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The ‘ultimate chance’ with Peace Corps
As Amie Pendleton-Knoll counts down the weeks until she leaves for Malawi, it’s not the potential of contracting an illness like malaria or the idea of being so far from home that makes the South Surrey woman most nervous about the next two years.
Actually, it’s one snake in particular: the Black Mamba. Described as aggressive, fast and highly venomous, encountering one is a particularly daunting thought for Pendleton-Knoll.
“I am deathly afraid of snakes,” the 23-year-old confessed. “My eyes water when I think of them. The Black Mamba… is the most deadly snake in Africa.”
Having to deal with that fear was among challenges Pendleton-Knoll identified for herself in her application to travel to the Third World country as a Peace Corps volunteer.
While it was one of the more unusual concerns they’d heard, it didn’t stop recruiters from accepting her.
Last month, more than a year after applying, Pendleton-Knoll learned her 27-month Peace Corps assignment begins March 5. She’ll get three days training in Washington, D.C. before heading to Lilongwe, Malawi for three months in-country training.
After that, she’ll be on her own in a Malawian community for two years, working as a community health advisor.
Pendleton-Knoll is no stranger to spending time in a foreign country without her family – she spent a month in India when she was 11, at an international peace camp, and volunteered at a Thai retirement centre for three months after high school when she was 17.
What lies ahead, however, is by far her most significant solo adventure.
“Volunteers are completely on their own, living independently within their host towns,” Pendleton-Knoll said.
“They prepare you for absolutely no electricity, candlelight reading, going to the well to get your water – the hard-knock life.”
She’ll receive a living allowance she describes as “just enough to survive.”
Pendleton-Knoll can’t remember exactly when she decided she wanted to join the Peace Corps, but said the passion to serve has created a bit of a pattern within her family.
Her older sister, Seren, travelled to Malawi 18 months ago; her uncle has worked in community development in India and Thailand; her father grew up in India as a missionary child; and her mom was involved with Children’s International Summer Villages, through which Pendleton-Knoll took that trip to India 12 years ago.
Her aunt also spent time in the Peace Corps.
Pendleton-Knoll learned more about the opportunity for herself while studying at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree.
From everything she has seen and heard about the experience, it will be “the ultimate” chance to live and serve somewhere else, she said.
Aside from snakes, Pendleton-Knoll believes the toughest part will be the first year, which will include adjusting to the Chichewa language she’ll be teaching in, and the routine that will become her new normal.
“What I’m telling everyone is the transition – transitioning into a new culture,” she said.
“That first morning when I wake up… and say, now what do I do?
“I imagine it’ll take me about a year just to settle and not feel like an outsider. I’m not looking forward to those first few months, but I am looking forward to that second year.”
As a community health advisor, Pendleton-Knoll’s primary focus in Malawi will be educating and raising awareness around HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Her mom, Susan Pendleton, said her biggest concern is the distance her daughter will be from the nearest help, should she run into trouble.
Beyond that, Pendleton – founder of the Surrey Youth Theatre Company, for which her daughter has been assistant director for the past year – can only see positives in the endeavour.
“When she comes back, she’ll be so marketable,” she said. “Peace Corps (volunteers), many of them go on to work with the UN.”
Pendleton couldn’t resist a snake-inspired quip: “If she survives this, she’ll probably have a lot of choices.”
Pendleton-Knoll knows her time in Malawi isn’t about changing the world.
It’s about developing friendships and alliances, learning from others and starting a dialogue.
The Peace Corps catch-phrase says it all, she said.
“‘It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.’ It’s brutal and hard and traumatic – but you fall in love.”