Peace Corps volunteer Caitlin Hegg was four months shy of completing her 27-month assignment in the Dominican Republic when she was told March 15 to pack up and head home, in order to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus.
Hegg, a 2014 graduate of East Lansing High School, was told that all Peace Corps volunteers worldwide had 24 hours to pack up and go to the capital city of the country they were serving in to return to the U.S. by plane.
“The first thing I did was I called my site mate, and we had a good little cry together,” Hegg said. “Then I packed up all of my personal items, and I made sure to visit my favorite teacher and my host family too.”
Hegg’s job title was Spanish Literacy Promoter, which meant that she was working in schools in the Dominican Republic to implement new teaching strategies and improve basic reading and comprehension skills for early childhood education.
Through her position, Hegg formed relationships with students, teachers and families in the community. So, having to leave was especially difficult for her.
“I was really disappointed,” Hegg said. “It’s really hard to suddenly be uprooted from your whole life. You’ve created a new family. You have work projects that you’re really passionate about, and so I’m definitely really disappointed in having to end my service so abruptly, but obviously Peace Corps was looking out for our health.”
Concerned about her community’s safety
Peace Corps had been sending out updates on evacuations and what the volunteers should be expecting with the novel coronavirus. They had already pulled their volunteers from several countries, but Hegg did not expect to be sent home quite that early since the Dominican Republic had few cases.
“I knew that at some point they would send us home,” Hegg said, “so I was never really scared for myself because I knew that Peace Corps would get me out before it got even close to being a concern for my personal health.”
Since leaving, Hegg has stayed in constant communication with some of the people there. And even though she got out safely, she has become increasingly worried about their safety and the safety of the community she left behind.
“I definitely am concerned for my community,” Hegg said. “Many of my community members live in such close quarters and don’t always have access to water or hand soap, which is so important for protecting themselves, so I worry a lot about their safety in this time.”
Due to their time being cut short, the Peace Corps gave all of its volunteers completion status.
Since she’s been back home in East Lansing, Hegg has been social distancing and filling out paperwork regarding her return to U.S. But most of all, she’s been missing the people and experiences she had throughout her stay in the Dominican Republic.
“I really miss the people,” Hegg said. “I miss my neighbors and the teachers and students. They have such a welcoming and generous culture. To go from that to social distancing and quarantine is a really big change.”
Hegg doesn’t yet know if she will do a Peace Corps program again, but she is grateful for her time in the program. She considers herself to be fortunate because, unlike other members of the Peace Corps, she had a home to return to when she returned to Michigan.
“Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors for the U.S., and the work they do is so valuable,” Hegg said. “We should really be supporting returning volunteers in this time because many are unable to return to their homes due to parents at high risk of coronavirus, or they are returning home to families already under financial strain from the economic repercussions of COVID-19.”