Eastlake grad learns as she teaches in Peace Corps

February 23, 2011

By Laura Geggel

During her two years in Turkmenistan working for the Peace Corps, Jeanne Walsh learned that the children listened to her lessons about nutrition, sanitation and exercises the best.

“One day, I said, ‘You can have ice cream on the way home from school,’ and one of the little girls said, ‘Jeanne, you just said ice cream was bad for our teeth.’”

Entering the Peace Corps after graduating from Gonzaga University felt natural, she said. Her father was in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia — teaching math the late 1960s. Her parents encouraged her to try the program, giving her a chance to learn about another culture and herself simultaneously.

Jeanne Walsh, a 2004 Eastlake High School graduate, spent two years in the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan and taught the community about healthcare and fun projects, including how to make Easter eggs. Contributed

Six months after earning her bachelor’s degree in exercise science, she flew to Turkmenistan, a country sitting atop Iran and Afghanistan and bordering the Caspian Sea to its west.

When she first learned of her assignment, she had to look up Turkmenistan on a map.

“It was very far away. I was always calling to make sure she was safe,” her mother, Rita Walsh, said. “If it wasn’t for the phone calls and e-mails I’m not sure I would have made it for two years.”

After a brief training, the Peace Corps sent Jeanne to her host family. Still a novice in the Turkmen language, she struggled with talking about the most trivial matters.

“I didn’t know how to say, ‘Where is the bathroom?’” she said. “I had to look it up in the dictionary.”

As time progressed, her grasp of the Turkmen language advanced.

“I would just pick up something or I would describe something,” she said. “I would ask, ‘What’s that word?’”

As it turned out, her host family was the first of three families she lived with in Turkmenistan. In the first house, she stayed with a widowed grandmother who was taking care of her dead son’s children, but it wasn’t a good fit.

The next house, where she stayed for nine months, was infested with bedbugs, and the host mother was superstitious. Luckily, one of the doctors at the clinic where she worked invited Jeanne to move in with her and her husband.

At the clinic, Jeanne worked with pregnant women. But she also formed sports and art clubs for youths — using art supplies her mother sent from Sammamish — and cooking clubs for adults.

With a population of 1,100 people, the village of Dashoquz was small, and many people treated Jeanne as if she were a celebrity.

“Everybody in the village knew everything I did,” she said. “One of my friends gave me a stuffed bunny for my birthday, and I slept with it. A little girl said, ‘I heard you slept with your stuffed bunny.’ I was like, ‘How do you know everything I do?’”

She did her best to ignore the gossip, and became even closer to her friends. During Christmas, she met an attractive young man from a neighboring village, and the two began dating. Jeanne knew her village would gossip if they knew she had a boyfriend, so she made a point to always visit him — either taking a taxi or hitchhiking — so he would not have to come to her village.

The two are still dating, and she plans to visit him this spring in Russia, where he is studying engineering.

During her Peace Corps work, Jeanne flew to Taiwan to take the LSAT, and recently learned that the Gonzaga University School of Law accepted her, but she is waiting to hear from other schools before making a decision, Rita said.

Her two years of service in Turkmenistan changed her life, and Jeanne said she would recommend the experience to everyone.

“They teach you, you teach them,” she said.

Reporter Laura Geggel can be reached at 392-6434, ext. 241, or lgeggel@isspress.com.

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