Marion couple leaves for Peace Corps assignment in Belize

Harry and Margi Bennett left Marion this week for Belize to follow a long-time dream of working in the Peace Corps.

The family home above the creek, with its shaded flower gardens and farm buildings southwest of Marion, is rented until they come back in two years.

The daughters who grew up there, Hannah, 26, Eliza, 23, and Hallie, 20, are leading stable lives as adults, a condition Harry said needed to happen before their parents went to the Peace Corps.

Hannah is involved in an organic horticultural marketing organization that sells Wisconsin produce in the Chicago market. Eliza starts medical school in the fall, and Hallie is a college junior.

The Bennetts are wanting to put on hold the various volunteer efforts and political activities that have kept them active in the community. They have advocated for many things, from preserving a historic bridge to preventing a regional landfill.

Harry was on call as a sound technician for the many musical groups that have come to Marion over the years. He ran for the state legislature two years ago, but has restricted his involvement this year to a hope that at least two candidates will have filed to give public choice and debate in the election.

Harry, 53, and Margi, 55, moved to Marion as a couple 28 years ago. They married after meeting on a trip to Greece that extended across Asia to India, where Margi had to live for a while when her passport disappeared.

Harry originally moved to Marion in 1961 with his parents, and has thought of it as home when away for college and other activities. Margi was born in Chicago, and raised in Indianapolis.

She is leaving a teaching position at the Oasis School in Florence for the Marion Special Education Cooperative, and Harry is plant operations manager for St. Luke Hospital.

They have the educational background the Peace Corps likes to see. Harry has bachelor of science degrees in business administration and sociology from Emporia State. Margi has bachelor of arts degrees in art history, Spanish and French secondary education from the University of Illinois. She may finish a special-education degree when they return.

Despite all they leave behind, their focus is on what lies ahead in Belize. Harry said his Peace Corps work will be in sustainable agriculture, while Margi will work in ecology in the New Hampshire-sized Central American nation of 250,000 persons.

Although Belize achieved its independence from Great Britain in 1981, Harry said, it doesn’t have great familiarity with Americans because. along with Costa Rica in Central America, it is a stable democracy with problems that don’t make the news.

The population of Belize is predominantly African in descent, with large East Indian and Chinese minorities, and many persons of European descent from both America and Europe. About 13,000 Canadian Mennonites emigrated there in 1958.

The Bennetts’ early obstacles will be lessened because the language of Belize is English. But, Harry said, they will need to be trained in Creole, a vernacular language combining English with other languages.

The Bennetts applied for the Peace Corps two years ago while visiting the University of Kansas, and then went through a process that gave them their official invitation to go at the end of last year.

They likely will live in an apartment or a house in San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border-at the same level as the population around them, and eating the same types of foods.

“The idea is to fit in with the community we serve,” Harry said.

The Bennetts left Monday for Florida, where they will meet most of the people in their working team, and then continue Tuesday to Belize for two months of training.

“The largest percentage of the land mass is still in the original rain forest,” Harry said. “It is one of the more diverse environmental habitats that exist, with big cats like jaguars, howlers (monkeys), and tapirs (a large rodent resembling a pig).

“A Peace Corps mission is to help preserve the wild lands while developing the country economically. The economic development will involve eco-tourism with mom-and-pop operations in ecologically friendly businesses such as butterfly farming. They raise butterfly pupaes to sell to butterfly farms here.

“There are small-produce farmers,” he said. “It will be a sharing experience to help them because it will be challenge for me basically coming from being a temperate climate gardener.

“Margi may be helping with recycling or tourism, maybe environmental education-it’s pretty vague,” he said.

Harry said the Peace Corps values the experience of older volunteers like Margi and him. But whether old or young, the organization wants its volunteers to be temporary and not career oriented.

Part of the objective, Harry said, is for volunteers to return to work in this country with greater awareness of the world and its cultures.

He and Margi have long wanted to experience living in another country, and this is as safe as it gets under the umbrella of the U.S. government.

“We think it will work out well. Everything here is in good hands.”

The mailing address for the Bennetts is PCT Harry Bennett, Peace Corps, P.O. Box 487, Belize City, Belize.

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