ask questions if anything did come to pass, and as is the way of the world, things inevitably did. I am proud to have been an advocate many times over, for circumstances small and big.

This photo (courtesy of Sugianto) is from exactly two years ago; it was taken immediately after I finished my first Sexual Assault reporting session. My former practicum students saw me and buried me in hugs which was a great way to finish a tough day.

Three weeks ago, I facilitated the Sexual Assault Reporting session for the last time. I like to speak with as many of the trainees as possible; it’s important to me that they see who I am, not just what happened to me. I always start by telling my story–not the nitty gritty details, but a basic timeline of events. As I shared my story, a young woman I spoke to before the session started crying. My co-facilitator and I looked at each other but forged ahead; people often have negative reactions to sessions like these, perhaps from past traumas or simply because talking about rape kind of sucks.

After the session, I went over to give the woman a hug. I apologized if anything I said was triggering for her and she said not at all. She told me that when she was starting the process of joining the Peace Corps, she saw the 20/20 exposé about how terribly Peace Corps handles cases of sexual assault. She was so unnerved by that piece that she actually closed her application.

And then she read my blog. This blog.

She told me that after reading what I had written, she said to herself, “If she can do it, I can do it,” and reopened her application. She didn’t remember that I had been a volunteer in Indonesia. She didn’t realize that it was me, my blog, my words, until I got up and started telling a very familiar story.

When you begin your service, they always tell you you’ll never know the full impact of what you do here. You will never know all of the people you’ve touched, or how. It sounds like a platitude but it’s true; I’m humbled and grateful to have been given a taste of my unknown, and very unexpected, impact. It was an incredible, emotional ending to a very long journey. On March 17th, 2014 when I boarded that plane, I could have never guessed that my biggest impact would be the one I never prepared for. I have no hat and no whip, but I feel proud and honored to have served my fellow volunteers in this way.

Pre-service training was extra safe this week. #wardenswillprotectyou #safetyandsecurity #PeaceCorps

A post shared by Cait (@caitlionator) on

Featured photo courtesy of Sugianto, my PC staff twin.

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