by Sara Curnow Wilson

Many Temple students are used to commuting, but Rachel Applewhite ’15 might have all of her former classmates beat.

Applewhite works with mothers of young children as a Peace Corps community health volunteer in Chota, Peru. Some of the mothers live in homes inaccessible by road. So what does Applewhite do? She walks — often for more than an hour. And there is no guarantee they will be home when she arrives.

“Sometimes trying to find moms that are home is like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” says Applewhite, who graduated with a degree in political science and minors in Spanish and public health. “Two or three visits later I end up finding them and we’re able to work together.”

For some, I was the very first black person they had ever seen. Everywhere I went they wanted to touch my hair or take my picture. That’s when I realized there was an opportunity to teach the community about understanding diversity.

In addition to helping the mothers learn about proper feeding techniques, early childhood stimulation and hygiene practices, Applewhite works with students in two different high schools. They focus on critical thinking and social skills as well as sexual education. The goal is to create a group of young people who can act as a resource for their peers.

Working with mothers and teenagers in these capacities are Applewhite’s main duties as a volunteer, but she also is able to complete her own projects. In her spare time, she teaches English classes. She is also completing a diversity project with high school seniors, helping them work together to learn about different cultures and regions around the world. She started the project after encountering many children who had only experienced the world outside of Chota through television or the internet.

“For some, I was the very first black person they had ever seen. Everywhere I went they wanted to touch my hair or take my picture,” she says. “That’s when I realized there was an opportunity to teach the community about understanding diversity.”

Applewhite says it can be hard to measure the impact of her work, in part because the goals she is working toward are so long-term. But she is able to see small signs that she is making a difference.

Rachel Applewhite and friend in Peru

“Daily, I feel that I make an impact when my host mother makes comments like ‘Trees are the lungs of the world, aren’t they?’ and when she supports some of the feelings I have about some racial tensions in the United States, even without firsthand experience.”

She is also learning her own lessons.

During training, which took place over three months in Lima, she had many ideas for ways she could help the community. She arrived in Chota eager to implement these plans, but soon realized this was not realistic.

“I had to realize when I arrived that I cannot make an impact with ‘my projects,’” she explains. “I needed to work hand in hand with community professionals and community members. I needed to build a relationship where they could trust me and I could trust them.”

And like anyone traveling abroad, Applewhite has gained a new perspective on things at home. In some cases, this means a new appreciation of things she once took for granted — like toilets, good water pressure, and even junk food.

“Hot water and good water pressure are the most important parts of a hotel room,” she says, “and Krispy Kreme hot glazed doughnuts are the best things ever invented.”

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