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Catonsville native's Peace Corps service means holidays away from home

At about 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30, as Brian Holler walked down a dirt road in a small village in Turkmenistan, a heavy, rumbling noise made him pause for a second during the long-distance phone conversation he was having with a reporter.

"I'm walking home from a New Year's party," he said, apologetically. "I have a tractor passing me right now. It's towing a cart."

And then Holler, a 2002 graduate of Catonsville High School and a current U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, laughed.

He sounded happy, content.

"I passed on a lot of vodka," he said of skipping toasts at the party. "That's why I ended up leaving early, because I was trying to save some energy for actual New Year's Eve tomorrow night."

More than a year into his 27-month commitment in the former Soviet republic in Central Asia, where he works at a local clinic with kids, teens and pregnant women, Holler said he was excited to take in his first New Year's celebration in the village.

He missed last year's celebration while tied up in the country's capital because of issues with his travel documents.

"I'm really looking forward to spending time with my (host) family and seeing what a real New Year's in Turkmenistan is like," he said, noting it is the biggest holiday of the year for villagers, many of whom get dressed up in costumes for the occasion.

Of course, he'll also miss his family and friends back in Catonsville, he said, many of whom he spoke with Christmas weekend.

The feeling is mutual, said his parents, Don and Deana Holler, and other family members.

"We miss him and hate for him to be away, but he's doing what he wants to do," Deana Holler said. "This is where his heart is."

"I think you're always proud of whatever your children and grandchildren are doing, but what Brian is doing is a little unusual from what most young people do," said Holler's grandmother, Berchie Manley, a former member of the Baltimore County Council. "So you miss them, and wish they were here, but you are proud of what they are doing."

Day to day life

Holler, 27, joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a political science degree, working for a couple years as a patient advocate at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center then earning a master's degree in public health from Tulane University.

His day-to-day life now is spent mostly at the local clinic in his village, where – in line with the local norm – he works six days a week.

He usually does about two hours of counseling with patients first, using his Turkmen language skills.

"There's usually a really long line, so I focus on the older folks who need to get their blood pressures checked, that sort of thing. I do a ton of that," he said.

At 10 a.m. he teaches a basic nutrition and health education class for pregnant women.

At 10:30 a.m. three days a week, he runs a health club for teens, which has drawn a nice crowd in part because of the novelty of having him as the teacher, he said.

"It started off, what would get them to come was that I was doing English lessons, plus I was an American guy, and it was like, 'Who the hell is this weird guy coming in and speaking?'…Many of them had never seen someone from another country before," Holler said.

While many of his students likely will never leave their country either, they are eager to learn English, Holler said.

"It's a ridiculously inspiring thing, how people want to learn here without any incentive to do so," he said.

After lunch, Holler teaches more classes. On Sundays, his only day off, he sleeps in, shops for necessities and meets with friends, though many people in the village wake up early to tackle a full day's worth of chores, he said.

His host family is "soundly middle class," he said.

His host mother is an elementary school teacher, and his host father teaches Russian. The couple have four children, two girls and two boys.

Where he lives is essentially a desert, he said.

It is flat for hundreds of kilometers around. When it rains, which is rare, the dirt streets turn messy.

"It turns into a mud pit," he said of the village. "I'm like knee-deep in mud by the time I get to work, but so is everyone else."

'Into the unknown'

Holler said that while he misses everyone back home, he is enjoying his time and learning a lot.

"I think the most important thing it's taught me is humility," he said.

"I always thought when I joined Peace Corps that I would have this huge impact, and that's what it's all about, mixing it up and making a difference.

"But in being here, I've realized that if I can impact a couple people's lives each day, in a small way, it will really be a success for me."

Deana Holler said she hopes to have her son home by next Thanksgiving, though he's technically scheduled to come home just after that.

Don Holler and Christine Holler, Brian's sister, both said they'd like to have him back in town to go to Baltimore Ravens games with them again, one of their favorite family activities before he left and one they enjoyed in October, when Brian was home for a couple weeks for a close friend's wedding.

"It was great," Don Holler said of the get-together, which included a win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. "We tried to pack as much into that time as humanely possible."

No one in the family would say where they think Brian will end up in the future.

"I'm curious to see where he'll land," Christine Holler said. "My brother's really good with adjusting to change. He adapts to any environment."

He's always had an adventurous streak in him, they said. He may end up anywhere.

"He has the courage to go off into the unknown," said his grandmother, who suspects Brian's desire to help others will shape his future path, just as it's shaping his life in Turkmenistan today.

"He seems personally gratified," Berchie Manley said. "I think it's wonderful that he is able to do it and wants to do it."

Wherever Brian Holler ends up, it's likely he'll stop through Catonsville for some family time on the way.

He also plans to enjoy crabs from Ships Café, a cream cheese bagel from Sam's Bagels, and a gyro from Dimitri's International Grill.

"Those are the things I've just been dying for," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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