Friday, April 01, 2005

Even better than helping little birdies.

Peace Corps recently asked us to submit stories from our time in Tonga for publication in their various PR booklets. I brainstormed a bit, and this is what I came up with. Enjoy.


Perhaps someday I will attend a function for returned Peace Corps Volunteers in America, during which everyone will stand up to recite their favorite tales of service and hope and hugs across the globe. There will certainly be descriptions of wells that were dug, children that learned to read, and small helpless birds that were rescued from the jaws of predatory snakes. Then all eyes will look toward me, Clifton Johnson - Peace Corps Tonga 2003 to 2005. And sure, I will be tempted to critique western development strategies or to explain that living overseas is about far more than inspiring tales or to simply make up some story about saving a mangy dog from the neighbor boys’ underground oven. But then I will come to my senses and remember Aivenhou.

The Kingdom of Tonga is an island archipelago in the South Pacific, and my wife Amber and I have called the island of Vava’u home for almost two years now. Amber acts as the manager for a local youth and community center, and in addition to assisting Tongan counterparts with various programming I act as Amber’s trusty sidekick. Throughout the hottest and hardest weeks here, we often find ourselves looking forward to Tuesdays. It is on Tuesdays when the Vava’u Youth Center borrows a local vehicle, picks up youth with disabilities from nine local villages, and brings them back for a few hours of activities the participants fondly refer to as “school.”

I suppose the Vava’u Youth Center’s program for people with developmental disabilities is rather measly by American standards: “Hey, let’s get nine people with completely disparate challenges, have them all color and count to ten in unison a few times, feed them a little lunch, and then ship them back home!” Nonetheless, it is a highlight of every participant’s week. I know it is. Because their options are as follows:

  • Sit at home inside and be ignored
  • Go someplace where people are nice, I actually fit in for once, and sometimes they show movies

Were I choosing between these options, I would come to the Youth Center every week and pretend that coloring was not somehow beneath me too.

So our class is not exactly revolutionizing indigenous programs for populations with special needs; we are just biding our time till we get enough resources or vehicles or volunteers or training to change things. We hope to someday improve local communities’ ability to help residents with disabilities, to speak about individuals instead of “handicapped people,” to assist participants in living fully for more than just an hour a week. Those goals are a ways off, but our programming is all that is available for the outer villages of Vava’u and it does keep Amber and I looking forward to Tuesdays.

Aiveni is a young man with an infectious smile and cerebral palsy; his condition is debilitating enough that he is in a perpetual fetal position with little to not control over his hands or legs. In Vava’u that means sitting inside alone a lot, waiting for people to carry you from place to place, and dealing with misguided neighbors who think that talking slower might somehow assist you. Aiveni may often be the smartest person in the room, but he will probably never know what it feels like for the whole room to see him that way. He is usually stuck on the hard floor working just to hold a crayon near the white page he has been given and wondering when someone will let him count to a thousand instead of ten.

But then, on a Tuesday much like any other, Amber and I walked up the Youth Center’s gravel driveway and Aivenhou met us on the porch. He MET us on the porch. A wheelchair collection had been gathering dust for months at a nearby office before someone brought one to our Center and gave Aiveni a chance to control his own destiny for a few hours a week. I must say, the smile on his face made saving a nest of birds seem pretty tame. I cannot say I came up with the idea or donated that wheelchair, but I am proud simply to say that I was there that day, that I was a part of something so much bigger than grant writing for equipment that will break in a year. Aivenhou smiled…and we cried. For months now, Aivenhou has been getting rides in his chair, courtesy of his classmates. He has been writing at a table instead of on the floor. He has been deciding when it is time to leave a room, rather than waiting to be carried by someone else.

So, perhaps someday I will tell that story, and the other returned volunteers will wipe their eyes when I am done. Amber and I will know that in the end Peace Corps is not necessarily about warm fuzzy stories…but we will also know that two years of difficulties for that single moment on the porch with Aivenhou is not a bad trade at all.