4.0 Support factors
Peace Corps Volunteers must have a considerable amount of support in order to make their brief two-year assignments successful. This support must come from the Peace Corps country staff, host country employers, local citizens, and fellow volunteers. The experience of living and working in a foreign country brings stresses that can easily become destructive to the volunteer and his or her job responsibilities.
The Peace Corps staff in particular has the delicate task of striking a balance between too much and too little support. Too much support can result in dependent and demanding volunteers; too little can cause feelings of isolation, despair, and resentment.
On the job, volunteers in special education and rehabilitation are almost always dealing with critical human problems which have fairly low priorities in the general scheme of development efforts. Unlike volunteers working in such fields as forestry or agricultural development, the volunteer working in a disability-related project will rarely feel fully integrated into the mainstream of community development. This situation, of course, reflects the reality of the lives of disabled people in developing countries.
Consequently, special education and rehabilitation volunteers must be exceptionally creative to find sources of support to sustain their efforts. Critical Support Factors may be physical, emotional, intellectual, financial, vocational, or even spiritual in nature. All human beings need all of these kinds of supports and Peace Corps Volunteers working with the disabled in developing countries face challenges that require more than a little nurturance.
4.1 Staff Support and Expectations
Critical Factor: The extent of staff support and recognition of disabilit-related programming as an integral part of Peace Corps' developmental efforts
Although the Peace Corps has a relatively small number of staff members to manage and support the work of thousands of volunteers, the amount and kind of staff support is critical in looking at the overall effectiveness of projects and programs to benefit disabled persons. The Country Director and Associate Peace Corps Directors have the most direct contact with volunteers and most responsibility for setting up and overseeing the assignments in which volunteers work. Those countries with Associate Peace Corps Directors responsible for special education and rehabilitation programs seem to develop the best overall projects and individual assignments.
In the Philippines and Ghana, for example, active staff support has had a positive impact on special education programs. The Associate Peace Corps Director for the deaf services project in the Philippines has been a prime supporter of the project and received the full endorsement of the in-country staff. As a result, support systems for the project were built into the overall programming effort. As the first such volunteers to be placed in more isolated, rural areas, these volunteers would not ordinarily have the same access to staff and volunteer support systems as other volunteers. In order to build an effective support system, volunteers and staff in nearby communities were given special training in sign language and deaf awareness.
Positive staff support was also reported from Ghana where the two staff persons responsible for special education were especially responsive to the special needs and problems of the volunteers. One staff person, a host country national, acted as a ''cultural interpreter", providing insight into cultural differences in professional practices where resentment might have resulted. In Brazil, a Brazilian national APCD who worked as a regional director, was especially supportive of special education and rehabilitation programming, creating assignments for several hundred volunteers throughout one region of Brazil. He was especially proud of the work of these volunteers, gave them frequent praise, and made them feel important and confident about their assignments (See Brazil case study).
The influence of Peace Corps staff on the performance of individual volunteers can also be felt in a negative way. In one Central American country, reports and interviews indicated that a Peace Corps Director did not support the work of volunteers engaged in special education and rehabilitation assignments, regarding this type of work as being of low priority and inappropriate for continued Peace Corps involvement. The Director suggested to government officials that the Peace Corps phase out its programming in special education and was vocally critical of the special education projects to other volunteers. Several volunteers resigned from the Peace Corps due to this lack of support, but remained in their jobs in the country.
In some cases, it also appears that luke-warm or indifferent support is more harmful than no support at all. When a volunteer or group of volunteers becomes aware that they are going to get no support from staff, they often band together more tightly and call on their own resources more fully. However, the best situation clearly seems to be one in which the country director and Peace Corps staff members are enthusiastically and responsibly concerned about the work of the volunteers and sincerely endorse the value of their assignments.
The frequency of staff turnover also impacts upon staff support. Peace Corps is an agency in which change and transition is the rule. While the five-year limit within the agency serves an important function, on the country level a frequent change of Peace Corps directors and associate directors can interrupt the flow of support to all programs. The continual orientation and program negotiations with new Peace Corps staff has sometimes been aggravating to host country leaders in special education and rehabilitation. When staff changes every few years, it is difficult to do anything except short-range planning. When multi-year plans are made, the new directors and new staff who inherit the plans are seldom as committed to their completion as were the people who originated them.
Considerations, Suggestions, and Recommendations:
• Peace Corps staff must constantly communicate the importance and value of the volunteer assignments and projects once volunteers are placed. Staff doubts communicated to a volunteer after placement will be discouraging.
• Peace Corps staff must clarify the question of "who does the volunteer work for?" The volunteer naturally views the staff as important authority figures. The staff wields considerable power in the life of the volunteer, and it is too easy for the volunteers to see the staff as their "true bosses." In addition, the U.S. Ambassador is likely to give a speech to the volunteers reminding them that they are also representatives of the United States. Then the volunteer enters the job and recognizes that his or her obligations are threefold. The Peace Corps staff must emphasize the primacy of the host country agency as the major focus of the volunteers' commitment. Too often this connection between the volunteer and the host agency is quite tenuous.
• Peace Corps staff should continually work on their counseling skills. Even when there is little that can be done tangibly to help a volunteer with a problem, it is essential that the staff communicate concern, respect, and empathy for the situation faced by volunteers. Patient listening is a much more helpful skill than advice-giving.
• In the special education and rehabilitation fields, Peace Corps staff could acquire more material and technical assistance for volunteers from U.S.-based agencies if they were more assertive. An "official" request for assistance under the signature of a country director or U.S. Ambassador on behalf of a group of volunteers would generate much more response than individual volunteer letters. Peace Corps staff should assure that their volunteers have access to resources and information available through ICE or their in-country resource center.
4.2 Host Agency Support and Expectations
Critical Factor: The extent of host agency support and their expectations of volunteers
In many developing countries, the degree of government support for any program dealing with handicapped citizens is generally quite limited. Social service and educational programs are quite fragile and often occupy a low priority for government action and funding. Volunteers may find that a program or agency will simply close or change radically during times of economic stress.
Returned volunteers from an African country state that their professional duties were hindered by a lack of expected financial support from the Ministry of Education. As one example, volunteers and host country staff planned to travel into the provinces to conduct diagnostic interviews. Due to economic constraints, however, the Ministry was unable to provide transportation or travel expenses for this purpose. After a meeting of the volunteers and host country staff, a decision was reached to invite villagers to the capital for diagnostic services and training in special education methods. Although this satisfactory solution was negotiated, the volunteers' unmet expectations of the support from the Ministry affected their morale and created tension in their relations with the Ministry.
In the Seychelles, on the other hand, volunteers report that government agencies were very helpful in assisting them with needed materials, contacts, and support. Because the Seychelles is such a small country, there is relatively easy access to ministry personnel, as well as an opportunity to know the officials as persons and create a more personal relationship.
The host agency may also have unrealistic expectations of volunteers, resulting in a perceived lack of support. The concept of "voluntarism" is not well understood by many host country nationals in the sense it is intended by the Peace Corps and other volunteer agencies. Occasionally this misunderstanding results in volunteers being assigned to tasks that no one else in the agency is willing to do. Such misunderstanding was reported to occur in one country, where volunteers were assigned to sites in which they felt underemployed. As a result, they became discouraged and resentful.
4.3 Community Support and Expectations
Critical Factor: The extent of community support and its expectations of volunteers
The relationship between the Peace Corps Volunteer and the community in which he or she works and lives is extremely important. Peace Corps Volunteers generally stand out as being new and different members of a community and are rarely able to have the kind of anonymity that they may have experienced in the United States. A volunteer's reception may be anything from a welcoming committee to suspicious curiousity to indifference. The Peace Corps Volunteer who works with a disabled population must also be prepared for a wide range of community reactions to his or her work. The hope for a miracle cure or the apathy of a parent who sees no hope are common and poignant critical factors which can affect the volunteer's standing in the community.
In small towns and rural areas, the volunteer may find that some people in the community place unrealistic expectations on the developmental potential of some handicapped children. The father of one retarded and speech-impaired child, for example, wanted his son to become a lawyer and refused to buy him a hearing aid because he might appear handicapped. A second kind of problem arises when the community perceives the volunteer as a "U.S. expert" and wants to turn the child over to the volunteer and release the family from responsibility to the child. The volunteer then faces the delicate task of developing programs and activities which involve the family and the community while being careful not to remove the handicapped students or clients from the mainstream of community life.
In large urban areas, handicapped people are visible primarily in the streets. The common stereotype is that of a blind beggar with his cup or the mother on the comer with her severely physically handicapped young child. This urban scene often gives the impression that all handicapped people are beggars and that all handicapped people are poor. Helping families and communities develop positive human development expectations in this context is difficult, but a primary task for volunteers.
Effective community participation in Peace Corps projects can lead to community support for special education and rehabilitation goals. While programs for disabled persons tend to be isolated and separate from the mainstream of community life, Peace Corps Volunteers can serve as catalysts in encouraging existing organizations and people to come together to coordinate activities. Lacking the historical constraints that local people and agencies sometimes build up, Peace Corps Volunteers are often able to break the ice that separates independent efforts to benefit disabled people in the community. The most successful volunteers have generally been those who link up existing resources to enhance the activities of each of them separately. Councils for the Handicapped, for example, have been established or expanded in many countries because some Peace Corps Volunteers recognized that the various separate local programs had resources that could be useful to each of them.
Local interest and support of Peace Corps projects often translates into financial support. Some Peace Corps projects fail simply because there is too little money to do the work. Programs for disabled people do not fare well in times of economic stress. Those volunteers who try to raise money to keep the school open, buy equipment for the clinic, or raise money in the community for transportation of the clients are making a significant contribution in their communities. Scrounging for financial resources is a way of life for those who work with the disabled. Volunteers who use community organizing skills for fundraising events are generally the most effective in terms of program development, community recognition and support.
In Brazil, for example, many special education volunteers were extensively involved in fundraising activities. A number sought financial assistance through the Peace Corps Partnership Program And others utilized host country community resources. Their proposals for funds resulted in a physical education facility in the APAE of Crato, and for program improvements in other Brazilian institutions.
In the Seychelles, Peace Corps Volunteers also developed several successful fundraising efforts to build facilities, provide medical services for individual children and promote program development. Community members were always involved in their efforts. The funds generated new activities and gave the volunteers added credibility.
Considerations, Suggestions, and Recommendations:
• Since almost all programs for the handicapped in developing countries depend upon precarious financial arrangements, it would be beneficial for the Peace Corps to develop some training materials on planning, organizing and implementing fundraising activities involving the community.
• Staff should ensure that Peace Corps Volunteers know about and make use of the resources available through the Peace Corps Partnership Program. ICE can also help direct volunteers to other funding sources.
4.4 Volunteer Support
Critical Factor: Extent of mutual technical and emotional support among volunteers
An important source of support comes from the volunteers themselves. Volunteer teamwork, including volunteer networking and mutual technical support systems, makes it possible for volunteers to take advantage of each other's strengths and abilities while compensating for weaknesses. This teamwork seems to be as important for the personal support of individual volunteers as for professional support. Peace Corps Volunteers often feel isolated. The sense that there are others with similar challenges working in the next valley is a considerable comfort. Volunteers tend to have more knowledge about each other than does the Peace Corps staff, and the informal system of mutual support they develop can often be the critical factor in both the success of a project and the wellbeing of the individual volunteer.
Special education volunteer groups in Brazil, for example, were very well organized, primarily through the network of APAEs. They met regularly for job conferences, corresponded with each other, shared information and pooled resources.
Considerations, Suggestions, and Recommendations:
• Because Peace Corps staff cannot keep tabs on every volunteer's experience, the authors think there should be increased emphasis upon setting up loosely constituted volunteer support teams composed of six or eight volunteers who might meet with the others periodically, and act as a mutual group counseling team. These groups should not make any kind of formal report to Peace Corps staff, but should feel a sense of freedom and permission to call attention to perceived problems and confront one another when necessary and appropriate.
• Peace Corps staff should try to identify those volunteers who seem to have the best training skills and utilize them in other project sites at the request of the local volunteer.
• Use of ICE's Volunteer-to-Volunteer Network in special education should be encouraged as a vehicle for cross-fertilization of ideas among volunteers.
4.5 International Support
Critical Factor: Extent of support and collaboration with other international organizations, foundations, or agencies
Volunteers are sometimes able to tap into one or more of the international organizations that are active in disability prevention, special education, and rehabilitation for financial and technical support. As most of the international organizations dealing with disability are small and restricted in geography or program focus, volunteers are advised to begin a relationship with an international organization by first requesting something the organization will be able to provide. It is important to carefully develop and nurture any such relationship. The organizations will often assist volunteers if the right buttons are pushed.
Colombia's special education and rehabilitation program is an example of extensive collaboration with such international organizations as Special Olympics, Inc., the Partners of the Americas, Goodwill Industries, Gallaudet College's International Center on Deafness, Helen Keller International, Catholic Relief Services, the Gildred Foundation and Interplast.
Specific suggestions for Peace Corps Volunteers requesting assistance from national or international organizations are described in the second document of this report, the Resource Packet. Updates of this information will be available through ICE.
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