This is the latest of my series of articles where I interview interesting local personalities and business leaders. As a Realtor®, I find that I serve my clients best when I have a deep knowledge of the communities where I work. Previous articles:
- Step Into the Mystery of Faith | A Conversation with Rev. John Molina-Moore
- A Teacher’s Journey – Mr. Carmen Garner
- Meet “Moh Moh…Licious” – A Taste of Nepalese Cuisine
But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps-who works in a foreign land-will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.
President John F. Kennedy opened a new era in American foreign relations with this 1961 speech that marked the creation of the Peace Corps. These words inspired a legion of young people to go forth into the world and share the best of American ideals. One of those young people was Mr. Mike Kendellen, a Shepherd Park neighbor who recently wrote a fascinating new book about his experiences in the Peace Corps.
I met with Mr. Kendellen to discuss his book, Making It Happen: A Memoir of Peace Corps and Venezuela in the 1970s. We had a terrific discussion and he shared many captivating memories of his time overseas and his career in international development.
Echoes from History
Mr. Kendellen did extensive research beyond his own letters and notes while he prepared to write this story. He unearthed embassy cables which detail the arguments between Washington and the American Embassy for keeping Peace Corps Volunteers in Venezuela during the nationalization of the petroleum industry and the rising price of oil. (The Peace Corps ultimately left the country in September 1976).
In one particularly informative message, the Director of the Peace Corps in Venezuela says:
I would regret to see the Peace Corps close down in Venezuela because it has been psychologically a welcome [addition] to our diplomacy in this country. The widespread Peace Corps Volunteers is almost an assertion of faith in the future of Venezuela. In many cases, the only Americans the lesser privileged classes of this country have contact with are either U.S. industrialists, oil camp executives or Peace Corps Volunteers with whom they relate on a much more friendly basis. In consequence, the departure of the Peace Corps would not serve our interests…”
The director’s phrase encapsulated Mr. Kendellen’s expressions about the Peace Corps and he also added this: The “third goal” of the Peace Corps is for volunteers to come back and educate other Americans about what they’ve learned about other cultures and people. He says that there are hundreds of groups of former Peace Corp Volunteers whose mission is to go to schools and host events that expose American citizens to other cultures. This has been a goal that the Peace Corp has succeeded in reaching. The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Washington, DC Facebook group has over 2,000 followers.
You’ve Got Mail
Mr. Kendellen was introduced to the Peace Corps by a postcard he received in the mail as a college senior. Though he had never expressed an interest in foreign service to his family, the opportunity intrigued him enough to investigate more and complete the application.
Little did he know that he would spend the next five and a half years of his life embedded in the Peace Corps (2 ½ years in Venezuela and 3 years in Morocco). Or, that his experiences would lead him to an international career working on important causes like landmine removal and refugees that took him to over twenty countries.
“Don’t Screw It Up”
I asked Mr. Kendellen about tips or advice that made his time in Venezuela successful. He recalled the cross-cultural training that the Peace Corps provided, but then chuckled when telling me about humorous incidents that didn’t match the advice that they had been given.
For example, he noted Venezuelans were very informed and opinionated people who loved to talk politics. They also continually asserted that he, and almost all Americans in the country, worked for the C.I.A. They would say, “You can deny it, but nobody believes you.”
What he found interesting is that despite these assertions, his hosts would follow up and say, “You work for the C.I.A. and you do whatever you do, but you’re still not a bad person. That’s just your job. Let’s go get some pizza.”
Bridging these cultural gaps was paramount and helped to shape his operating philosophy. He said, “You’ve got to be smart and don’t screw it up. People are people…there can be a lot of room for misinterpretation. You’re the foreigner and you got to adjust to the situation.”
Working with children with developmental and physical disabilities was a highlight of Mr. Kendellen’s Peace Corps experiences. In helping them to become mobile and learning to do simple daily tasks or giving polio victims physical therapy so they could be fitted for braces, he found satisfaction in his Peace Corps journey. “You could see that we were useful,” he recollected. Teaching English in Morocco, a required subject in high schools, was also satisfying.
The Mystery of Baseball
Every step in a journey is not going to be successful, however. Often, it is how we react to these tough situations that defines us. He recalled a curious episode from his first job in Venezuela. He had been hired to coach baseball, requiring a 45-minute bus ride into the countryside. After the season ended, an orphanage asked him to coach.
On the first day, the manager of the orphanage told him, “I don’t have the key to the equipment room, but I’ll have it next week.” The following week he was told that the key was in a completely different city. Eventually he learned that there was never any key…or equipment, or a job coaching baseball. The whole thing was made up!
The disappointment of the mysteriously disappearing coaching job, along with the general lack of fulfillment led him to one conclusion: he should quit.
Though the impulse was to pack up and go home, he instead spent time thinking the situation through. In the end, he decided to stay and change jobs. This resiliency is a skill has benefited him for many years.
“If it’s not written down, no one will know anything about it.”
Mr. Kendellen wrote this book to document his life. While most of his friends and associates have heard about his later work in Morocco or with refugees and landmines, he hadn’t talked as much about his first overseas experience in Venezuela. Upon reflection, however, he sees that this work can lend some perspective on the people and country of Venezuela. “The country is a mess, now,” he said. “It wasn’t like that then.”
He also believes that his Venezuelan story makes an addition to a constellation of Peace Corps literature. This is only the second Peace Corps memoir about Venezuela. And it is the only one about the 1970s and one which explains why the program closed in that country.
It was an absolute pleasure to sit with Mike Kendellen and dive into aspects of his fascinating career. And don’t forget to check out his book, Making It Happen: A Memoir of Peace Corps and Venezuela in the 1970s, which can be found on Amazon.com. Meanwhile, he’s hard at work writing a book on his time in Tajikistan just after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
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