Source: Sherman Publications

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A world away: Local serves Peace Corps in Madagascar

by Susan Bromley

March 13, 2013

Monica Lambert left the comparatively tame Brandon Township early this month for wild and exotic Madagascar.

But while a trip to the fourth largest island nation in the world, located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa, may seem exciting, Lambert is not traveling there for a vacation. She will be working there, in what may be very adverse conditions, for the next two years, paid only a low monthly stipend as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Still, after a lengthy process to be selected to the Peace Corps, the 2006 Brandon High School graduate was thrilled to finally being going.

"I am just really excited to live in a different country and experience a different culture, I think that is a really valuable thing to do," she said, speaking with The Citizen a few weeks before her departure. "It's not just us living in a bubble, we live in a global society and it's important to understand where other people are coming from. I think it's important to realize others come from different backgrounds and they may do or say things we don't understand, but it's good to experience that directly. One of the things they say about the Peace Corps is it's the hardest job you'll ever love."

Since 1960, more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 developing countries around the world in various capacities, including education, agriculture, construction and more.

Lambert graduated from Northern Michigan University in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in political science and pre-law. She applied for the Peace Corps then, but was denied due to her lack of expertise in the areas they needed volunteers. To gain experience, she joined AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. In September 2010, she began serving in Cape Cod, Mass., with a focus on disaster preparedness and response, volunteer engagement and natural resources management.

Lambert worked for the environmental department in Chatham, Mass., maintaining trails, clearing invasive plant species and helping a community recycling group. She lived in a large house with other AmeriCorps volunteers and joined them in doing community outreach and development and planning of various community events. She was trained by the American Red Cross in how to run shelters and help in disasters and was also trained by a fire crew in assisting with controlled burns of forested areas.

The Cape Cod National Seashore is a popular vacation area and has many conservation restrictions, Lambert noted. To prevent overfishing, local towns offer recreational shellfishing and Lambert assisted in a program in which she helped stock an area with clams and oysters.

One of Lambert's most memorable projects was one in which she and other AmeriCorps volunteers joined the International Fund for Animal Welfare as they worked to free six dolphins who had become stranded in a nearby bay.

"They get confused sometimes when the tide goes out and get stuck in the mud," Lambert explained.

The volunteers, wearing waders and gloves on a cold day late in 2010, assisted in getting blood samples from the dolphins, rehydrating them, then rolling each dolphin on to stretchers in order to get them out to the outermost part of the cape where they can swim out to sea. The group was able to save four of the six, include a baby and her mother.

"They don't thrash too much— they are tired and stressed," she said. "Sometimes you get stuck in the mud, it's crazy. It was a big, messy, tiring, awesome day. The rescue team was really excited, a lot of energy, it was really cool to be a part of that."

In July 2011, Lambert concluded her AmeriCorps service commitment and was still unsure what her next move would be. She had considered law school, but still felt a desire to serve in the Peace Corps. In December 2011, she applied once again.

The application process is lengthy and includes questions about work and volunteer experiences. Applicants must be college graduates and submit essays to the organization. If a candidate makes it through this part of the process, an in-person interview is next.

"They try to see what kind of person you are, how you handle stress, what your reaction would be in a rural environment, without electricity— how you would handle the lifestyle," said Lambert. "If you are nominated, it means you have all the necessary credentials and you would be a good fit."

Nominees then submit medical and legal information for clearance.

Lambert had expressed a region and focus area she was interested in, but the Peace Corps decides the location to which a volunteer will be sent. She was given an agriculture assignment and told at first only that she would be going to sub-Saharan Africa.

"I said I just wanted to have the most authentic experience and I would be willing to make the most out of whatever I was given and was open to anything," said Lambert, who was nominated last April, but didn't receive her official invitation to go to Madagascar as a Peace Corps volunteer until November.

Prior to leaving March 4, Lambert had several vaccinations to protect her against diseases including yellow fever. In Madagascar, the main staple crop is rice and the natives are using a slash and burn technique for farming the land that is not a sustainable process, she said. In this destructive process, stands of rainforest are cut down. As a rural environmental food security adviser, Lambert will receive training in teaching farmers other ways to grow rice. She will work with a farm co-op or conservation group to assess needs and weaknesses, ways they can improve and new projects, which she will help them to implement. These projects could include writing grants, teaching gardening, building wells and latrines and clearing more invasive species.

Lambert says she is particularly interested in working with an existing Peace Corps program— Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) in which she would help foster leadership skills in young girls.

Another of her assignments will be to get out every day and learn Malagasy, the native language, and interact with the locals.

"Part of it is the community will protect you, you're not a stranger and you have to earn their trust and respect," Lambert said.

"They have a different culture and part of this will be easing my way into that... I will experience new food, language, culture and climate. It will be hard, and there will be days I will feel far from home, but I think it will be a really positive experience. I have heard it will make you much more confident and sure of yourself, navigating your way in a foreign country with a foreign language."