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PC Frogs

Horned Frogs serving in Guatemala with the Peace Corps find more than a job. They find a new life.

By Rachel Stowe Master '91

Mark Reeve '97 admits to eating armadillo soup, raw bull testicles and pig face. Sarah Burleson '01 concedes to straying from her vegetarian diet out of respect for her gracious hosts.

Brooke Sawyers '02 now thinks it's no big thing to wash clothes by hand or hitchhike (but she does admit that a Dairy Queen chocolate-chip cookie-dough blizzard "would be heavenly"). Lisa Hall Gore '97 finds that life without a refrigerator or microwave can be vastly satisfying. She also says fried bugs taste "just like popcorn."

It's a far cry from their comfort zones, but a handful of former Frogs scattered throughout Guatemala are having the time of their lives -- and impacting other lives -- as Peace Corps volunteers.

Like those who have gone before them, these recent grads are learning a new language, a new culture and a new land, while being challenged by the toughest job they'll ever love.

More than 140 TCU alumni have joined the Peace Corps since its establishment in 1961. That's enough volunteers to rank TCU 13th among schools in the five-state region and seventh among Texas schools.

"Since 1961, TCU alumni have served in 67 countries," said Jesse Garcia with the Peace Corps Southwest Regional Recruitment Office in Dallas. As of last fall, in addition to the former Frogs serving in Guatemala, one each was in El Salvador, the eastern Caribbean, the Ukraine, Bangladesh, Madagascar and Ghana, and two were in Kazakhstan.

The fact that several TCU exes landed in Guatemala at the same time is mostly "just a fluke," plus that's where the need is. "You can request a continent but that's about it," Gore said. "We requested Africa, but they put us in Guatemala. You have to be real flexible when you're in the Peace Corps. And it has turned out to be a really good experience."

Gore serves in the Healthy Schools program with her husband, Hayden (who attended TCU before transferring to UT Austin). The couple teach basic health and hygiene to kindergarten through sixth-grade Mayan indigenous children.

Sometimes volunteers go in with visions of changing the world. "You soon learn we are in a process that will take generation after generation to change these small habits," Gore said. "We're just the tip of the iceberg -- but that little portion is something, and we're starting something."

Emily Wann '02 serves in the Healthy Schools project in another area. Her biggest challenges are the language and integrating into her society, which still considers her a foreigner.

"As I learn more of the cultural norms and become more of a constant figure in the community, I hope that this will change," she said. "My biggest rewards come from my kids, when I realize that they have actually learned something and will perhaps change their lifestyle in a positive way."

More than just teaching kids to brush, the Healthy School program emphasizes teaching the teachers. Creating programs like this that strive to be self-sustaining is one of the beauties of the Peace Corps.

Using her electronic business and marketing degrees, Sawyers works in agricultural marketing, specifically with the "Artisans of San Jacinto," a talented group of women and girls who make beautiful baskets, place mats, hats and other crafts from palm leaves. She teaches the women business skills, then helps them find markets for their products.

On their behalf, Sawyers does Internet research and networks with potential clients in the states and in touristy parts of Guatemala.

"I hope in the future to get the women's group running smoothly, to the point where they can run the orders and find contacts on their own," she said. "Overall, I just hope that these women can increase their standard of living so they can have more on the table besides beans and tortillas and so their kids can go to school instead of work to support the family."

Like the Gores, Reeve didn't enlist right after graduation. After a couple of years of "completely unsatisfying" work, he took a temporary position with the, the anti-tobacco campaign, and realized he wanted a job with social impact. He arrived in Guatemala in January 2002 and is involved in the Community Environmental Management program, where he teachesenvironmental-themed lessons in elementary schools. He has his "very own little environmental group" of kids that meets Saturdays.

Reeve lives next to a semi-extinct volcano that has a "gorgeous lagoon in the crater surrounded by a beautiful remnant cloud forest." The volcano is a protected area, and he works with other Peace Corps volunteers to help maintain it.

As for a typical day, he says there's no such thing -- part of the beauty of the job. "In the past couple of weeks, I have been working with the city to develop an emergency alert system for droughts and earthquakes. I've helped the school district manage their brand new computer lab, taken a dozen kids on a trip to a cave and walked the runway as a model for locally made cowboy boots."

Guatemala is a country noted for its beautiful terrain -- tropical jungles, fertile river valleys, immense volcanoes, traces of the great Mayan civilization past -- and a completely different culture. After moving from Massachusetts to Texas, Gore had some experience dealing with culture shock. And Reeve has found his Texas roots to be beneficial. When he tells people he's from Dallas, where parts of their beloved "Walker, Texas Ranger" was filmed, he has immediate fans.

Everyone knows that the best bull riders come from Texas. And since Reeve already had a reputation as a mechanical-bull rider, he gets to climb on the real deal at the town fair in January.

"It's a good thing we have great medical coverage in the Peace Corps," he said.

In Guatemala's more remote areas especially, there are many things to get used to. Like mariachi bands and fireworks at 5 a.m. Livestock traipsing down the street. Simpler lifestyles sans modern conveniences Americans take for granted, like kitchen and household appliances. And transportation that can be downright scary -- and packed. So much for personal space.

Sawyers' commute to work with her women's group includes a ride on a microbus, a 15-passenger van, she noted, "that turns into a 28-person van in Guatemala, because they like to get their money's worth."

The Frog Peace Corps volunteers try to get together every couple of months, July 4 and Thanksgiving guaranteed.

"It's special to share experiences like that with people you have a common bond with," said Burleson, who completed her service working with municipalities in August. "I got more and more excited as more people from TCU came. I was really proud of my university."

So where does the road from Guatemala lead? Mostly grad school and law school, though Sawyers is already considering another Peace Corps term.

Wherever they land, these Frogs have a wealth of new experiences to draw upon.

"The best part is the relationships you make," said Burleson, who already has a weeklong return visit planned. "In the beginning it's so hard. It's not a job, it's your life. It's so stressful to be a part of a totally different community."

But for all they give, Peace Corps volunteers don't walk away empty-handed.

"You're taking with you so many experiences and relationships," Burleson said, "and an education that you couldn't get anywhere else."

Rachel Stowe Master '91 and husband Kevin '91 (MBA) live in Tarrant County with their three sons.