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‘That’s the beauty of Peace Corps – you just learn so much’


Hawaii Tribune-Herald

The Peace Corps is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and continues its legacy of changing lives around the world through its volunteers.

The Peace Corps has a storied past on Hawaii Island. From 1962-1971, more than 7,000 young American volunteers for the newly created Peace Corps underwent training in Hilo and other locations for service in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Three Hilo women recently reflected on their time in the Peace Corps and how their experiences have informed their life decisions years later.

Broadening a view of the world

After graduate school, Misty Pacheco found herself in a small village in the region of Wote in Kenya as a public health volunteer in 2007.

“I was placed with a small community-based organization, and I immediately helped manage a field office,” Pacheco said. “I would have focus groups and community forums to discuss sexual reproduction health for youth and HIV prevention.”

Pacheco used her knowledge to educate Kenyan women and children in schools, hospitals or even at lunch under a tree about health issues.

“That’s the beauty of Peace Corps — you just learn so much,” Pacheco said. “I was fortunate to have a little more freedom in my assignment since I had a specialized degree in health care.”

Kenya faced a large election that year, which turned into a major conflict. Fighting began breaking out in the capital of Nairobi, and for the first time in its history, the Peace Corps had to pull its volunteers out of Kenya.

“Kenya is one of the oldest and largest Peace Corps programs in the world, and it was shut down,” Pacheco said. “The hardest day of Peace Corps was the first, but the saddest day was having to leave.”

Back home, Pacheco began applying to school and jobs until a few months later, a Peace Corps director called and told her she could go back to Kenya.

“I remember the day I came back. I knocked on people’s doors, and everyone was so happy to see me again,” Pacheco said. “I was able to stay for six more months, and at that point I felt okay leaving since it was on my terms.”

Pacheco, who was born and raised in Hilo, is grateful she had the opportunity to experience more of the world firsthand and hopes her children have the opportunity to join Peace Corps or participate in something similar when they get older.

“I feel that we as people, especially in small towns like Hilo, get so wrapped up in our own space and environment and we don’t have the capacity to imagine life anywhere else,” Pacheco said. “My experience made me appreciate everything and really broadened my view of the world. I would not be the same today without that.”

Pacheco is now working as an associate professor of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Changing course

A little over 20 years before Pacheco left for Kenya, Sharon Ziegler-Chong decided to join the Peace Corps, which changed the course of her life and ultimately brought her to Hilo.

“The reason why I’m in Hilo was because I was in the Peace Corps and met Charlie Chong, my husband, who passed away 16 years ago,” Ziegler-Chong said. “For us, the Peace Corps changed our lives, not because of the relationship, but just the way it shifted our lives and purpose. Charlie would love to be here right now talking story.”

Ziegler-Chong volunteered with an aquaculture program from 1985 to 1987 in Guatemala. There, she worked with an organization to help increase protein levels in the local diet.

While she was happy with the work she did over two years, Ziegler-Chong sometimes wonders what they accomplished in the long term. So when she visited Guatemala again five years ago, she was happy to see that someone she trained during the Peace Corps is now the head of the aquaculture program.

“Peace Corps gives people an opportunity to learn about the world with a different framework and bring that home,” Ziegler-Chong said. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the impact, so we continue to do the work with the idealism that through these types of programs we can connect better as a global community.”

After the Peace Corps, Ziegler-Chong and her husband moved to his hometown of Hilo to start their professional lives. He was a teacher for the alternative learning center at Hilo High, and she works at UH-Hilo to connect people with resources to improve lives for local students.

“We both were dedicated to helping people across the community, and in his last days, we reflected on why,” Ziegler-Chong said. “It was the Peace Corps. It connected us both to the idea of using our lives and expertise to ultimately help students of all backgrounds.”

Over time, there have been less volunteer opportunities in the Peace Corps for aquaculture, but more for education, agriculture and environmental programs, which could also benefit local communities on Hawaii Island.

“There are many people I work with here that would be incredible volunteers, and they could bring their experience and knowledge back to Hilo,” Ziegler-Chong said. “Much of the work that the Peace Corps does has changed over time, and it will be interesting to see it change further after the pandemic.”

Ziegler-Chong now works as the director of Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science at UH-Hilo, where she connects youth, students, educators, researchers and organizations with each other to steward island resources into the future.

Learning about

More recently, Samantha Bailo lived in Tonga and taught English as a volunteer with the Peace Corps from 2014 to 2017.

After spending a semester studying abroad in Ecuador during college, Bailo was trying to find a way to work abroad again when she found the Peace Corps.

“Before I joined the Peace Corps, I had really embraced an individualist, independent mindset, and I didn’t realize it was such an American trait,” Bailo said. “Once I designated that, realized who I could be in another culture and experienced what it was like to have community, it felt like a game changer for myself.”

Bailo was surprised by how much she gained not only through the work, but also through the relationships she made within the community in Tonga.

“I think it can oftentimes feel that the volunteer gains more than the community, but I’m not sure that’s true,” Bailo said. “In Tonga, relationships are everything, and with some relationships I formed, I feel we changed each other.

“We had a data measurement system to quantify what we were accomplishing, and I hated (that), because the impact felt immeasurable,” Bailo continued.

While Bailo and many other volunteers decided to join the Peace Corps after college graduation, she made a point to say that a person should apply at any point in their lives when they have had life experience and are ready for a long commitment.

“Regardless of age, you have to have a level of commitment, fortitude and grittiness, because it is hard,” Bailo said. “I don’t think it’s about your age or time, it’s if you’re open to serve and have an experience that’s beyond your control. You have to be okay with a loss of control.”

Bailo hopes to see the Peace Corps continue to thrive and evolve as the world the changes.

“I think the cool thing about the Peace Corps is there is an evolving mission that adapts to what countries need,” Bailo said. “If that spirit is kept alive, and they don’t lean too much into quantifying what exactly is being achieved, I think it could be a success and keep going for years.”

Bailo is now pursuing a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and works as a case manager for Care Hawaii Inc.


In honor of the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Peace Corps, Bill Sakovich and Sarah Juran will be hosting a week of events for past volunteers.

This week, the Peace Corps film, “Towering Task,” will be available through a request for a link for $10.

A film, “Peace Corps Training on the Big Island 1962-1971,” also will be available through a request for a link for free. The film was made in Hilo and includes footage of Hilo staff and trainees.

UH-Hilo will be hosting recruiting activities with classroom visits by returned Peace Corps volunteers today and Friday.

On Sunday, Nov. 21, there will be a short ceremony at the JFK Monument on the UH-Hilo campus to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps. A Zoom link can be provided for those who wish to watch virtually.

To request any of the links or for more information, contact Bill Sakovich at, or Sarah Juran at

Email Kelsey Walling at
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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