Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Peaceful Pursuits the Peace Corps Still Attracts Idealistic Volunteers, Including Some Jacksonville Residents, Eager to Travel to the Far Corners of the World to Make a Difference

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Peaceful Pursuits the Peace Corps Still Attracts Idealistic Volunteers, Including Some Jacksonville Residents, Eager to Travel to the Far Corners of the World to Make a Difference

Article excerpt

Out on the rolling grasslands of West Africa, Andrew Mueller has settled in for a two-year stay. He's in a small village in Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, with a family of hippos living nearby.

He's with the Peace Corps, a health volunteer, teaching the Malians about sanitation, family planning and AIDS.

Back home in Jacksonville, his parents have received a couple of long letters. But the film and photos he's mailed never made it home. And the packages of tapes and dried food they sent never made it to him.

But they did talk once. It took his father several days, several calls and close to $400. The phone, after all, was about 20 miles from Andy's village.

Andy is doing fine, they said.

Andy Meuller is one of 6,700 Peace Corps volunteers in 80 countries. The Peace Corps wants that number to go up. It's planning to recruit 4,000 new volunteers this year; that's more than at any time in the past 25 years.

Since the Peace Corps was established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, about 150,000 volunteers have served in 132 countries.

They all come for their own reasons. Some want to travel, others to save to the world. They all say they expect to bring home more than they took with them.

In Mali

Andrew Mueller is 25, born and raised in Jacksonville. He's a graduate of Wolfson High School and thought about medical school after graduating from Florida State University. Instead, he ended up with a master's in public health from Florida International in Miami.

He started thinking about the Peace Corps in graduate school. Now, there he is, in Ziongolodougou, Mali.

When Mueller first got there, his mother Nancy said, he was living with a family in a thatched hut.

"And they had six children," she said.

But now he's got his own house, made from block. The family still feeds him and washes his clothes. They're paid by the Peace Corps to do this.

His letters describe the village and the food. He'll usually have oatmeal or other cooked cereal for breakfast. Lunch may be rice with peanut sauce. Dinner is usually a sponge-like corn dish with spicy gumbo sauce.

Mueller's father is Ernst Mueller, a federal prosecutor for 21 years, now in the city's office of general counsel.

It's pretty much up to Andy to develop his projects, his father said. But there are some standards set. He'll help out in a clinic for children, and he'll probably develop an AIDS education project.

Andy hasn't said how big his village is, but his father guesses that there are no more than a few hundred people there.

Bicycle is the mode of transportation. And the Peace Corps gave Andy a bicycle of his very own, to go along with $200 or so a month.

His parents are thinking about visiting him later this year, but they're not sure. Until then, they depend on his letters.

"Andy said that the people are very happy," Nancy Mueller said. "Everything is shared. If you're eating lunch and someone walks by, you invite them to join you."

She is, of course, worried.

"I knew it'd be a good experience," she said. "If nothing else, it's great to put on a resume. But I miss him. You worry about him getting sick; you hear about viruses there.

"I would rather he'd gone a more traditional route. But it's his life. You have to cut the cord sometime."

His father summarizes it this way: "A step on the road to whatever he's going to do."

Been there

Kathleen Canales is already back from her time in the Peace Corps, a step further down that road.

She spent 1995-97 with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. She has a management degree from Stetson, so she worked in finance down there. She also has a minor in Spanish, which helped.

She came back with an album full of photos and a much better grip on the Spanish language. …

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