When I was packing for the Peace Corps, I knew I had to bring something from my time at Northwest Youth Corps. My work boots? No, too bulky, and I didn’t want to sacrifice them to the wet climate of Panama. A work shirt? Nah, I could always find cheap shirts down there. Then I realized what it had to be – my canvas work pants. They were my first double-front pair, a rich golden brown, purchased especially for NYC. Stiff and snug as I walked nervously into the first day of training, trying to look tough and confident.
As I slipped the faded pants off the hanger, I felt their soft, broken-in pliability, hard-won over those three months in 2010 and proudly worn since. Like badges the pants bore little nicks from tools and small black stains from chainsaw oil. I poked three fingers through a rip over the left back pocket, poorly patched.
I thought about the phrase I’d seen everywhere in the Peace Corps’ ads: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” Had the person who wrote it ever had a job like the crew leaders at NYC? Because that’s exactly how I would have described my summer as a rover for South 2.
I’d barely been to the West Coast, and never to Oregon, when I stepped off the train in Eugene. A light drizzle misted me as I walked down the unfamiliar street with my backpack, feeling excited and alone and nervous. I was 21 years old at the time. I was full of heart and idealism but also plagued by anxieties and low self-esteem, something I tried hard to hide.
Looking back on that now, I’m reminded of touching down in Panama three years later, feeling the wall of hot, humid air hit me as I exited the airport with the 47 other fellow Peace Corps trainees I had just met. Still with much of the same idealism and heart, but a much stronger, more confident woman than I’d been at 21, thanks in part to my experience at NYC.
As any NYCer knows, there are a dozen stories I could tell from that summer, but I always seem to land on the second week of our first session. My crew leader Jyoti and I were given a backcountry assignment in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness of southern Oregon, with an eight-mile hike in. For extra support we had a gentle giant named Patrick from Corps Respond. I took for granted then how Patrick and Jyoti and I all interacted as equals. NYC makes that space.
As it was only the second week, most of the youths weren’t in great physical shape yet, nor were Jyoti and I at our peak. We were all still learning the ropes, so it took a million years to get backpacks packed and adjusted. Jyoti and I suited up with an ambitious amount of weight on our backs and saw packs in front, feeling like pretty B.A.* ladies. We all set out on what would be a grueling hike under the hot sun in an exposed burn area, strong wind making us eye the dead, blackened snags warily.
This was most of the youths’ first attempt at backpacking, many with boots that had only seen a week’s use. Needless to say there were blisters, sore muscles, and general discomfort within the first few miles. We trekked and trekked, Jyoti and I trying to keep chipper and encouraging, though I know I at least was also fighting my own physical limits….Later we reached a meadow where the trail disappeared. The kids rested beside an abandoned shack while we three leaders looked for the trail.
We finally found the trail and hiked along as darkness approached, hoping the end would be around any corner (later we’d find out it was actually 10 miles in total). But finally, we’d just about run out of daylight and the crew was exhausted. We had to stop and camp for the night. We ate cold hot dogs in the dark. Spirits were low, and though Jyoti and I tried to be cheerful, it was hard to hide our own dismay. I learned a lot from Patrick’s awesome attitude that night, and all that week. After all, no one was hurt, it wasn’t raining, and the world wasn’t coming to an end. It was just a situation to be dealt with in the best way available.
In the morning, one of our kids woke up with his muscles so cramped he could barely move. The others nursed blisters and sore necks. We gathered our things and hiked the two last miles to the campsite. The crew collapsed in the meadow in relief. Jyoti and I wished we could just let them rest there, but after a few minutes and a snack, it was time to put in a full day’s work.
I can still see the faces of every kid on that crew. That week they whined and moaned and did a lame job on the trail some days. They all nearly quit. But they got through that week and the rest of the session, and by the end we could easily see they’d changed. The girls in particular had cultivated confidence and toughness. I hope that continued to serve them after they left.
I’ve found many parallels between NYC and the Peace Corps. The people end up mattering to you more that any project or end product. What you think beforehand will be the hardest part never turns out to be. It’s the unexpected that arises to push you far beyond what you took to be your limits. Personal growth and human connection are the most precious things we take away.
I loved my woods boss and co-leaders more than any other group of people I’ve met in my life. Tough and kind-hearted, steely in the face of trouble and hilarious in moments of calm, selfless and, at times, aggravating. They liked me for exactly who I was. They saw all of my good qualities and also pushed me to grow. My B.A. female co-leaders inspired me. And I loved watching the girls on our crew grow into their own budding B.A.s, wielding pulaskis and cross-cut saws as well as or better than the boys. There was so much space and opportunity made for that to happen….I never felt held back or judged by my gender at NYC. Of our four crew leaders, two were male and two female. We in turn created an environment of gender equality for crew members, with the same high expectations for everyone.
I can’t give the NYC experience to the girls in my community here in Panama. But I can treat them equally in the classroom and outside of it. I can encourage them to take a leadership role in our youth group. I can engage them in conversations about gender. And every day, I try to be a good example. I walk places by myself. I plant and harvest crops with the men. I speak my mind and look men in the eye. I also cook and clean and dress up for parties. I make arts & crafts. I garden. I coddle babies and toddlers. I have a college degree. I am a teacher and a leader. Wielding my machete with the men in the fields, I wear my sombrero and long-sleeved shirt and rubber boots…and my NYC work pants.
*B.A.: A way to say “bada$” without swearing. Often used by NYC crews. Also alludes to getting your B.A., or bachelor’s degree, in bada$ery.
Lauren Schwartzman, Environmental Conservation Volunteer, U.S. Peace Corps, República de Panamá