Richard Hildner didn’t know what to expect when he walked into Chile’s national fire office in 1985.
It had been 14 years since Hildner had lived there for two years on a Peace Corps assignment; he wasn’t sure if anyone would remember him, despite having played an integral part in creating the South American country’s first forest fire management program.
“Some of the people I worked with were still in the national office,” Hildner said. “One guy said, ‘Richard come in here, we want to show you something. See this map? This is our national dispatch map. That you created for us.’”
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool,’” he said.
Hildner, a Peace Corps volunteer from 1969 through 1971 and current Glacier High School history teacher, is just one branch of an extensive network of returned volunteers residing in the Flathead Valley. This year marks the 50th anniversary for the Corps, which began on March 1, 1961.
Being in the Corps community since the 10th anniversary, Hildner said he believes the Peace Corps is still on track with its mission, which President John F. Kennedy said was to promote world peace and friendship.
According to the Corps, this means developing Americans’ understanding of other countries, as well as other countries’ understanding of Americans, by “helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”
“I think it’s still on task, I think it still does great work,” Hildner said. “I think that just in the nature of the evolution of the organization, I think they may keep a little bit closer track of the volunteers.”
He added with a laugh: “I could have disappeared for two years and shown up again and said, ‘Thanks for the experience.’”
Last year, Montana ranked third in the country for states with the highest per capita rate of Peace Corps participants with about seven volunteers per 100,000 people. Missoula topped every other metropolitan area in the country with the most volunteers per 100,000 people with about 14.
Lynne Brett, who served in Ecuador with her husband Angel Rosario from 1984 to 1986, said she would like to start a returned-volunteer group up in the Flathead, similar to the Western Montana Peace Corps Volunteers in Missoula.
With so many volunteers now rooted in Northwest Montana, she figured it would be worth a shot. Brett is currently working with a list of 30 names, and their first meeting two weeks ago yielded eight participants.
“Hopefully we’ll have a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers who will be able to talk to people,” she said. “More than anything, we want to get to know each other as a group; returned Peace Corps volunteers have a lot in common.”
Brett’s is a frequently expressed sentiment among the Flathead’s volunteers; the Peace Corps experience tends to change life’s trajectory.
Just ask Lucy and Andrew Beltz, a couple living in Martin City who met, fell in love and married while serving in the Republic of Vanuatu from 2003 to 2006.
While in Vanuatu, a series of 83 islands located north of New Zealand and west of Fiji, Lucy taught math, science and English, while Andrew was an agro-forester on a different island.
It wasn’t until their last year working in Vanuatu that they started dating, which led to marriage on the beach.
Both Beltzes said the people they worked with welcomed them with open arms into a unique culture where jet streams and cargo ships are exciting events and telephones are few and far between.
“We always said the world could collapse but Vanuatu would stay as it is,” Lucy said.
Part of their mission in the Pacific country was to prevent urban shift, which means they attempted to retain the educated youth, who usually left for more urban settings after school.
That’s an idea Lucy and Andrew say also applies to Montana. It’s also part of the reason they chose to live in a more rural setting than their native Chicago and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Working with the Peace Corps was “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” Andrew said, and his work there and his study at the University of Montana Forestry School translated to his current position owning a forest-land management company and running a native plant nursery.
Lucy, who occasionally substitute teaches in Columbia Falls and primarily cares for the couple’s three young children, said the Peace Corps is a worthwhile adventure.
“I went in thinking I was going to share my knowledge,” Lucy said. “I think I ended up learning more than I was able to teach.”
Hildner’s experiences in the Peace Corps also opened doors he didn’t expect, including working with the international community on forest fire management after leaving Chile and traveling the world.
“I think that it’s a marvelous way to expand one’s world view. And I served with recent college graduates and recent retirees,” Hildner said. “Those who are looking for an opportunity for public service, they will receive a measure far beyond what they are able to give.”
For more information on the returned volunteer group in the Flathead, contact Lynne Brett at 756-5152 or email@example.com. For information on the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov.
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