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Peace Corps Profile: A new world in Honduras

Posted: December 9, 2012 - 1:00am
Cheryl Dunn Fellman, second from left, sits with Honduran friends during a trip back to San Marcos, Ocotepeque, Honduras, where she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in 2003, six years after her term ended.  Courtesy of Cheryl Dunn Fellman
Courtesy of Cheryl Dunn Fellman
Cheryl Dunn Fellman, second from left, sits with Honduran friends during a trip back to San Marcos, Ocotepeque, Honduras, where she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in 2003, six years after her term ended.

Cheryl Dunn Fellman, who today works as Vice President/Senior Operations Officer for Alaska Pacific Bank, once applied her talents much farther South. Fellman spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in San Marcos, Ocotepeque, Honduras.

Fellman missed her college graduation from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1995 because she was already on her way to begin her Peace Corps experience, traveling outside her “little world” for the first time.

“I grew up outside of Boston and had never traveled. My only understanding of the world outside of my “little world” was that of a bystander to all the adventures of my older brother. From the moment my brother left for college, when I was in middle school, I heard stories and was shown all the pictures of his varied experiences abroad. He was also a Peace Corps volunteer, in Mali, Africa, and I was always captured by his photos of his time there.” Fellman said, “I feel that though I was isolated in my “little world” prior to my own experiences abroad, I was not naïve or ignorant of the world outside of my world. Having been witness to all my older brother’s adventures abroad, gave me a better understanding of the differences that exist long before my own experiences took me there.”

Though Fellman’s position as a volunteer as a small business advisor for the Cooperativa Rio Grande, Ltda., a small savings and loan cooperative in San Marcos, may have seemed like it could be a real challenge for someone fresh out of college, the real wonder is that Fellman said she spoke little Spanish before immersing herself in Honduran culture.

“I embraced my placement. I fully immersed myself in the culture. Any vacations I took were not with other Americans but were with my Honduran friends. I believed very strongly in not creating my own “little America” in Honduras and therefore I had very little interaction with other volunteers. My total immersion into the community presented its own set of challenges being an “American woman” however those challenges greatly influenced who I am today.”

Fellman considers her time in Honduras to be important in shaping who she is today, but it can be harder to gauge what difference, if any, one has on a community as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

“Do I think I made a tangible difference in the work I did? Not exactly. Do I feel I made a difference? Absolutely! I think immersing myself in the community was the only way for both the locals and myself to gain a more intimate understanding of each other, our differences, and our cultures and yet realize that so many similarities really do exist.”

Fellman’s immersion in her Honduran community has endowed her with some lifelong friendships, though the Peace Corps recently put its 50-year relationship with Honduras on hold.

“Having spent over two years in Honduras and having developed friendships that I still maintain today, I am very saddened by the developments in the country and I worry for the safety of my Honduran friends still living there.” Fellman said.

The Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras in January due to the wave of cartel-related crime and violence. Fellman said it now has the highest murder rate per capita in the world. She also said that while much of the violence revolves around drugs, gangs and corruption, Peace Corps Volunteers found themselves in danger, with some volunteers having reported being robbed at gunpoint and raped, with one volunteer recently shot in the leg during a bus robbery.

“I am still in communication with a few dear Honduran friends in San Marcos as well as some who have relocated to the United States over the years. Friends in San Marcos have indicated that the area around San Marcos is still fairly safe but that safety is a very real issue these days and that it is only a matter of time before the drug related problems move into the small towns.”

Fellman has said she remembers her time in Honduras as if it were yesterday, and she found value in her many and varied experiences abroad. Some were wonderful, she said — “finally making those real personal connections with those people who became life-long friends.” Though she also faced challenges — “I didn’t speak more than a few Spanish words before I went to Honduras.” There were scary moments — She awoke “to a man breaking into my house in the middle of the night.”

“The varied experiences I had ultimately made me into a stronger and more confident woman and I am thankful for having had that opportunity.”

And Fellman exhibits that strength and confidence in her everyday life in Juneau, whether at work or at play.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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