While attending high school in Huntington County, Dee McClurg would look at the world map and fantasize about something else.
“Everything was cornfields and pigs,” McClurg says about where he lived. “I just figured that there has to be something more elsewhere.”
It was during the 1960s when McClurg was in school. President John F. Kennedy was in office and many men were being sent off to the Vietnam War, which was in full swing.
McClurg knew he wanted to go to college. He also knew he didn't want to go to Vietnam. “I had too many friends come back from high school and had been through Vietnam,” McClurg says. “It's not something I wanted to do.”
He found an alternative in the Peace Corps.
So after graduating college he found himself in Ethiopia in 1971 – a world away from the family farm he grew up on.
McClurg is one of many area residents who served in the Peace Corps, a federal service abroad program established by Kennedy on March 1, 1961.
There are about 35 to 40 returned Peace Corps volunteers in the Fort Wayne area.
For the past 25 years Faith Van Gilder has convened regular reunions and other events to keep the former volunteers, herself included, connected.
Van Gilder and her husband, David, served in Botswana from 1986 to 1988.
As the program marks 60 years this year, McClurg, Van Gilder and other residents talk about their time in the program and how it impacted their lives.
McClurg, 72, lives on his family farm in Huntington County. The farm dates back to the 1840s. It has been owned by various family members over the years, all buried just two miles away.
Those deep family roots made it hard for McClurg when deciding to leave to serve in Ethiopia at age 22. His mother, he says, wasn't too keen on him going to Africa.
“(It was) one of the burdens I had,” McClurg says. “All that history. ... I had to break away from to find me.”
McClurg served for 41/2 years before leaving in 1975. He put his knowledge of farming to use by working in the agriculture part of the program. McClurg says he trained Ethiopian high school graduates, as well as doing surveying, designing farms, building earthen dams and roads in the mountains.
“I always referred to it as another lifetime. A condensed lifetime,” he says. “It was like living a page of history.”
After going to graduate school in Vermont, McClurg had planned to go back overseas and work. But it didn't work out. So he instead came back to Indiana and got a job at Park Center, where he worked with the severely mentally ill. He retired after 37 years.
McClurg met Nancy Bonardi in Ethiopia in 1972 at the end of her two-year service. Unfortunately they lost contact after McClurg went to graduate school.
During that time, Bonardi got married and had a child. McClurg never married.
It was at one of the Fort Wayne Peace Corps reunions that McClurg had access to a 2016 national volunteer directory. “So I looked her up,” McClurg says about Bonardi.
He emailed her and found out that she was in Connecticut. They began a long distance relationship until she finally moved part time to Huntington County. The couple declared themselves life partners in 2018.
Now McClurg and Bonardi split their time between Virginia, where Bonardi has a condo that is close to her daughter and grandchildren, and McClurg's farm.
Bonardi first heard about the Peace Corps when at age 14 she saw an ad on TV. The voice said, “It's the best job you'll ever love.”
“It's an instinct that grabbed me,” Bonardi says. “It was a powerful experience.”
Bonardi was getting ready to graduate college when she signed up for the Peace Corps. “I was just overjoyed when I was accepted. It really did mean service,” she says.
She was an English teacher in Ethiopia. She went to a rural mountainside village by herself. “It was really a moving experience,” Bonardi says.
After leaving the Peace Corps in 1974, Bonardi became a teacher, teaching immigrants in New York City and then becoming a public school teacher teaching seventh grade in Connecticut.
She retired in 2018.
The 70-year-old says she misses the Peace Corps.
“There comes a time in our lives that we have to step into our own lives ... if a person is really looking for that extra meaning ... not just a filled in passport of I've been here and there, but one has traveled to expand his or her own mind, to be a part of that world village; it's that unifying element of connecting people,” she says.
“It's people meeting people. That's the most beautiful part I have found.”
Being an advocate
Van Gilder and her husband moved to Fort Wayne in the fall of 1988.
At that time there was no social media or good way to stay in touch. Van Gilder says the Peace Corps has struggled to keep up the database of the 243,000 people who have served, some who are now deceased.
Van Gilder began encountering people who were return volunteers and began making a list. Right now she has about 40 people from Fort Wayne, northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio on her email list. In addition, many volunteers have a spouse from their return country and they also are part of the group.
The group has not met in person for the last year because of the pandemic. They have kept up on the Facebook page and via Zoom, but Van Gilder hopes to start back meeting soon.
The pandemic also caused the evacuation of the 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers in March 2020, Van Gilder says. She adds there are plans for their return to the field this year.
Van Gilder serves on the board of the National Peace Corps Association and she and her husband are Peace Corps Advocacy Coordinators for Indiana.
She works to bring awareness of the Peace Corps, but also to ensure that the program continues to improve and grow through her service on the board. One of the board's goals is to increase volunteers in the field from the current 7,000 to 10,000. Volunteers serve in 60 countries. In addition, the board hopes to raise the budget for the program. For the last five years, it has remained at $410 million, Van Gilder says.
In addition, she does recruiting events and has become a mentor for young people wanting to or going into the Peace Corps.
Admittedly, Van Gilder says she's ready to turn over the baton as the convener of the group. The group members are getting older, herself included, and she's hoping that younger volunteers will step up.
“I'm glad we served when we did,” Van Gilder says. “On a more personal level, I think that's the ultimate volunteer experience. When you return to your community, and people ask you to be on a board or a committee, that's not a heavy lift.”
Van Gilder says it becomes easy to incorporate that volunteer service into your life.
The Van Gilders were in Washington – David practicing law at a small firm and Faith working in marketing – when “we both felt like that we weren't where we needed to be,” Faith Van Gilder says.
After meeting some people who had come back from serving in the Peace Corps, the idea took root and they took the plunge. Their friends “all looked at us like we were half crazy,” she says.
The couple lived at the level of the local people and received a monthly stipend to cover basics. The two years that she served became an important and significant part of her life, Van Gilder says.
Now the couple have Peace Corps friends all over the country and visit them. They also continue to serve their community.
Faith, who is a chief officer of marketing and development with the Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana, Michiana, serves on many community boards and is part of various organizations, while David, a partner at Fletcher Van Gilder LLP, also serves on boards and does a lot of pro bono work.
“I think it's important for all Americans to live overseas, even if it's for a week or a month, to be the only white face in the town,” Faith Van Gilder says. “It's valuable to be the minority and to be the foreigner. If you've only lived in one place and you don't have that opportunity, you don't know how it feels when a person comes from another country.”
She says she feels like it was destined or “pre-ordained” that Kennedy announced the establishment of the Peace Corps a month after she was born.
“It's patriotism and service. It's not military service,” Van Gilder says. “Then we come back to our countries and continue to serve.”
'Kick in pants'
Sam Ladowski appreciated the local group after returning to Fort Wayne.
The now 37-year-old went into the Peace Corps right after college. He grew up in Fort Wayne, attending Catholic school. “I felt like I was living a lot of privilege life,” Ladowski says. “There was a lot of excess and waste around me. I wanted a kick in the pants.”
He had been able to travel and always had a serving side. He decided he wanted to live and work abroad and the Peace Corps seemed like a good opportunity to do that. He was accepted his senior year in college and was assigned to Madagascar.
Ladowski became a health educator, educating residents about HIV and AIDS. He also helped teach about pregnancy health, vaccines and education about malaria.
During that time Ladowski says he made some really good relationships. “Some of the best friends I made were fellow Peace Corps volunteers,” he says.
After coming back to Fort Wayne in 2008, Ladowski began doing volunteer immigration work at a Christian organization. He eventually got into law school and got a human rights legal degree.
He met his wife while in law school. They married and now have three kids – ages 7, 5 and 3.
Ladowski has been an attorney for about eight or nine years. He works at the law firm Dale, Huffman & Babcock in Bluffton, which also has an office in Fort Wayne. Ladowski does elder law and estate planning.
Since his time of serving abroad, Ladowski has noticed how diverse things are, especially where he lives in Southwood Park. “It definitely gives a broader perspective,” he says, helping to appreciate people more.
“One thing (the Peace Corps has) instilled in me is serving your fellow man,” Ladowski says. “There's opportunity to serve regardless of your political affiliation and they can do it in their own backyard.”