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Baldwinite returns from Peace Corps trip amid pandemic

Service in Ethiopia cut short

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Baldwin resident Tim Koch was supposed to serve with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia until September 2021, but the global outbreak of Covid-19 cut his trip short.

He returned home to his family in mid-March, reducing to nine months what was supposed to be a 27-month posting. The agency announced on March 15 that it would suspend volunteer operations and evacuate all volunteers from their locations.

“It was an interesting experience, but I understand the rationale and everything,” Koch said of needing to pack up and leave early.

The 27-year-old left for Ethiopia last June, stayed with a host family for three months while he trained to be an education volunteer, was sworn into the corps and then posted in Uka, in western Oromia, to begin his work teaching English to local students. As he acclimated and immersed himself in a new culture, he worked on learning the local language, Afaan Oromo.

An email from the Peace Corps on March 17 cut Koch’s adventure short.  “We had to prepare our things to get ready to go, but at that time it seemed like there was a longer timeline,” he recounted. “Then we had received a more urgent email that said we had to head to the capital as soon as possible, like a few days later.”

Despite there being only a few cases of Covid-19 in his region at first, the situation was rapidly developing around the world, and especially in the U.S.

“The health, safety and security of volunteers are the highest priorities of the Peace Corps,” agency officials said in a statement posted on the Peace Corps website. “As Covid-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to protect the health of volunteers and prevent a situation where volunteers are unable to leave their host countries and return to the United States.”

“The Peace Corps had to think of our safety first, so this was the necessary thing that had to happen, and I don’t feel scorned or something like that,” Koch said. “I’m happy that I did it, regardless of the ending.”

Because he was far from the capital, Addis Ababa, it was a two-day journey there via a domestic flight and a bus. “I had done that a number of times before,” he said, “so that wasn’t too stressful.”

Then he boarded a flight home to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Now he is self-quarantining for two weeks, as instructed.

Typically, returned volunteers undergo physical examinations to check the status of their health, but Koch said he was unable to get one. Now he is trying to have medical and dental exams done here, but it’s “kind of impossible at the moment.” Hospitals and doctors’ offices are inundated with an influx of patients because of coronavirus.

And because they are not employees, volunteers are unable to file for unemployment. But Koch and his compatriots didn’t leave without compensation.

“I am writing to assure you the Peace Corps is providing for the needs of returning volunteers,” Director Jody Olsen wrote in a message to volunteers, “including funds for travel, lodging, food, health care, medicine and the products they need to stay healthy while traveling home during this emergency.”

The agency also provided evacuation and readjustment allowances — a few thousand dollars for each volunteer.

“That should be able to hold people over for the time being, in my opinion, at least,” Koch said. “Mine was like $4,500, and then I had been accruing money from being there, which I would have gotten as a readjustment allowance when I came back.”

The corps also extended noncompetitive eligibility — a special status that boosts a person’s chances to be hired for federal jobs — to all volunteers. Koch is also now eligible for the Coverdell Scholarship for returned Peace Corps volunteers. The Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program is a graduate fellowship program that offers financial assistance to returned volunteers.

And job security, Koch said, was definitely a concern as he made his way back to Baldwin.

“This was kind of abrupt,” he said. “I had prepared to be there for two years, and now I have to make some more decisions about my life and stuff and try to find a job. And this is a really, really bad job market to come back to.”

In Uka, he was teaching ninth-grade English in the local high school. He had two sections of about 65 students each.

“Some of my colleagues had more — that’s just a general issue in the Ethiopian school system, overcrowded classrooms and stuff like that,” Koch said, adding that he also took part in teacher support programs and an English club, in which students practiced speaking English in a more informal setting.

“It was a difficult experience,” he said of learning that he had to leave so suddenly. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone that I wanted to, like my students. The Ethiopian government had actually just canceled school for two weeks because of the virus, and some of my students walked like two hours or more to school, so there was no way I was able to say goodbye to all of them.”

Koch did get a chance, though, to gather with other faculty members to exchange goodbyes.

“I wish I had time to tie up any loose ends,” he said, adding that he was working with other teachers on how to sustain the English club and other activities to allow them to continue moving forward.

Koch's friend, Nate Hogg, who also served as an education volunteer with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia and was stationed closer to the capital, said he has been connecting with some of his students on Facebook.

He's been having them relay messages to other students, letting them know about the situation in New York and staying in touch about what's happening in the community he was living in and how the response has been.

"That has been nice — a nice ability to connect back to my community in this time when I had to kind of leave very quickly without being able to say goodbye to everyone in a way that I would have liked to," Hogg, of Cold Spring Harbor, said.

It was great, he said, to see not just the organization coming through to help out, but also a localized effort. 

"I think it’s really important to note not just the support that Peace Corps Headquarters gave to us — they were good about rolling out the information in a way that was understandable — but also the Ethiopia-specific staff was always incredibly helpful and incredibly flexible in the ways that they helped us," Hogg said, adding that both the American and host country staff members were working around the clock to answer questions, talk to parents and workshop solutions. 

"It’s hard." Hogg said. "It’s an unprecedented, unexpected thing and they did their best to give us support and to give us the tools we needed to move forward as soon as we got home."

Looking ahead, Koch said he was unsure whether he would return to Ethiopia once things have returned to normal.

“I kind of have to move forward,” he said. “For me, I’m 27 now — I need to get my act together. A lot of my [Peace Corps] colleagues are fresh out of college. I think they have more leeway with that. They still have time to try to figure things out, but I already know what I want to do, so I don’t feel like I have time to waste.”

He is actively seeking jobs, especially in the U.S. State Department, and aims to work in international development, focusing on peace.

“Thank you to the people of Ethiopia for welcoming me into your country with open arms,” Koch said, “and to the Peace Corps Ethiopia staff and education team. I couldn’t have done it without you.”