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Penn State Grad Making a Difference Half a World Away

by and on January 05, 2014 2:00 PM

Melissa Clouser, a 24-year-old Bellefonte native and Penn State art education graduate has always been interested in different cultures.

A study abroad experience in Florence, Italy fueled this desire to explore the world and its people.

This, combined with her wish to assist those who are not as privileged as Americans created a post-graduation goal — help those in need around the world.

And so during her senior year, Clouser decided to join the Peace Corps.

“I was in my last year of college at Penn State and figured post-graduation would be the perfect time to give two years of my life to serve in a developing country,” she says. “By living and working in a different culture where we’re able to learn all about another group of people, we’re able to create strong friendships and global awareness about the way other people live and the challenges they face.” 

During Clouser’s application process, she was able to state preferences about where she would like to volunteer all throughout the world. But she didn’t have a preference. Instead, she simply wanted to go wherever she would be the most useful. She was originally nominated for sub-Saharan Africa, but the official invitation she received listed the Philippines as her assigned location. This was the perfect fit, as Clouser has ties to the country.

“I think I would have been happy with any country in the world, but the Philippines was especially exciting since my cousin was adopted from the Philippines,” she says. “Turns out my site is only about two hours from where he was adopted.”

So in July 2012, Clouser set off for the small town of Magarao in the Camarines Sur province of the Bicol region of the Philippines to serve as an Education Volunteer, where she will stay until Sept. 2014. Clouser says most fathers there work as farmers or public transportation drivers and the majority of mothers stay at home, taking care of their five or more children.

As an Education Volunteer in Magarao, she attends school Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. with 40 Filipino teachers. She and her counterpart teach two sections of grade 5 English every day. When Clouser is not teaching, she is lesson planning for the next day or creating visual aids to use in these lessons. After school, she holds meetings with her ‘Pen Pals’ group or students in her ‘Book Buddies’ peer tutoring program.

Clouser says the school culture in the Philippines is incredibly different from America’s, creating something of a challenge for her to get used to. One of the biggest differences is the timing. According to Clouser, ‘Filipino time’ causes a 4 p.m. meeting to start around 5 p.m. or after and school to begin in the morning anywhere from 7:15 to 7:45 a.m.

Another difference is the teacher to student ratio. Clouser's school is one of the largest in the area, with 1,300 students and only 40 teachers. Most classes consist of at least 40 students, while some have upwards of 50 students.

“The classrooms are packed with as many desks as possible and when desks are lacking, sometime three or four kids will squeeze into a two-person bench,” she says. “Some teachers have even acquired some large tree stumps to serve as student desks.”

Because of the large number of students, the noise from other classrooms and the traffic noise from a road nearby, Clouser says the overall noise level inside the classroom can get very high, much higher than one would expect in an American classroom.

But for Clouser, the greatest challenge has been getting used to the heat. The school year begins in June, the end of the Philippine’s hot season and ends in March, one of the hottest months of the year in the country.

“During the worst months, days can be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and probably higher in the classroom full of 40 kids with just one electric fan to circulate,” she says. “Luckily for me, we’re currently in the ‘cool’ season, when most days feel like a nice spring day in Pennsylvania.”

But in early November, the weather was nothing like a nice spring day in Pennsylvania. In the days leading up to Typhoon Yolanda, Clouser said her neighbors spent time preparing their homes for the storm by boarding up old windows and moving their belongings to the highest points in their houses. School was cancelled two days before the storm hit so the children could help their parents prepare their homes.

“All volunteers in my area were on standby for consolidation in our nearby city, as per Peace Corps policy in threatening situations like this one,” Clouser says.

Though Magarao wasn’t hit extremely hard, Clouser and all the other volunteers in her area were consolidated to a hotel in the nearby city of Naga. The first day of the storm was constant rain and thunderstorms.

“Two families I’ve become close with live in shanty houses that were not fit for riding out Typhoon Yolanda so we agreed that they would stay in my cement house instead when the storm hit,” she says.

Clouser said power kept going out, but luckily the hotel she was at had a generator. The worst day for her area was Friday, Nov. 8.

“Friday came with more of the same strong winds and rain and that was the extent of the weather in my area. The next day, we made contact with the people in our towns to make sure it was safe to travel back to our sites,” she says. “On my way home I could barely tell there had been a storm. The sky was bright and the roads were clear. The only clear differences were a few downed trees and the swollen water level in our canals.”

The island of Tacloban, just to the south of where Clouser is based, wasn’t so lucky. According to Clouser, it was hit the hardest and is completely wiped out.

“Twelve of our volunteers were actually consolidated in Tacloban and were forced to ride out the typhoon in a shaking, flooded cement hotel while the city and towns around them were being ripped apart,” she says.

After the storm ceased, there was little food and water, causing people to become desperate. Because of this, the twelve walked about six kilometers to the airport so they wouldn’t be threatened by those trying to provide for their families.

“If you can think of the worst scene you’ve read about in the news — with homes and businesses completely destroyed, people wandering the streets looking for their missing family members, corpses lining the road — that is exactly what they walked through to get to the airport,” Clouser says.

Clouser says it was eerie how fast her area got back to ‘life as usual’ after the storm. Other places, like Tacloban couldn’t. Because of this, a large amount of relief efforts are happening all over the country. Many Volunteers have helped by packing relief goods or delivering relief packages to the affected areas.

But despite the tragedy, Clouser says the Filipino people have risen, displaying a huge amount of resiliency.

“Family and community are so important to Filipinos so everyone is working together to get their fellow countrymen back on their feet,” Clouser says. “The Filipino people are known for two main things — their resiliency, and their hospitality.  I’m continually impressed by their generosity when it comes to strangers, or anyone for that matter.”

To help those in need in the Philippines, Clouser suggests donating money to reputable organizations that work with those who were directly affected, like UNICEF and the Red Cross.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Sam is a correspondent for the Gazette.
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