Service to others, far from home

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By JOSH ADAMS

Using an oversized backpack, Meredith Dorneker is trying to pack the clothes she'll need for a destination she's not sure of.

Dorneker is leaving the continental U.S. this week for a 27-month stint with the Peace Corps in Peru. That much she knows. But specifically what she'll be doing and where she'll do it is still a mystery to the 23-year-old.

"It has that sense of adventure and travel," Dorneker said. "And you get to help people, which is something I want to do."

As an environmental educator for the Peace Corps, Dorneker may end up working in an elementary school or a national park. She could find herself trying to stay warm in the snow capped Andes or sweating it out in the rain forest. With so many unknowns, it's no wonder her parents are anxious about their daughter's plans, but according to the corps' regional recruiting office in Chicago, Meredith Dorneker is one of hundreds of area residents taking the plunge.

At any given time the Peace Corps has as many as 300 Chicagoans scattered around the globe, according to Scott Roskelley, a public affairs specialist for the regional recruiting office in Chicago. Though it depends on the country, recruits don't typically know where exactly they'll be stationed, Roskelley said.

The first three months of every recruit's commitment is dedicated to training, at which time the Peace Corps will determine assignments, Roskelley said. This can make packing for the trip problematic, especially given the 100-pound weight limit on luggage.

"It does make it kind of difficult," Roskelley said. "But whatever [Dorneker] needs, she'll be able to get locally."

Dorneker's interest in the Peace Corps began several years ago when she was a student at St. Ignatius College Prep High School. During a week-long community service trip to Pennsylvania, science teacher Sean Byrnes relayed his experience with a volunteer teaching program that landed him in Bangladesh for a year.

"I saw him as a person who did a lot of community service, and as a role model," Dorneker said.

Byrnes, who was 24 when he taught overseas in 1999, said service programs are an important part of the curriculum at St. Ignatius, and many students continue to volunteer after graduation. In speaking of his own volunteerism, Byrnes said he's careful not to paint too rosy a picture for his students. His advice for Dorneker though, was to commit herself fully to the experience.

"Be open to all of it," Byrnes said. "Create a strong community that can support you and that you can support."

Dorneker has experienced what it means to give. While studying at the University of Southern California, she spent three of her spring break vacations cleaning up Death Valley National Park. She also served as the philanthropy chairwoman for her sorority at USC.

Dorneker applied to the Peace Corps through the Los Angeles office.

The Peace Corps was not Dorneker's first choice after graduating from USC with a dual major in geography and communications. For a full year, she concentrated on getting a job with a federal intelligence office and said she was granted a three-day interview in Washington, D.C., but was not hired.

"Then I started my Peace Corps application after that," Dorneker said.

Bob Dorneker, Meredith's father, said he is proud of his daughter's ambitions, though he is forced to relinquish some of his paternal instincts. Admittedly, he is the more protective parent in the family.

Nonetheless, if his daughter is willing to challenge herself and has an interest in caring for others, Bob Dorneker said he's hopeful that Meredith will have an impact.

"It's a commitment on her behalf that I'm very proud of," Bob Dorneker said.

Meredith's mother, Anne Dorneker, wasn't thrilled initially with her daughter's decision to join the Peace Corps. She envisioned politically hostile countries that seemingly lacked basic amenities like running water and hot showers.

"I'm an old person, so I think of hippies in the '70s," Anne Dorneker said. "JFK and do-gooders."

She too, is proud of her daughter's commitment to philanthropy, but said it will be difficult not seeing her on holidays and family events. This summer the mother-daughter duo made extra time for one another in anticipation of the long absence.

"Twenty-seven months is a really long time," Anne said. "I don't know how you can really prepare for that."

During her stay in Peru, Meredith Dorneker will work seven days a week and earn a monthly stipend. Purposefully, the pay is not lucrative, Roskelley said.

"It's intended that they will be living like the people they're working with," he noted.

In 1961, then Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged the citizenry to give two years of their lives to the service of others. To date, the corps has enlisted more than 182,000 volunteers to work in 138 countries. Here's a look at the Peace Corps' enrollment 45 years later.

Volunteers and trainees: 7,810
Female: 58 percent
Male: 42 percent
Marital status: 91 percent single, 9 percent married
Age: Average = 28 yrs., Median = 25 yrs.
Education: 96 percent have at least a bachelor's degree
Ethnicity: 16 percent of volunteers are minorities

More information at peacecorps.gov.

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