LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Peace Corps, a federal program for Americans to volunteer abroad, announced on March 15 that it was temporarily suspending all operations and evacuating all volunteers, a first in its history.
According to the Peace Corps’ website, it was because of airport closures globally amid COVID-19, which could restrict evacuations for any non-COVID-19 illnesses for volunteers. One of the approximately 7,300 volunteers evacuated from 61 countries was Louisville native Shelby Durbin.
“I was in my dream job, you know, in a culture that I was really connecting to, and that was kind of robbed from me,” said the 23-year-old, who has been back in Kentucky for less than two weeks.
“So we got the evacuation notice a little earlier than some of the other countries, but it still came as a big surprise,” Durbin told Spectrum News 1.
After graduating from college, Durbin left for the Philippines in July 2019. She had never been but felt a personal connection with the country.
“I’m Filipino American, so this was more like a homecoming for me more than anything,” Durbin said.
Durbin served in a government office on Bohol Island and helped organize youth activities relating to children’s rights and servant leadership. Soon, this new place became home, but on March 11, 2020, Peace Corps alerted Durbin to a possible evacuation and 48 hours later it was a reality.
“I went to my office to kind of explain the situation and to tell them that I was being evacuated. I just immediately like burst into tears and then everybody else did,” Durbin said.
Durbin said she returned to Louisville on March 18, and the homecoming has been bittersweet.
“In some ways, it’s like, yes, I’m happy to see family, I’m happy to be home, but I was living a completely different life over there for nearly nine months,” Durbin said. “I have people over there that I love, and I won’t see for a long time, potentially, and I was kind of just ripped from them and ripped from my community unexpectedly,” she added.
Peace Corps asked every volunteer to self-quarantine for 14 days. For those who didn’t have a place to self-quarantine, the Peace Corps will reimburse lodging costs. Durbin is in her parent’s basement.
“I haven’t even been able to give anyone a hug,” Durbin said.
Due to the abrupt evacuation, the Senate’s $2.2 trillion stimulus included $88 million for Peace Corps for evacuation and initial transition costs.
Peace Corps volunteers receive some benefits such as $4,500 to $9,000, depending on how much time was served and more if volunteers served past 24 months. The Peace Corps is paying for two months of healthcare and volunteers qualify for non-competitive eligibility to make it easier to get a federal job.
The Department of Labor determined that since the evacuees are volunteers they aren’t eligible for unemployment.
The National Peace Corps Association is a non-profit that helps Peace Corps Volunteers return after service.The organization is urging Peace Corps supporters to ask their senators for additional funding to support evacuees beyond initial transition costs.
Will Glasscock is the vice president of Kentucky’s chapter. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Indonesia from 2012-2014. He said his readjustment training for coming back to the U.S. started three months before he left.
“You really build relationships, friendships, and bonds with the people that you’re living and working with and for that to just be uprooted overnight, I can’t imagine what that would’ve been like.”
Glasscock said The Kentucky Peace Corps Association is trying to find evacuated volunteers in Kentucky, like Durbin, to offer support.
“Hopefully we can make connections to help, whether it’s housing, jobs or just emotional support and friendship,” Glasscock said. He encourages evacuees to contact the Kentucky affiliate or join its Facebook group.
Right now, Durbin has no plan for what’s ahead, but she looks forward to when COVID-19 passes for a possibility to go back.
“I talk to a lot of my fellow volunteers who were in the Philippines with me, and we are all just biting our nails waiting for that email.”