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Tonga RPVC Kevin Russell Photos courtesy of the Peace Corps

“If there's really one big thing that I learned in the Peace Corps in Tonga, it was how to give from the heart”

A former Peace Corps Volunteer shares his experience.

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Kevin Russell grew up in California. After studying political science at Case Western Reserve University, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in a small village in Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific. He now lives in Washington, D.C., and works to facilitate democracy around the world. Here is his Peace Corps story.

I'm a strong believer that the greatest rewards in life are the feelings that come from altruistic actions. Service was always a part of my life growing up, something my parents and community instilled in me. I was a tutor, I used to volunteer at the food bank, and I also used to mentor youth.

But I didn't know too much about the Peace Corps. Then, in my sophomore year in college, I went to an informational panel on the Peace Corps. The idea of being a global citizen and being of service to others around the world — it really melded my passion to serve with my desire to live abroad.

The application process is much simpler now (you can now apply to a specific country or program, and it’s much faster and easier), but back then there were multiple essays, multiple interviews, then a long waiting process, and then you got your invitation to serve. My placement officer gave me three country options: Tonga, Colombia, and Mozambique. My mentor said, "Go to the place where you would never plan on going."

I'd never even heard of Tonga. That's how I ended up going there and teaching a full class.

I lived in a very rural village of about 500 people, about 30 minutes outside the capital city. I worked in the local primary school. My second year, I ended up teaching English, math, and science, all in Tongan, for an entire year. I hadn’t even spoken Tongan when I got there.

My first year, like any other Volunteer going to the Peace Corps, I was very ambitious. I had all these ideas of programs I wanted to start in my community, how I wanted to impact the country. Then reality hit, and a lot of what I tried my first year failed. I say my first year in the Peace Corps was my learning year, and my second year was my working year. If I could give advice to anyone thinking about joining the Peace Corps, it would be that sometimes you have to work together in order for people to see your vision. That bit of experience helped me transition from my first year to my second.

Courtesy of Kevin Russell

For instance, I worked with the Tonga National Basketball Association (TNBA) and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to help start youth basketball in the country. I’m a huge basketball fan, and in Tonga, pretty much every single community has a basketball court (often put in by the Mormon church), but they use them as volleyball courts because nobody knows how to play basketball. My first year, I went around asking all these organizations to help support this idea of basketball, and they all laughed at me. I'm like, "How difficult is it going to be for people to give me 12 basketballs to do this in 12 schools?" Let me tell you, it was extremely difficult. I met with several funders and they said rugby was the sport of Tonga, and basketball would never work.

But it did. Working with the president of the Tonga National Basketball Association, we decided that we were going to start a grassroots team ourselves. We started with about eight basketballs in about 12 schools; we just got in his car, and during lunchtime, we would go out to schools throughout Tonga and teach basketball. When we would get out there, we'd have 100 kids show up on the court at one school, and then we'd go to a different school and it'd be another 100 kids.

Out of that, we had this grassroots program, which ended up getting the attention of FIBA. We were able to open the door for funding and get scholarship opportunities for kids out of this program. I got to sit down with the TNBA and the Olympic committee and help design the Tonga National Basketball Association's five-year strategic plan.

If you are thinking about joining the Peace Corps, what I loved is that there's a lot of flexibility. That’s a good thing: For me, being as integrated as I was inside my community, it meant I could identify areas of need where I could be most helpful and have the greatest impact.

Tonga RPVC Kevin Russell
Tonga RPVC Kevin Russell

I would go over to kids' homes and tutor them in English, and parents would always say "You know, Kevin, it's not that I don't support education, and it's not that I don't support English — it's just that I don't know how to help them learn it."

In Tonga, English is the primary language in government and business, so knowing English leads to better opportunities — but most students don’t have a good grasp of English phonics by the time they enter middle school, and parents aren’t sure how to help. So I developed a Tongan phonics program that allowed them to read to their kids in Tongan, with an English component so kids could follow along and help build their vocabulary.

With a couple of other Volunteers, we conducted literacy assessments. It was the first English literacy assessment conducted in Tonga in recent history and we figured out gaps in the English curriculum. We developed an English literacy intervention book, a 187-page grammar book translated into English and Tongan that serves as a resource for teachers. I just discovered when I went back to Tonga recently that that book has been published by the Ministry of Education and distributed to every primary school in the country.

Russell with his principal.
Courtesy of Kevin Russell

I went back to Tonga this fall, about a year after my service ended, for a memorial for the principal at my school. I was very close to her and her family, and about three or four weeks before my service ended, she passed away. For me, it was important to go back and show my support to her family, and to honor her at her memorial.

In my second year, when my principal told me that she had been diagnosed with cancer and that she probably had about a year to live, she said, “Kevin, I promise you that I'm not going to die before you leave, because I made a commitment to the Peace Corps and I made a commitment to you that I was going to be here for two years and I was going to take care of you." It was one of those things that hit me — she was dying, and she’s still thinking about other people, not herself. For me, that spirit she had, that spirit of giving, that spirit of love and giving from the heart, for me that's really why I gave everything that I had to my Peace Corps service and my community.

I keep in very close contact with her family and talk to them pretty regularly. My fellow teachers, I talk to them pretty regularly, too, and other youth in the village that I was close to. The form of communication in Tonga is Facebook Messenger, so they'll message me on Facebook, or they'll call me. When I went back recently, my great aunt went with me, and she absolutely loved it as well. She already planned a trip to New Zealand next year to have Christmas with some of the families from Tonga that she met — she’s never been there before, and a lot of the Tongans I know have a lot of family in New Zealand.

I’m in Washington now, working for a nongovernmental organization called Democracy International. What I learned in the Peace Corps has inspired me to begin this part of my career and helps me in my job today. The work that I was doing in Tonga with the Peace Corps at the grassroots level to build a more democratic and inclusive environment where all groups felt equally represented is the work that I'm supporting now.

But more than the impact that the Peace Corps has had on my work, being a Volunteer taught me invaluable life lessons. If there's really one big thing that I learned in Tonga, it was how to give from the heart. There's this phrase in Tongan, “nima ma'u,” which literally means closed fist, and it’s how they describe foreigners. “Nima homo,” “open fist,” is how they describe themselves. My principal taught me this: "We have nothing, but we're willing to give you what we have." That’s what I try to do.

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