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Peninsula native looks back on Peace Corps experience

8/15/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Evan Delahanty and members of the community he served in as a Peace Corps volunteer bid farewell to the U.S. ambassador to Suriname, who came to visit the village during a community celebration of Earth Day and a successful infrastructure project.
Evan Delahanty is shown at right with his primary community partner, Edje Doekoe, in traditional dress during a community celebration in Suriname.
Photos courtesy of Evan Delahanty
PENINSULA — In more than two years spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in the South American country of Suriname, Evan Delahanty practically became one of the locals.

Delahanty, 28, a Peninsula resident and 2003 Walsh Jesuit High School graduate, said at one point during his experience, village residents questioned if he should be part of a traditional spiritual ritual about to take place.

“They went and asked the other elders, and one of the top elders said, ‘Don’t you live here?’” Delahanty said. “I answered, ‘Yes, I do,’ and he said ‘Then of course you can; You’re one of us.’ They saw I really wanted to be there and I was excited to be part of the community.”

Delahanty, who returned home from his assignment in July, graduated from Cornell University in 2007. He considered applying for the Peace Corps at that time but instead got a job at a local manufacturing products supplier. After nearly four years doing that, he decided he needed a change and began considering the Peace Corps more seriously.

After an extensive application and interview process, Delahanty learned he was selected in January 2011, and a month later he received his assignment to the South American country of Suriname.

“I had never heard of it in my life, I’m embarrassed to say,” he said, noting that it was previously known as Dutch Guyana. “It’s a little smaller than Ohio but has a population of half a million, and almost all of those are in one city. In the interior in the jungle, where I was, you have 20,000 to 30,000 people spread out. It’s very low density except in the city.”

Delahanty headed to his assignment in May 2011 and received a warm welcome in Pikin Slee, which he said is the second largest village on the river. The village had been waiting for many years to have a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to it, he said.

“I was the first, and that’s what made it a positive experience for me,” he said. “They were very excited to have me and very motivated to work with me.”

He worked on a range of projects in the village but is proudest of his work to coordinate environmental training for almost 1,000 people from 12 villages on ways to reduce their environmental impact, which included the introduction of solar lamps.

Electricity is something that couldn’t be taken for granted in Suriname, Delahanty said.

“You have two or three hours a day if you are lucky,” he said, because electricity there is produced through diesel fuel, which must be transported from the main city, a journey of around six hours on a good day.

Delahanty said the climate in Suriname is hot year round. Most of the people there live on the food they grow, such as rice and vegetables, and supplement it by hunting and fishing.

“Most people don’t have regular work that generates cash,” he said. “They have some tourism, which brings in some money, and the government does provide pensions for older people and the disabled.”

During his two-year assignment, Delahanty accrued vacation days, so he was able to travel in South America and returned home for a visit last year.

He said he’s happy now to be home, but his experience was very rewarding.

“I felt like I made a very positive impact on the people’s standard of living, but the most impactful thing for me is that I became part of the community and they welcomed me into the community,” he said. “It’s sort of unexpected because it’s so foreign there. When you get there, you can barely speak, but you have people constantly going out of their way to help you and be friends with you. It’s a very moving experience.”

Now that he’s home, Delahanty is taking some time to adjust to life in North America. A master-level participant in tae kwon do, he has returned to World Champion Martial Arts in Fairlawn as an instructor as he contemplates his future.

He added that his leaving Suriname was bittersweet, as cuts to the Peace Corps budget have led to the country’s elimination from the program.

“I was the first and last volunteer” in Pikin Slee, he said. “It’s sort of sad. The Peace Corps as a whole, its budget has been shrinking. But it really is a great organization. I would encourage anyone to look into it and think about the difference it makes. It’s a really cool program.”

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