Joining the Peace Corps is something Liz Richards had always thought about.
A 2009 graduate of Batavia High School and a 2012 graduate of Brockport State College, Richards earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the New School in 2014.
She didn’t decide to follow her dream of joining the Peace Corps until she was working for a tech company in Manhattan, she said.
“While there, I was responsible for corporate responsibility and service initiatives and realized how important volunteerism was to me, and that I wanted to build a career out of community development,” Richards said. “Peace Corps was the best way to do that, and the experience so far has really been incredible.”
Richards is a Peace Corps volunteer in the education sector in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica. Her main project is literacy tutoring for struggling readers in grades one through six.
“But being a volunteer means so much more than that,” Richards said. “We learn about each others’ cultures, seasons and holidays, both inside and outside the classroom.
"So far, students have loved seeing pictures of Western New York snowstorms, learning about Thanksgiving and celebrating both countries’ Independence Days, where we talked about our shared history as former British colonies.”
Right now, Richards is working on two big projects, one that will bring a wide range of opportunities to her school and one that will benefit teenage girls all across the island, both of which she said are incredible passion projects.
Over the last year, Richards has been working with teachers to address some major needs at their school, including getting parents more involved in school life, giving girls safe and gender-equitable access to sports, and improving the overall quality of physical education classes, which right now are sparse due to lack of access to proper equipment, she said.
The result was a partnership with a Peace Corps Small Grants Program called “Girls Netting Success.” This project will address all of the needs above, and more, by helping them start a netball team for girls in grades five and six, Richards said.
It will also give students the opportunity to socialize with each other and regional schools through Jamaica’s national primary school netball league. In addition, Richards said it will help teachers guide the girls toward healthier lives; give parents an outlet to participate through extracurricular activities; and will be truly gender equitable by giving boys a safe place to play netball and football, too, and will allow teachers to give more comprehensive physical education classes.
Another project Richards is really excited about is Camp GLOW, which stands for Girls Leading Our World. The first Camp GLOW was hosted by Peace Corps volunteers in 1995 in Romania, and in August, Richards will co-direct the fourth annual Camp GLOW in Jamaica.
Purpose of this four-day camp, Richards said, is to empower campers with lessons about self-care and confidence, healthy living, healthy relationships and goal setting. Campers will then take these skills back to their communities and continue to empower themselves and others.
“We are excited to be partnering with a Jamaican organization called 'Young Women of Purpose', which specializes in career training for young women ages 13 to 25,” Richards said. “The most exciting part of this camp is watching campers see themselves in the women who facilitate workshops and learn from us the qualities that strong women have in common across borders.”
Richards said it is exciting to show the community that means the most to her – her Batavia community – some of the things happening in the Jamaican communities, which have opened their hearts and stories to her, and in some way have become her “home away from home.”
“Anyone is welcome to contribute, and even a dollar can make a big difference,” Richards said. “Jamaicans have a saying ‘wan, wan koko, full basket,’ that means ‘we fill our baskets one coconut at a time.’ But even sharing stories like these is a contribution.
"The most important thing Peace Corps has taught me is that we are one global community and we build friendships by sharing our stories.”
Anyone wishing to support Richards efforts in Jamaica can log on to Camp GLOW Jamaica 2019 Peace Corpshere and make a donation.
Submitted photos courtesy of Liz Richards.