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Sunday, March 4, 2001

Letters from TOGO
Peace Corps volunteer Chris Johnston, of Winthrop, writes from West Africa

Copyright © 2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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The Peace Corps is 40 years old. Its anniversary began Oct. 14, 2000, marking the day in 1960 when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the University of Michigan's student union and challenged the 10,000 students present to volunteer their skills overseas. Less than five months later, the Peace Corps was created, on March 1, 1961.

The anniversary celebration ends September 2001.

Since the Peace Corps began, it has had 162,000 volunteers and trainees and has served 164 countries.

To mark the celebration, we plan to feature occasional letters, beginning with this issue, written by Peace Corps volunteer Chris Johnston, of Winthrop, now serving in Togo, a tiny country in West Africa. He is currently stationed in a small, northern village in that country, called Pogno (Ponio).

Johnston, 25, is a 1993 graduate of Winthrop High School. In 1997, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from University of Maine, at Orono. After college, he worked on an organic farm in Wisconsin for one year, he returned to Winthrop to work at Oak Haven, in Monmouth, a care home for special needs adults. He also was a substitute teacher and tutor in Readfield and Winthrop schools.

Last winter, he signed up for the Peace Corps. His service date began last June 15, when he flew from Portland, Maine to Washington, D.C. There, at Peace Corps headquarters, he received a briefing and immunizations.

From there he flew to Amsterdam, switched flights, and flew to Lome, Togo, "a flight that took them over the Sahara desert for several hours," said his sister, Carrie Johnston, a student majoring in social work at UMaine.

Chris Johnston arrived in Lome, June 17. There, he received three months of training, from June to September. His area of expertise is agriculture. Only 9 percent of Peace Corps volunteers sign up for that sector. According to Peace Corp information, 39 percent of volunteers choose to specialize in education, 18 percent in health, 17 percent in the environment, 13 percent in business, and 4 percent, other. The average age for volunteers is 29. Eighty-two percent of volunteers have undergraduate degrees; 13 percent have graduate studies/degrees.

"Togo is very close to the country of Burkina Faso," his sister said. "They let him cross the border into that country to get a visa and other things, because if he needs emergency medical help, that's where he would go."

The remote Pogno is 20 miles from the nearest Togo town, DaPong. Johnston visits a friend there once a month, according to Carrie Johnston. "That's where the phone is, too," she said. "He usually lets us know ahead of time when he will be there so we can call."

Johnston's parents are Del Johnston and Sandra Johnston, both of Winthrop.

The following are excerpts of letters Chris Johnston has sent since last September:

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Copyright © Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.