From Georgia, Candace Joins FLV as an AmeriCorps VISTA
March 10, 2018
My interest in helping people with food insecurities started during a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. When my husband and I first met, he was planning an 8-week backpacking trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia. I hesitated at first, but I accepted his once in a lifetime offer. The only time I’ve been out of the country was when I was a year old with my parents for military deployment to Germany. So, this would be my first trip to developing countries. Before leaving, I didn’t imagine this trip was going to change my life.
Our first stop was to Cambodia. The only history I knew about Cambodia was of the genocide in 1975. We flew into Bangkok, Thailand, but immediately took a bus to the Cambodian border. When I walked through the Thai-Cambodian border, I started to see locals walking on streets with no shoes or shirts on. The roads were not paved, and there were dozens of food and souvenir stalls lined up leading to the border. The smells in this area were also new to me. The smells of gasoline exhaust fumes, fried foods, trash, urine, and feces hit your nostrils like a swift punch to the face. After passing through the border, I felt uncomfortable and unsafe. The locals ran up to me begging for money and food. They were pulling on my clothes and trying to take my luggage. I’ve never experience anything like this before. I did not know what to do. Then it began to rain, so we walked over to a covered area to call for a taxi to take us to town. As I was looking around, I noticed a young boy, naked, digging through a trashcan for food. Since I was not used to seeing this in the United States, this sight changed my life forever. I felt physically ill to see him searching for food while others around him, including me, were traveling into his own country for leisure. It was at this moment and for the first time in my life that made me think about why poverty existed.
Before my trip, I worked in a couple of law offices as a legal assistant. When I returned home from my trip, my life and career did not seem fulfilled. I wanted to make a direct impact in developing countries. I started to research jobs I could perform in Southeast Asian countries. I could not find many jobs that were paid. Most jobs were unpaid internships or volunteering positions. I reached out to one of my good friends, who was living and working in Thailand at the time, and she told me about teaching English in Thailand. All I needed to do was to complete a 120-hour TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), a background check, and a few other tasks to teach English in Thailand. She told me there were a few Thai public and private schools accepting native English speaking teachers. When my husband and I found a school and accepted a job, we packed our bags and left home for a year to teach English to Thai children. This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The Thai children were always excited to learn and they smothered me with love each day. I got to live and work in a rural town, not a tourist destination in Thailand. Working alongside children in a developing country awoken my interest in helping people living in poverty. I saw firsthand the lack of basic infrastructure around the region, such as power lines, sanitation systems, and learning facilities. After my year was complete, I did not want to stop there. I decided to go back to school.
In 2015, I enrolled in an International Development master’s program at The University of Kent in Brussels, Belgium. My focus was to learn more about agricultural development and to try to understand why poverty exists. Brussels is known for being the political capital of Europe, so I figured I would meet experienced and knowledgeable political figures and professors on the subject. Also, I wanted to strengthen my French language skills, since Belgium is partially a French-speaking country. A month and a half before I left on my next adventure, my grandmother passed away with cancer.
It was another turning point of my life because she helped raise me. I was very close with my grandmother. In respect to that, I dedicated my master’s degree to her and pushed through living abroad alone.
After I completed my degree, my husband and I moved to Washington, D.C. hoping to find more job opportunities with both of our international master’s degrees. My husband graduated with his master’s degree in London a year before I completed mine, but he was only receiving unpaid internships and short-term contracts afterwards. All we found in D.C. were unpaid internships and 3-month contracts. I thought I could work for a non-profit or an agency that focuses on agriculture development. Unfortunately, the competition was rough and we did not have any solid connections. We wanted to move back home to Atlanta, Georgia. We lived outside the city. I worked for The American Cancer Society for a year before realizing the one-hour commute each way was not the life-style we wanted. It wasn’t until after another expired 3-month contract for my husband and the hustle and bustle of the city that we learned we are not city people. We prefer smaller, quieter towns. My husband knew if we wanted a quieter life-style then we would be less likely to use our international degrees. So, he too changed his career path. He is now enrolled in an undergraduate civil engineering program at the University of Wyoming (UW). We chose Wyoming because it is close to the Rocky Mountains, there are tons of outdoor activities to participate in, it is the least populated state in the U.S., and more importantly UW has cheap tuition. I was worried to find a non-profit organization focusing on agriculture in a town of 30,000 people. Surprisingly though, I found Feeding Laramie Valley. It was the number one non-profit organization I wanted to work for in Laramie and I gladly accepted the opportunity to work for them.
My husband and I never lived out West before, so we knew the big cross-country move would be another adventure to tackle. We reserved a 26-foot moving truck with a car carrier for our only car, packed up our life and new puppy, and drove 1,500 miles from Georgia to Wyoming. Thankfully, my mother tagged along to make sure we got to Wyoming safely.
But, unfortunately, her and I got the flu during the drive and we had to stay behind one night at a hotel to recover. We arrived in Laramie mid-January of 2018. So far, our future looks brighter and more peaceful. My life experiences leading up to now have been a whirlwind, but if it weren’t for the staff at Feeding Laramie Valley, my transition wouldn’t have been relaxed. They have helped me along the way and made my new chapter welcoming.
My 8-week backpacking trip, teaching in Thailand, mastering International Development, and living in big cities has shaped the person I am today. I am grateful for all the opportunities and struggles in my life so far. It has led me to the wonderful Feeding Laramie Valley organization. Moving to Laramie was a pleasant surprise in that we’re quickly finding that we love it here. During my year here, I will be able to finally accomplish my dream career goal of helping people living with food insecurities.