WASHINGTON — Some local Peace Corps members are adjusting to life away from their service efforts after the program recalled its volunteers abroad due to coronavirus fears.
Peace Corps officials decided to bring more than 7,000 overseas volunteers back to the United States. The volunteers were sent to communities across the world to teach, engineer and assist in a variety of economic and agricultural efforts.
Ben Gaffigan, of Frederick, Md., and Caroline McKinney, of Purcellville, Va., both served in the program as English teachers in Indonesia.
"I think the most important thing for me was getting to know my community and the people in it," McKinney said.
But less than a week ago, Gaffigan and McKinney learned they would have to end their duties early.
"Goodbyes for most volunteers happened," McKinney said. "But, probably not in a way they wanted them to happen."
Gaffigan said about a week and a half ago, Peace Corp members received word that their service may soon change. After that, he said the situation became a blur.
He said many volunteers did not even have enough time to make arrangements to bring their pets to America in the future before they left.
However, Gaffigan said he understood the urgency of the matter.
"Given the limited medical opportunities where we are and how high the population density is in Java, I think, in the long run, it makes sense for us to be home during this," he said.
Both Gaffigan and McKinney are now under self-quarantine on Chincoteague Island in Virginia, as the Peace Corps recommended its members take such action for 14 days after their return.
But, the pair, and thousands of other volunteers, are now left with a lot of uncertainties.
Peace Corps members usually get to serve their communities for roughly two years. However, McKinney’s stay in Indonesia was cut short by almost one year.
Now, she says she is not sure if she will get the chance to go back to her village.
"Our country director wants to do everything to re-instate [us] once conditions get better, but everything is still very unclear," she said.
Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen said volunteers who wish to return to their host countries will receive expedited consideration, but even then, the Peace Corps says it cannot promise its members will be able to return to the same exact posts.
If Peace Corps members are willing to wait to see if they can get assigned to the same post, their finances may catch up to them in the interim.
According to the Peace Corps, its volunteers are not eligible for unemployment benefits, per Department of Labor guidelines.
Gaffigan said under the circumstances, waiting around for a quick resolution can be a hard thing to do.
"That's not a possibility for most of us because we need to find a job," he said. "We need to start our careers. A lot of us are fresh out of college and this was going to be kind of a segue into our careers. So, at this point, we don't have money to fall back on here."
The Peace Corps is providing evacuation and readjustment allowances. However, those funds are subject to federal taxes.
The Peace Corps also typically offers its members healthcare during their volunteer stints, but the service says it will now only offer two months of limited healthcare coverage to help members transition.
"Importantly, volunteers who evacuate will qualify for ‘Non-Competitive Eligibility’, which makes it easier to join the federal workforce," Olsen wrote in a statement. "And, they will qualify for Coverdell Fellowships available to graduate students."
Gaffigan said he appreciates the program and his experience participating in it. He said he also understands that the Peace Corps, like many other American institutions, got blindsided by the coronavirus’ spread.
Still, Gaffigan said he wishes one thing had been handled differently.
"I do wish the communication had been more clear and more upfront."