ENCINITAS — It was a substitute teacher at Oak Crest Junior High who would make a difference in Jenna Houts’ life when she invited a returning Peace Corps volunteer to speak to her seventh grade honors English class in 1996.
Now a Peace Corps volunteer herself, Houts says she was transfixed as the speaker shared stories of his experiences in a Third World country that were documented with photos that included an indigenous ceremony in which he removed a queen bee from her hive and placed her in a box tied around his neck.
“As he walked away from the hive the drone bees slowly followed and landed all over his body,” she remembers. “He was completely covered in bees, like he was wearing a bee suit.”
This made a dramatic impression on Houts, who had been terrified of bees since being stung at age 5.
“This image resonated with me and I had visions of joining the Peace Corps ever since,” she said. “I wanted to have outrageous adventures like that man in the bee suit.”
After graduating from the San Dieguito Academy in 2002, Houts went on to UC Davis where she earned a bachelor’s in international relations in 2006. Two years later she graduated from UCSD with a master’s in international relations, and an emphasis in nonprofit management and international development.
On May 28, 2009, Houts’ dream of joining the Peace Corps was realized when she left her friends and family in Cardiff-by-the-Sea to travel to Miami where she joined up with a group of other volunteers and went on to Paraguay.
“We were a hodge-podge group to say the least, not the typical just-out-of-college-hippies I expected,” she said. “We were a variety of skin colors, ethnicities and ages including a retired married couple, and many of us had grad degrees.”
Upon arrival in Asunción, Paraguay they were greeted by Peace Corps officials wearing surgical masks for protection against swine flu. After going through immigration and customs the group was whisked off in the cold rain to a training center where they would spend the next three months. Following a Q&A session, Houts and the others were taken to meet their host families.
“We were told to dress nicely for the occasion so I changed into nice pants and flats at the airport,” she said. “But it was freezing outside and with no access to my luggage I only had my ugly, oversized UCSD sweatshirt to wear. My outfit was mismatched to say the least.”
Houts was among eight volunteers driven to a satellite training center in the outskirts where eight women were lined up to greet them, some with young children.
“My host mom was named Delia,” Houts remembers. “She brought along her 9-year-old daughter, Diana, who was terrified of me and would remain that way for the next three months.”
Houts took an immediate liking to Delia, and learned that the family lived in a small house on a dirt road. The front room was converted into a store. Delia and Diana took Houts to her room, which was furnished with a twin bed, a closet and a small table.
“I was absolutely exhausted after the long trip but I did my best to be grateful for the meal they prepared for me and answered their questions,” she said. “They complimented me on my Spanish. They said their last volunteer could hardly communicate with them.”
The next few days Houts would return to her new home after training, exhausted and suffering from chronic back pain, which had plagued her for the last three years.
“I wanted to join the Peace Corps for so long … and it made dealing with the pain worth it,” she said. “My host mom rubbed cream on my back for me at night. After two weeks my body eventually adjusted to my new surroundings as I settled in.”
This is the first of a 3-part series. Houts hopes that by sharing her story, her hometown community might be moved to help provide financial support for her community library project in Jose Fassardi, Guaira, Paraguay. For more information, visit www.jennahouts.blogspot.com or e-mail [email protected] To make a tax deductible donation, visit peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.donatenow&keyword=Paraguay.