Drury MacKenzie ’03 was recently included in an article in the Messenger Post about local Peace Corps experiences, as part of coverage of the organization’s 50th anniversary. MacKenzie was a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to Haiti.
“I lived in a mountain village and worked with a local farming organization,” the article quotes her, explaining, “The mission was to help farmers become more efficient and generate more income from their crops, she said, which ranged from beans and corn to pineapple and mango.”
In the time since her service in the Peace Corps, MacKenzie has returned to Haiti on her own.
“I wanted to go back, to become more involved,” she is quoted. The article notes “Her projects have included helping launch the first-ever film festival held in Haiti, Festival Film Jakmèl. The festival is part of Ciné Institute, which provides Haitian youth with film education, entertainment and technical training.”
MacKenzie’s business, RenewEn, was inspired by her experience in Haiti, as it was the first time she had lived somewhere without the free-flowing water and utilities so widely available in the United States. According to the article, her company’s “goal is to provide ‘smart energy solutions,’ she said, by ‘working with customers in developing countries to eliminate their dependency on fossil fuels.'”
She credits her time and experience in Haiti with motivating her to try to improve life for those in developing countries.
MacKenzie earned her B.A. in economics cum laude and was a member of Koshare while a student. She was inducted into the Omicron Delta Epsilon National Honor Society in Economics and received the President’s Public Service Award.
The full article follows.
Local Peace Corps stories part of global anniversary
Julie Sherwood • staff writer • February 1, 2011
After Peace Corps founder R. Sargent Shriver died this month, President Obama called the in-law of President John F. Kennedy “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.”
Shriver’s accomplishments spanned several decades, and his work led to the Peace Corps, sending almost a quarter-million volunteers to aid 139 countries around the world over the past 50 years.
Among those who left their comfortable, middle-class lives in Ontario County were three recent college graduates, a director of nonprofits and a retired couple.
Their stories of life in the Peace Corps are varied. They range from an unexpected, swift evacuation from a violent political rebellion in Haiti to a period of agonizing homesickness followed by tears of sadness when it was time to leave a West African village.
A different, better person
“I had lived a relatively sheltered life up to then,” recalled Canandaigua resident Jennifer Brownell, who grew up in Geneva.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, at age 22, she fulfilled an urge to do something significant by joining the Peace Corps.
“I wanted to do good, wanted to do positive work,” said Brownell.
It landed her in the French-speaking Republic of Cameroon, West Africa.
“I didn’t unpack my bags for the first six months,” said Brownell, who ended up serving from 1992 to 1995.
The dropout rate for Peace Corps volunteers is more than 60 percent. Brownell thought she’d become part of the statistics.
“It’s not easy being lonely,” she said.
The nearest fellow volunteer was hours away. The language barrier and cultural differences were more than she thought she could bear.
At that time, women in Cameroon lived in a polygamous society with few choices, she said. They weren’t allowed to own land, have their own business or a bank account. Their choices were mainly to either stay with their father, get married or be a prostitute.
Brownell’s role was to work with health care professionals to raise the quality of life for mothers and children. It involved teaching moms about nutrition, pre-natal care and other ways to be healthy and raise healthy children – not an easy task in a country where meat in a home goes first to the men.
Peace Corps work “is not for everyone,” said Brownell, now executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Ontario County.
But it was for her.
“I came home a different person, a better person,” she said.
The changes also made her less tolerant of the American way of life. In Cameroon, people take care of each other and behave as a true community, she said. Even strangers are welcomed as guests and given the best food and best bed in the house.
There, “it was like one big family … here, it is every man for himself.”
She cried when it was time to go, said Brownell, but this time, for a different reason: “I didn’t want to leave.”
Making something of retirement
Gary Francis retired as principal engineer at Pactiv Corp.; his wife, Carole, retired as associate examiner with the state Comptroller’s Office. The Canandaigua couple had no hankering to kick back after retirement, though. In 2006, it was off to Chiapas in southern Mexico with the Peace Corps. Working for the Mexican government’s Council of Science and Technology, the goal was helping businesses there become more competitive.
“Just like here, Mexican businesses are affected by Chinese imports,” said Gary, who used his experience in engineering and industry to help in economic development. Carole used her business and administrative expertise.
When they joined the Peace Corps, “we envisioned teaching English in Africa,” said Gary.
While their work did involve teaching, it also involved using their knowledge and experience.
While they got to see results of their efforts, said Gary – they helped start several projects that received government approval – the personal rewards were equally satisfying, he said.
“We totally immersed ourselves in the Mexican way of life. … You learn about the culture and yourself,” he said.
Carole said learning the language and coping with challenges like navigating public transportation – Peace Corps volunteers aren’t allowed to drive, so they must find other means – was daunting initially, she said.
“My students and the taxi drivers were our best teachers,” she said.
While there, the couple became “part of an extended family,” said Gary. They have stayed in contact with their new friends and returned to Mexico since their Peace Corps service ended in 2008 to attend weddings and a baptism.
“I would do it all over again,” Gary said. “I would recommend it.”
A natural fit?
Judy Bennett was no stranger to international travel when she opted for the Peace Corps in 1999, though her work experience up until then had focused on projects here at home. The Canandaigua resident had worked in community development and human services throughout the Rochester region as an advocate for Rural Opportunities (now PathStones) and as a youth exchange officer helping student foreign exchanges for Canandaigua Rotary Club.
A two-year stint promoting community development and emerging nonprofits in post-Soviet Lithuania wasn’t didn’t mirror her experience here.
“I saw how entrenched communism was,” she said.
Though Lithuania had become an independent country about a decade before, it was still struggling. Soviet occupation for nearly half a century left Lithuania dependent both economically and politically.
“It took a generation for that to change,” said Bennett, who volunteered at a time when Lithuanians still believed what they had been told – that Americans were evil.
Troubles resulting from former Soviet domination included alcoholism and other destructive behaviors.
Like Brownell, Bennett experienced loneliness. But she developed lasting friendships too, and returned to visit in 2006.
It was rewarding to see how far the country and its people had progressed, she said.
“I saw a significant difference,” she said.
The Peace Corps experience is one she wouldn’t have wanted to miss, said Bennett, who last year retired as director of the West Ontario office of the American Red Cross.
“It’s an education, a chance to learn about the rest of the world and bring back what you learned,” she said.
Inspiring big projects
Drury MacKenzie never got to complete her two years in the Peace Corps. The Naples Central School graduate, fresh from earning a bachelors from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in August 2003, took off for Haiti – just months before the violent political rebellion that culminated with the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“I lived in a mountain village and worked with a local farming organization,” she said.
The mission was to help farmers become more efficient and generate more income from their crops, she said, which ranged from beans and corn to pineapple and mango.
When the riots began in early 2004, the Peace Corps made sure she and other volunteers were quickly returned home.
Before being evacuated in February 2004, MacKenzie experienced some tense moments, however. One involved a ride in the back of a truck with other volunteers during a shooting. Three elderly Haitian men played a key role in leading them out of the area, she recalled.
“I was never threatened,” added MacKenzie, who has since returned to Haiti, independent of the Peace Corps. “I wanted to go back, to become more involved,” she said.
Her projects have included helping launch the first-ever film festival held in Haiti, Festival Film Jakmèl. The festival is part of Ciné Institute, which provides Haitian youth with film education, entertainment and technical training.
She also started a business inspired by her Peace Corps experience, called RenewEn. Its goal is to provide “smart energy solutions,” she said, by “working with customers in developing countries to eliminate their dependency on fossil fuels.”
Living in Haiti with the Peace Corps was an eye-opener, said MacKenzie, who lived in areas with no running water or other services taken for granted in the United States. Had it not been for the Peace Corps, she probably wouldn’t have chosen the path she is now on, she said, in trying to improve life for those in a developing country.
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