Silverthorne couple to volunteer with Peace Corps
In two weeks, two longtime Silverthorne residents will fly to a tiny country in Africa known as the mountain kingdom to begin two years of Peace Corps service.
Joni Ellis, 57, and her husband, Pat Wathen, 63, will join just 7 percent of current Peace Corps volunteers who are 50 and older. The average volunteer’s age is 28.
The pair also stands out as they are serving together as a married couple; 94 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are single.
Ellis said she and Wathen submitted their volunteer application in February 2014 and were told in September they would be serving in the country of Lesotho.
“When we found out we were going to Lesotho, we said, ‘Where’s Lesotho?’” Ellis said.
A NEW HOME IN THE MOUNTAINS
The country is surrounded by South Africa and is about a quarter of the size of Colorado with similar geography and climate to the Centennial State. Lesotho’s elevation ranges from 4,500 to 11,500 feet.
The country was one of the first to partner with the Peace Corps, which was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Volunteers arrived in Lesotho in 1967, one year after the country gained independence from Great Britain.
Most people in Lesotho are engaged in subsistence agriculture, and the country’s economy is largely based on exporting water and diamonds. About 40 percent of the country’s 2 million people live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
HIV and AIDS have gripped the country in recent years, leading to social and economic challenges.
According to the 2014 United Nations Human Development Index for Lesotho, the country’s average life expectancy dropped from 59.4 years in 1990 to 43.7 years in 2005. The life expectancy has since risen to 49.4 years in 2013.
Ellis said she knows little about what the couple’s day-to-day life will look like, but she and Wathen will be involved in a community development project centered on youth health.
After 10 weeks of in-country language and culture training, they will be placed in one of Lesotho’s 10 districts and will live like locals while they work together alongside a local counterpart to tackle community challenges.
Ellis said she and Wathen expect to be further challenged by the language, the distance from family and friends and other unforeseen hurdles.
They are looking forward to learning Sesotho, the language commonly spoken along with English, as well as how to navigate their new lives. Ellis said she is excited to integrate into the community and form relationships with residents, especially local mothers.
SUMMIT COUNTY CONNECTIONS
Ellis was driven to join the Peace Corps by her desire for adventure, she said, as well as the opportunity to promote peace and understanding through cross-cultural exchange and the chance to help individuals.
“Any way that we can help another person helps us as a human race,” Ellis said.
Ellis has a volunteering background; she has served as president of the Rotary Club of Summit County and has visited Guatemala several times for Rotary service trips focused on literacy.
She thinks the Peace Corps chose the couple for their business experience.
Ellis and Wathen have been together for about 35 years, and in their nearly 30 years in Summit County they have owned and sold three businesses.
“We have kind of just looked out the door and said, ‘What’s next?’ many times in our lives,” she said. “Maybe you’d call us impatient or something.”
Both originally from California, they came to Colorado together and worked as raft guides out of Rancho Del Rio on the Upper Colorado River.
The next season they started a rafting company, called Joni Ellis River Tours, which they ran in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Later they ran a snowmobile company and a home inspection business, and they worked a variety of jobs in off-seasons.
Ellis was a server at the Sunshine Café in Silverthorne, and she spent seven years working for the Summit School District, including time as a school bus driver, a paraprofessional and three years teaching at Breckenridge Elementary. Wathen has driven buses for the Summit Stage as well as the old trolley in Breckenridge.
‘WE THRIVE ON CHANGE’
While managing their last business, they started thinking about shifting their focus from making a living to making a difference through the Peace Corps.
“It has intrigued us since we were in our early 20s, but the time wasn’t right until just now,” she said. “Change can be scary, but in lots of ways I think we thrive on change.”
Preparations have included selling property, renting their Silverthorne home and packing the two duffel bags they are each allowed for Lesotho’s colder climate.
“In some ways it feels like we’re packing for a two-year-long river trip,” Ellis said.
They’ve packed solar chargers, a tool kit, a sewing kit and clothing for all kinds of weather.
Ellis and Wathen, who have never been to Africa, will earn a month of vacation time a year, and the couple’s adult children plan to visit and travel with them.
“Our kids think it seems like a natural thing for their parents to do,” Ellis said.
Though they had dreamed of volunteering somewhere warm with an ocean breeze, Ellis said she’s sure they will soon feel at home in the mountainous country.
The pair will fly to an orientation in Philadelphia on April 19 before making the journey to Lesotho and arriving in the capital of Maseru on April 22.
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