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East grad adjusts to life in Africa with Peace Corps

Van Cleave helps girls in schools

Nov. 9, 2011

Life sure has been different for Ellen Van Cleave in the last year.

Running water is scarce where she lives. Electricity isn't always an option and, when it is there, it's limited.

Washing clothes isn't as simple as pressing a button on a machine.

Air conditioning during the hot summer? Not a chance.

Thus is life for Van Cleave, a 2006 Brookfield East High School graduate, who is one of 118 Peace Corps volunteers serving in Togo, a small country in Western Africa.

"Adjusting to life over here was at first a real challenge," she said in a recent phone interview. "But I wouldn't change anything. It's been unforgettable, and I've had such great experiences."

Her experiences have included being a member of the Girls' Education and Empowerment program. One of her jobs was to help organize seven Take Our Daughters to Work camps for 160 girls from villages across the country.

Van Cleave's main duty was to encourage female students from 64 villages to pursue higher education by teaching them life skills, self-confidence, goal setting, leadership and time management. She also organized career panels and invited professional Togolese women to expose the girls to diverse careers.

"I really enjoy watching the girls grow with confidence," Van Cleave said.

Immersing herself in another culture is something Van Cleave, 23, was used to. As an international affairs major at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she studied in Europe and spent time in India.

"I was always interested in the Peace Corps and it looked like a good opportunity," Van Cleave said.

Togo's official language is French, Van Cleave's minor, so it was a good fit.

But she did have to get used to the food - the main dish she eats is pate (a cornmeal mush cake). Also, her village only just recently had electricity installed.

"Before that I would come into a room and feel around for the light switch and then remember that nothing would be there," Van Cleave said.

Adjusting to the warm weather was another challenge.

"I'm actually missing the cold weather," Van Cleave said with a laugh. "But mostly I'm missing my parents."

She communicates with them about once a week and keeps an online blog.

With a year already in the books, Van Cleave is looking forward to another 12 months in Togo before returning home.

"There's always something to learn," Van Cleave said.

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