Hard Corps Adventure: Jody Johnson spends two years as volunteer in Philippines

WORTHINGTON -- Thanks to online tracking of her application, Jody Johnson knew she would receive her invitation to join the Peace Corps on Nov. 29, 2004. It arrived, as expected, via overnight courier.

Jody Johnson and Family
Jody Johnson poses for a photo with her host family in the Philippines.

WORTHINGTON -- Thanks to online tracking of her application, Jody Johnson knew she would receive her invitation to join the Peace Corps on Nov. 29, 2004. It arrived, as expected, via overnight courier.

"I rip it open, and it says, 'Congratulations. You've been invited to serve as a youth volunteer in the Philippines,'" Jody recalled about that momentous occasion. "I thought, 'The Philippines? Where the heck is the Philippines?'"

A CD enclosed with the invitation provided Jody with some vital information about the country where she would spend two years, and there was also a booklet about her specific assignment. But she still had no idea of the scope of the adventure that awaited her on the other side of the world.

Jody, a 1998 graduate of Worthington High School and daughter of Richard and Joan Johnson of Worthington, majored in art and new media (graphic and web design) at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. Since there were few available jobs in her chosen field at the time, after college graduation she took a position at KidsPeace Prairie Academy in Worthington.

She liked working with youths, but Jody also had the itch to see the world and do something meaningful, so she started investigating foreign work-travel opportunities. Peace Corps kept popping up, and she eventually decided to submit an application.


"It's a lot of paperwork, a lot of patience, a lot of waiting," she said about the application process. "One of the theories about why it takes so long is that so many people apply, and they want to weed out those who were doing it on a whim. Of course, I did it on a whim."

First, there's an online application quite similar to a job application, Jody explained, and if the applicant passes muster, then an interview is set up -- face-to-face if possible. Jody went for her interview in Minneapolis and was informed immediately that she would be nominated as a Peace Corps volunteer in Asia.

"Then you start all this medical stuff and a lot more forms," she remembered. "You get tested for everything and go through a dental exam. They even tell you to get your wisdom teeth out if you still have them. You have to be in good health. You can't have any dependants. You can't have any debts. Then you wait another couple of months to get your invitation."

Into the unknown

On March 28, 2005, Jody departed for three days of Peace Corps "staging" in Romulus, Mich., then she and 80 other volunteers were flown to the Philippines to undergo in-country training.

"The Peace Corps in the Philippines is the second-largest program currently running, and it's had the most volunteers over the whole time," Jody explained. "You aren't officially a volunteer until you take your language and culture training, which is for the first two to three months. ... I had 80 new friends, and that was awesome. You're all in the same boat and very like-minded. One of the best things (about Peace Corps) is the friends you make, both the volunteers and the locals.

"It's a two-year commitment, but it turns out to be 27 months with the training."

During the training, Jody and three other volunteers lived with host families in Vista Hill, a small town located in the province of Nueva Viscaya. But her actual service took her into the mountains to La Trinidad, located in the provincial capital of Benguet.


"You couldn't tell where my community ended and the biggest city, Baguio City, started," Jody detailed. "Where I was at, I had a lot of amenities that a lot of other volunteers didn't have. I was within walking distance to McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, 7-11 and some wonderful local restaurants."

Again, Jody lived with a host family.

"My host mom was the mayor of another little town that was about six hours away, so she wasn't there much," Jody said. "I lived with the dad and their mostly college-age children. It was a big family, with four daughters always living at home and another daughter and son who would come home occasionally. I became closest with one of my host sisters who was two years younger than me."

With extended family members, space was tight, but Jody was provided with one of the larger rooms as her own. After three months, Peace Corps volunteers are allowed to seek out alternate lodging, but Jody chose to stay with her family.

"The coolest thing about Filipinos is how selfless they are," she reflected. "They do things -- like they always make a point of asking if you need them to pick anything up for you at the market -- that are very considerate of other people. And no matter how bad things get, a Filipino will always be smiling, no matter what. ... I was very lucky. I had a wonderful host family."

Assignment: orphanage

Jody's work assignment was as a community services educator at the Reception and Study Center for Children, an orphanage-type facility for children from infancy through 12 years of age who had been abused, neglected or maltreated. At first, Jody's duties were limited to some typing and computer-related tasks,

but eventually she


determined some specific needs to focus her time and energies. She and another volunteer, Erin, who was assigned at a similar facility, combined forces to write a developmental curriculum for toddlers.

"What we found our orphanages needed was an organized learning system," Jody explained. "We also met a lot of volunteers with other agencies from Australia, Germany, the U.K., Korea, Japan, and one of them worked for UNICEF in Manila, so our whole curriculum was funded by UNICEF. We got a DVD player, DVDs, learning toys, posters, flash cards. Everything fell in place to make it work out perfectly for our centers. They also funded a workshop on how to use the curriculum."

Working with the children and prospective parents was also a highlight of Jody's work experiences.

"I got to be involved in the adoption part of it," she said. "There were a lot of international adoptions, so I got to meet people from all over the world. I was kind of the English-speaking liaison. It was amazing seeing kids get adopted by these families. There's such instant love there."

Visits and visitors

During her two years of service, Jody returned stateside once to see her newborn nephew, but she also entertained visitors from home, including her sister, Francey Johnson, and grandmother, Sue Zenk, as well as her parents.

By the time those visits took place, Jody had already done quite a bit of exploring throughout the Philippines, often in the company of her fellow volunteers. Among some of her most memorable experiences were attending a wedding among the panoramic rice terraces in the countryside and spending two Thanksgivings with her fellow volunteers in Sagada.

"We had all of the favorites associated with Thanksgiving," recounted Jody in her online blog about her experiences, "deviled eggs, veggie tray with yogurt dip, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, roasted turkey, squash, glazed carrots, zucchini bake, and a huge fresh veggie salad. Fifty people attended our Thanksgiving feast. My host sister was able to come along and experience an American holiday. We joked with her about if she would be able to handle not having rice with her meal for two days."


Ups and downs

Looking back on her Peace Corps experience, Jody compares it to an amusement park ride.

"It was the best times of my life and the lowest times of my life," she said. "It was the craziest roller coaster ride of I've ever been on."

The people she met -- volunteers and locals and her host family in particular -- were the best part of her adventure. Cultural differences created some of the more difficult moments. At 6-foot, 2-inches tall, Jody towered over the predominantly petite Filipinos -- so she tended to literally stand out in a crowd.

"If I was in the back of a room, I never had trouble seeing," recalled Jody with a laugh. "My host sisters were probably 4-foot 11. The vehicles are all set up for people who are 5 foot tall.

"The thing that I had to get used to was I stood out like a sore thumb. You couldn't be anonymous. They've seen tall white people, but not a tall white woman. And over there, staring is not considered rude. I knew it was going to be difficult, but didn't know there would be this blatant staring, not just kids, but adults, too."

Back to school

Jody was released from the Peace Corps and returned home to Worthington in June 2007. Although she's been using her college degree by working in the graphics department at the Daily Globe, her Peace Corps experience has changed her focus for a future career.


"While you're there, you have a lot of time to fill, so you get together with the other volunteers and talk a lot," Jody explained. "I had thought a little about going into art therapy before I went, but I didn't have a psych background. Erin, who I did the project with in the Philippines, she encouraged me to pursue it. It always came back to art therapy."

Through a Peace Corps educational partnership, Jody learned about an art therapy graduate program at Seton Hill (not to be confused with Seton Hall) University near Pittsburgh, Pa. After filling in with some prerequisite classes at Minnesota West, she will head east in August to pursue a degree in art therapy with a focus on counseling.

And some day, she will go back to the Philippines and reconnect with the country she came to love and all her friends there.

"As I look back on my two years of service, I realize how much I've changed and grown as a person," wrote Jody in her final blog entry. "I'm so blessed with the new friends I've made (both Filipino and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers). The lessons I've learned were sometimes hard, but invaluable. I think I accomplished what I came here to do -- live in a new culture and be successful. I'm not really sure how to measure that success, but I know that if I could rewind time back to the day I filled out my Peace Corps application, I would definitely do it all over again."

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