Ready to give back

Meghan Welsh turns on her hand-cranked lantern that she bought to take with her to Sierra Leone, Africa, as she packs for her two-year commitment with the Peace Corps. 'I think it's a good way to serve your country if you're not the soldier type. I think

Grace Beahm

For the first time since 1994, the Peace Corps is sending volunteers back to Sierra Leone, Africa.

A Summerville woman will help in the effort.

Meghan Welsh, 23, will be one of 40 volunteers leaving June 3 for 27 months to help rebuild the country after years of civil war.

Welsh applied over a year ago, before she graduated in 2009 from the College of Charleston with degrees in English and anthropology. Her interest in joining the Peace Corps was piqued during an African studies course, her minor, when her professor invited a Peace Corps recruiter to speak to her class.

"I think it's a good way to serve your country if you're not the soldier type. I think we all owe something back and we need to pay it forward," Welsh said.

The Peace Corps arrived in Sierra Leone in 1962, a year after the country gained independence from Britain. Volunteers returned every year until 1994, when the country was deemed unsafe because of conflict.

Now that the country is on the road to recovery, its government identified education as a priority and its greatest need. Peace Corps volunteers will be teaching English, math, and science to help fill a shortage of qualified instructors.

Welsh will be teaching English and has experience from interning at the Trident Literacy Association during her senior year of college. One thing she will have to get used to is teaching only 16 hours of class a week because most children have jobs and need to take care of their families.

She also has volunteered at Camp Happy Days for three years. It was one of the first things she thought about missing when she got her assignment package in the mail last month.

She said working with sick children definitely prepared her for experiences to come because it will take away some of the shock of working with sick children and amputees caused by the war.

"I have to think that yes, this is all very sad, but we can't sit here thinking about it. I have to try to make this the best experience and focus on the children," Welsh said.

Welsh said packing all of her equipment and belongings as she prepares to leave for training in Washington on June 1 has consumed her. She is only allowed to take 80 pounds of luggage.

She also has prepared herself mentally by watching documentaries about the culture, reading books and scanning Google Earth.

Even though Welsh isn't sure about a lot of things, like where she will live and if she will be the only volunteer in her community, she is excited and optimistic.

It also helps that her friends, family and even some of her old professors support her.

Her father, a retired Green Beret, served in Africa and has been able to give her plenty of advice on what to expect.

"He would always send back pictures of him -- pictures of children living in mud huts. He would always write on the back 'Be lucky you have a TV. Stop complaining,' " Welsh said with a laugh.

Welsh said that once a year her mother would have them round up toys to send to their father to give to children overseas, so giving back was something instilled in her from a young age.

Sierra Leone is excited the Peace Corps is returning, Welsh said. The president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is having traditional clothing made for all of the volunteers. He also is inviting them to his home for a reception.

"I can't imagine being that big of a deal to someone else, but it's very flattering," she said.