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An urban-studies graduate finds himself on a barren hillside in Honduras, trying to help strangers in a desolate town. What to do? He takes his cues from Pitt, the Peace Corps, and some seeds of hope..

Wonderlust

 


Cara J. Hayden


  Yani Vozos (Bryan Moberly photo)
 

From his new home on a scrubby plot, a 22-year-old traveler surveys the landscape. It’s not exactly the fertile, Eden-like setting he’d envisioned. Instead, the neighborhood is a grid of one-story concrete cubes. The surrounding hills are bald. Nowhere does he see the sheltering trees that shade people in other pueblos of Mesoamerica.

In the distance, there’s a slat of river. The man recognizes it as the Rio Choluteca, which is partially to blame for the barren terracotta. Usually a gentle source of free-flowing life, the river swelled and surged not long ago, when rains from a powerful and deadly hurricane poured relentlessly for two weeks. The Choluteca burst through hand-built homes, uprooted bean crops, and gashed holes in timeworn footpaths. While the land was waterlogged and every citizen was homeless, the town’s mayor walked nearly 100 miles to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, to seek help. His plea was answered by many people, including the traveler now gazing at the raw terrain, a Kentucky farm boy named Yani Vozos.

With wavy hair and intense black eyes, Vozos bears a remarkable resemblance to the famed Greek musician Yanni, with whom he shares a first name. He has come to this flood-ravaged town to offer something beyond the financial donations that others from distant places have sent in response to the mayor’s plea. Vozos—a new Peace Corps volunteer—is giving two years of his life to help the townspeople rebuild their pueblo.

He joined the corps after earning his bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Pitt in 1999, adding himself to the ranks of more than 500 Pitt grads who’ve devoted several years of their lives to improving the world, person by person, village by village.

As he looks over the cubed homes on the dusty river bluff, Vozos isn’t the only one adjusting to different surroundings. The entire pueblo, called Morolica for two centuries, was moved to higher ground after the flood. Now, the locals are trying to shape their community into Nueva Morolica, nueva meaning new. At first, Vozos isn’t sure how he can help. What he eventually contributes isn’t something he ever imagined doing.

During the first few weeks, he spends his free time strolling through the pueblo’s new grid of streets, weaving around chickens and pigs, barefooted children, and women patting out tortillas in their dry, treeless, sun-scorched yards. Doing his best to imitate the local Spanish accent, he introduces himself to his new neighbors. Most of them are farmers who raise just enough corn and cattle on the outskirts of town to feed their families, but many of them invite him to dinner despite their limited means. During dinner conversations and, later, at pueblo council meetings, he hears about the work ahead. People need access to potable water, latrines need to be built in every yard, crops need to be revived, and ideas for the pueblo’s future need to sprout.

Even though it’s a blessing, the generosity of the world’s charitable organizations has been overwhelming for the mayor and other pueblo leaders. As Vozos listens to discussions about which charitable group is doing what, he realizes that many of the organizations aren’t talking to each other. So when representatives make the trek into Morolica, he suggests possible ways to combine efforts on latrine building, on creating a potable water system, and on other essential projects. He also writes letters from his simple one-room house, encouraging groups of volunteers and nonprofit organizations to collaborate. But this isn’t why he’s here. He wants to do more.

He has tackled tough daily work ever since he can remember. Born on a farm in Richmond, Kentucky, he fed chickens and gathered eggs before he was old enough to attend school. Then, his family opened a bakery on Main Street, and he spent the rest of his growing years sweeping the yeast-scented shop, waiting on customers and trucking doughnuts and cakes around town. He was always curious about how everyone worked together. In his head, he mapped out networks that illustrated how he, his parents, and his siblings kept the bakery going. It was surprising how many people and processes and ingredients it took to sustain a single business. Sometimes he thought about his hometown and how the lone bakery fit—one limb providing bread for the whole body. But in Nueva Morolica, he’s still not sure where he fits. He has to figure out his role in restoring the pueblo.

In urban studies classes at Pitt, he learned to articulate his inklings about how his family’s bakery functioned within the town. He learned about demographics, housing, education, and city planning. Sometimes, he rode buses into different Pittsburgh neighborhoods and walked the sidewalks by himself, looking for the unique networks that connected the community.

During his four years of studying the inner workings of communities, Vozos completed internships that would help during his Peace Corps stint. He interned with three organizations: on a global level with the United Nations’ Environment and Development Committee in London, on a city level with New York City’s Department of Design and Construction, and on a neighborhood level with Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Development Inc. He also journeyed to 10 countries around the world on a study abroad program, followed by a semester of study in London.

On his travels, he picked up enough courses to earn a minor in international politics, and he gained many new perspectives on the world and its ways.

“My experience at Pitt was what pushed me in the direction of the Peace Corps,” he says. “Here I am, 22 years old. I’ve been around the world. I’ve lived in some amazing cities, and I’ve got this education. Now I want a challenge. I want to get back to grassroots—to get next to people and make a positive change.”

Many Pitt grads agree with these sentiments. This year, Pitt was named 15th in the nation among large universities for the number of alumni volunteering with the Peace Corps; the University also ranked first among Pennsylvania schools and 10th among graduate-degree-granting institutions across the country. The rankings, reflecting Pitt’s strength in international studies and community service, are an affirmation for those who have witnessed the rise in students making postgraduation plans with the corps since President Kennedy established the organization in 1961.

“The Peace Corps has adventure, and travel, and learning new cultures and languages. That’s already instilled in a lot of Pitt students,” says Alison Tweedie, a western Pennsylvania Peace Corps representative based at Pitt. She’s a doctoral student in Pitt’s School of Education and has served with the Peace Corps in Suriname. “I’ve been to a bunch of universities. But Pitt students, they have that ‘wonderlust.’”

Her term, “wonderlust,” describes a brand of student who wanders with purposeful wonder and curiosity—someone like Vozos. She says these
students tend to be independent leaders, too. In the Peace Corps, these qualities are essential, because the volunteers must be able to trust themselves. Most are placed in a town alone, miles from other volunteers, where the only means of transport is by foot. Yet Pitt Peace Corps volunteers have flourished with this independence. Throughout the years, they’ve volunteered in 92 countries around the world and led vaccination programs in Paraguay, taught English in Ukraine, managed school districts in Malaysia, and guided small businesses in Honduras, among other projects.

After several months in Nueva Morolica, Vozos begins to flourish, too. On his walks around the pueblo, he silently problem-solves. When he was at Pitt, he jogged along the tree-shaded trails of Schenley Park every morning, reflecting on all he was learning. As he ran past oaks and maples and birch trees, he organized his thoughts and goals. But there are no trees in Nueva Morolica. No trees.

His neighbors say that the old pueblo once had a few trees shading their adobe homes, which were tucked into nooks off footpaths. Then, when flooding from Hurricane Mitch arrived in 1998, many of the trees were destroyed or swept away, along with the clay-built homes. Hurricane Mitch, which reached a hurricane’s maximum strength of Category 5, was one of the most powerful storms on record. In the aftermath, when the entire pueblo relocated to higher ground, trees were razed so that all the concrete homes could be built at once, creating a sparse suburban-like development without lawns. The neighbors also tell Vozos that the area is bereft of trees because Morolicans have been using the slash-and-burn farming technique for more than 200 years. Very few people, if any, have replanted trees to compensate for those felled for crops.

When he realizes how much he yearns for the leafy treescapes of Pittsburgh and his native Kentucky, Vozos decides to approach several local teachers. Trees could provide the pueblo with a lasting benefit—preventing soil erosion, mitigating desert-like conditions, protecting water sources. Here, too, trees would offer cool shade for the women who make tortillas in their yards. When Vozos proposes his tree-planting idea to the teachers, he explains that it would invest children in reshaping their community, and it would be a chance to teach them about science and environmentalism. The teachers are delighted.

Not long afterward, Vozos is in a Morolican schoolyard, supervising students as they lean branches together in an A-frame structure. One boy bonds the joints with twine, wrapping and knotting it around the ends. Then his classmates create a tarp of leaves, making a tent canopy. Underneath the structure, they layer a bed of sand, soil, and compost, all gleaned from the local land. Finally, Vozos shows the children how to plant seeds in the lean-to, which will provide protection from the wind and near-equatorial sunlight.

When the seeds have sprouted a foot high in the schoolyard canopy, the students plant the saplings around the school and in their families’ yards. The tree planting stirs up a lot of energy. Hope and new life emerge in the green leaves. People around the pueblo begin asking about the trees, wondering whether they, too, can begin planting. A local community development organization begins setting up additional tree nurseries, taking the work and pride into the hands of the town’s own residents.

The project is so successful that Vozos begins traveling around the county, starting tree nurseries in other communities affected by Hurricane Mitch. He treks to them by foot, hiking 6 to 8 hours along mountain footpaths once traversed by citizens of ancient Latin American empires. After months of these wonderlust hikes, he feels that he, too, could walk 100 miles for a community of friends, just like the mayor of Nueva Morolica once did.

When Vozos departs from the pueblo for good, the river bluff is a tinge greener. The trees are as tall as he is. Soon, they will peep above the roofs. In time, children will climb the branches that cradle birds’ nests, and neighbors will find comfort beneath the broad leaves.

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