61: Finding My Future

61: Finding My Future

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Finding My Future

Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.

~Jawaharlal Nehru

Books have always been some of my best friends. “When you were little,” my mother always said, “you would sit in your playpen for hours reading your books. And you didn’t like anyone to bother you, either!”

Like most suburban households of the sixties, ours had a steady supply of magazines and so, even as a young child, I’d avidly flip through the pages of National Geographic. I was raised on Wild Kingdom and loved to look at the colorful photos of African animals, dreaming of one day traveling to exotic places where I’d help people solve their problems. Just exactly what I’d help them with, I didn’t really know. Still, I guess it came as no surprise that as soon as I graduated from college, I volunteered for the Peace Corps.

My assignment was to Jamaica, where I was one of forty-two volunteers in Group 42. For the first two months of our service, we had training every day in Kingston, the capital. Each of us lived with a Jamaican host family in hot, dirty Spanish Town, which we called Punish Town. Most volunteers were housed in one neighborhood, but because our group was so large, some of us were sent to live on the other side of town. Every morning we walked to the local bus park to catch a half-hour ride to Kingston, and every morning the neighborhood dogs attacked us. I never walked alone.

One of my neighbors was Andy and, because of the dogs, we walked many miles together, gaining a greater appreciation for each other with each step.

Andy was from the town next to Newport, Oregon, and I was from the town next to Newport, Rhode Island. One day we were sitting at the dining room table in my host family’s home playing a game of Hearts with some of our fellow volunteers. Glancing up from my cards, my blue eyes met Andy’s green ones above his dimpled smile. My stomach flip-flopped and my breath stuck in my throat as I swallowed a surprised “Oh!” before snapping my gaze back to the cards in my hand. I already had a boyfriend back home, so I didn’t return Andy’s affection. At first.

When our training was over, I ended up working in Kingston. I lived with three other volunteers who spent their weekends at embassy parties or sailing. I hailed from the sailing capital of the world and if I’d wanted to sail and party, I would have stayed home. I’d broken up with my boyfriend by this time so going home to my old life wasn’t an easy option. Still, I grew despondent and was ready to resign, when one day Andy came to town. Our house served as the local flophouse for volunteers coming in from the country, and Andy was one of them. He lived in Christiana and worked with yam farmers in a town called Wait-A-Bit. “I think I’m going to quit,” I told him.

“What?” he said, “don’t do that. I know another volunteer who needs help. She teaches environmental education and I’ll put you in touch with her.” And he did.

I made arrangements to visit and talk with her about working with the Jamaica Junior Naturalists. “You can stay with me,” Andy said. So one evening I stepped off the bus in Christiana, where Andy lived in a two-bedroom apartment with only one double bed. As the night wore on, he smiled that familiar dimpled grin and proposed, “You can sleep in my bed with me or on the floor with the cockroaches.”

I hate cockroaches. The rest is history.

I believe you won’t miss what you’ve never known, and I spent the next two years teaching Jamaican children to know and love some of the many beautiful animals of their island. Together, we learned about sea turtles, manatees and crocodiles, and we explored coral reefs and mangrove swamps. I helped to establish the first marine sanctuary in Jamaica, and I hope I instilled a newfound appreciation for the natural world in the hearts and minds of its youth.

When their service is concluded, most Peace Corps volunteers will readily admit that in spite of their efforts, they feel like they received more than they gave. I returned home with my future. I didn’t join the Peace Corps to meet my mate, but Andy and I have been married for twenty-seven years now.

The Peace Corps’ motto is “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” and it’s the first job I ever held that could be defined as such. We have five children, and being a parent is definitely my second job that fits that description. We don’t subscribe to National Geographic, but we do raise our children to be citizens of the world. And from the day they’re born, we teach them that their purpose in life is to make the world a better place.

~Kelly Kittel

More stories from our partners