When Steven S. Douglas considers his life's defining moments, he comes to a reassuring conclusion: He was meant to be one of the 33 Americans in the first-ever Peace Corps delegation to South Africa.
In a matter of weeks, the 28-year-old Baltimorean will be headed to a country trying to heal the deep wounds inflicted by decades of white supremacist rule.
Pardon him if he seems excited. It happens to be a dream come true.
"How could I pass up an opportunity so historic and monumental?" Douglas asked. "This is something I've been hoping for all my life."
For three years, Douglas has worked in Baltimore helping the disadvantaged in this part of the world.
Originally employed by the city Social Services Department to work with foster families, he most recently worked in a state-funded project helping disabled and delinquent youth find opportunities in Baltimore.
Public service comes naturally to the only child of Carolyn L. Douglas and Frederick Douglas. His mother, a Towson resident, directs a Catholic Charities program that counsels foster care families in Baltimore.
His father, a former college professor, is a Methodist minister in a Philadelphia suburb.
Although divorced, his parents expected him to achieve a college degree and pursue a professional career.
But, from a young age, he also was expected to use his opportunities to promote the greater good.
"He's been very fortunate in a lot of ways," Mrs. Douglas said. "But he's never been about getting the best job in the world, making the most money or driving the best car. That's the thing that is really exciting about him."
Douglas volunteered for the Peace Corps this year, wanting to serve in West Africa or the Caribbean. He wanted to learn more about his African heritage; his father had worked as a volunteer in Egypt in the 1960s.
South Africa? That was a place he had read a lot about, particularly the injustices of apartheid. He was in an Atlanta stadium when Nelson Mandela spoke at one of his first U.S. appearances.
But Douglas' Virginia Peace Corps recruiter had a proposition. President Mandela had recently invited the Peace Corps into South Africa, a first for the 35-year-old organization. Would he like to work in schools of the rural Northern Province?
"At first, I had to really think about it," recalled Douglas, who lives in Charles Village. "But then I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity."
In many ways, South Africa's schools exemplify the problems that apartheid wrought. In the past, they were a focus of resistance by blacks. In the reconstruction, they are the center of much more positive attention.
"Schools suffered terrifically under apartheid, and they are seeking to rehabilitate their system," said Maureen J. Carroll, the Peace Corps' acting director for Africa. "We won't be taking the place of teachers, but we will help them, particularly in math and science, and help build the spirit of a school and community."
After completing a 12-week course that will include intensive language training, Douglas and his fellow volunteers will spend two years in provincial schools and their surrounding communities.
Douglas expects it to be hard work. The group might not be successful. But if it is, the Peace Corps plans to bring more than three times as many volunteers to South Africa.
"If I fail, that won't surprise me," Douglas said. "But if we fail, we'll learn from that, too."
Friends point out that Douglas should be equal to any physical challenge. At 6 feet 2 inches and 215 pounds, the one-time defensive tackle on the Morehouse College football team believes he can overcome most hardships.
"He's an upbeat guy, and I know he'll do well," said Maurice M. Moody, a Baltimore public defender and close friend. "Even if it's not everything he expects, he knows he's going to learn a lot."
To describe Douglas as excited about going to South Africa would be a great understatement. In a sense, he is about to become an ambassador of goodwill.
He sees himself as a representative not just of the United States but of his family, his college and all African-Americans.
"I didn't feel a call to do things out of the ordinary with my life," he said. "But I grew up in a family surrounded by people who believed in service back to the community. And that message was reinforced at Morehouse."
After two years in South Africa, Douglas expects to leave the Peace Corps and return to Baltimore. He is considering graduate school. He might go into teaching or continue working in social services.
"Going to South Africa can make me better at working in the U.S.," he said.
Pub Date: 1/03/97