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Back from Armenia, Peace Corps volunteer feels fulfilled but 'surreal'

Conventional wisdom would say that Lauren Engel worked in an unconventional country as a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia for the past 27 months.

"A lot of people, when they think of the Peace Corps, they think of Latin America or Africa. But the Peace Corps is actually very active in Europe," especially in Eastern Europe, said Engel, 32, a Rodgers Forge native, who returned from Armenia last month and is staying with her sister in Mount Washington.

Engel, whose mother still lives in Rodgers Forge and whose father lives in Lutherville, lived in the town of Gavar, population 23,000, about 60 miles from Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Gavar is close to Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the landlocked country and one of the largest freshwater lakes at that elevation in the world, she said.

Her role, for which she was recently featured in a Peace Corps press release, was to work with non-governmental organizations in Armenia in a first-of-its-kind program to teach families to care for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities — and to try to remove the social stigma associated with having disabilities.

"Having an intellectual disability remains a stigma in Armenia and there is a misunderstanding among the general community of what having a disability means," Engel is quoted in the press release.

Last week, in a phone interview from Bethany Beach, Del, where she is vacationing with her family, Engel said it feels "surreal" as she readjusts to life in the States.

"I really lived in a different world," said the Notre Dame Prep and McDaniel College graduate. "The general population was fairly poor."

Although Armenia is not a third-world country, its secession from the Soviet Union in 1990 and a 1988 earthquake still hurt the country economically to this day, Engel said.

Gavar and its surrounding villages once had five factories, but, "When the Soviet Union left, a lot of those jobs left with it," she said.

During her Peace Corps service from May 2012 until last month, she had running water for three hours a day and melted snow to wash dishes in the harsh Armenian winters, she said.

But that, in a sense, was what Engel wanted.

To join the Peace Corps, Engel, who earned a degree in communications at McDaniel, left her job as a fundraiser for the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center after six years — and put on hold her studies for a masters degree in public administration at the University of Baltimore — to join the Peace Corps.

"I had been thinking about the Peace Corps since college," she said. "I just really wanted to live in another culture and immerse myself in that."

With funding from a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-Peace Corps Small Projects Assistance grant, Engel participated in a project to get families — many of them isolated and lacking support — hands-on practice and guidance from local specialists trained in Yerevan, including a speech pathologist, psychologist, cognitive specialist and part-time medical doctor.

Engel and other Peace Corps volunteers worked with two different NGOs, Good Hope NGO, which empowers special needs children and their parents on health, social and educational issues facing disabled children, and Armenian Caritas, which works to improve living and educational conditions and public health to the most vulnerable social groups, among other missions. Armenia Caritas also runs the Little Prince after-school program for poor families.

Although children with disabilities could go to a local center three times a week for rehabilitation, their families needed to learn how to continue the rehab at home.

"The complaint was that they would go home and the parents weren't receiving the knowledge to continue to work with them," Engel said.

The training efforts came to the attention of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern, who recently visited to show his support, Peace Corps officials said.

Parents have formed friendships and support networks through the Peace Corps efforts, leading to an increase in confidence, Engel said. The children typically had disabilities ranging from cystic fibrosis to autism to broken bones that never healed properly.

"There's a huge lack of understanding about people with disabilities," she said. "They don't know how to include them in schools."

"It's really nice to have water now," she now admits but Engel said she feels fulfilled by her Peace Corps service and raves about the hospitality of the Armenian people.

"I learned a lot," she said. "Until you really experience living in another culture and learning to love (its people), it's hard to put into words. It has really redirected me in terms of what my life goals are."

She plans to renew her graduate studies next spring and is looking for a job in grant management.

"My hope is to be able to work with organizations to help them write grants," preferably groups dedicated to family planning and empowerment of women and youths, she said.

Last week, she was content to bask in Bethany Beach and catch up with her family.

"It's very strange," she said. "I've lived in Baltimore my whole life, but my perspective has changed."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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