Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Marjorie Cassaro, September 11, 2020

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Joining the Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Today is September 11, 2020. This is Randolph Adams who served in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1969 and I am interviewing Marjorie Cassaro, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from September, 2001 to October 2003.

Segment Synopsis: Marjorie Cassaro’s parents were academics and exposed her to many life experiences. At 12 years old she saw a film of John F. Kennedy announcing the Peace Corps and immediately said she would join. She graduated from the University of Louisville with a degree in business. Her mother did not want her to join Peace Corps before being married. She bought a house that needed repairs that gave major problems. She thought of others who were impoverished and had other problems. She applied to Peace Corps and was accepted within a month. She was to work in economic development in the Dominican Republic because of her similar experience in Louisville. She was 39 years old. She was applying to return when COVID hit. The application then took 9 months.

Keywords: Acceptance; Ages; Application process; Applications; Applying; Assignments; Career paths; Careers; Childhood; College majors; Community economic development (CED); Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Dominican Republic; Family; Jobs; John F. Kennedy; Marriage; Midcareer; Mothers; Older volunteers; Parents; Undergraduate education

Subjects: COVID-19 (Disease); Childhood; Dominican Republic; Families; Marriage; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

GPS: University of Louisville
Map Coordinates: 38.215, -85.760278
GPS: Dominican Republic
Map Coordinates: 19, -70.666667
00:05:32 - September 11, 2001 and arrival in Dominican Republic

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Partial Transcript: And, you're, uh--moving on to in-service training now, your pre-service training. Uh, you actually arrived in-country on September 11th?

Segment Synopsis: Cassaro's group was always referred to as the September 11th group. The 36 were in Miami to board their flight out when the first tower of the World Trade Center was hit. She called her mom because family members lived in New York City. After the second tower was hit, the airport was evacuated quietly and peacefully after getting luggage out. The group stayed together in a hotel for a week, the only guests, with good hotel care and bonding time. They arrived very late in the Dominican Republic. Many did not fulfill their service. She wanted to complete her service but she lost two family members in the Twin Towers. Giving peace and love helped her be committed.

Keywords: Airlines; Airplanes; Airports; Anxiety; Cohorts; Emotions; Family; Mothers; New York City (N.Y.); Peace Corps directors; Pre-service training; Transportation; Travel

Subjects: Air travel; Dominican Republic; Families; International travel; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Miami (Fla.)
Map Coordinates: 25.775163, -80.208615
GPS: New York City (N.Y.)
Map Coordinates: 40.71274, -74.005974
GPS: Dominican Republic
Map Coordinates: 19, -70.666667
00:11:10 - Pre-service training

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Partial Transcript: So then, uh, your pre-service training--(clears throat)--continued.

Segment Synopsis: Cassaro lived with a host family who spoke little to no English, but they were eager to include her in their lives. There was training during the day, with some going to the mountains to learn about economic development for farmers. She met the language requirement and was sworn in--something that remains an honorable moment in her life. Language training was in groups of three and she was allowed to put sticky notes around the house to learn words. Technical training was different for a developing nation from her previous experience. Language was needed for credibility in her expertise. Volunteers learned about farming, nutrition, and economic benefits to teach to others. New skills included learning to make paper and candle making. That was very desirable since electricity was sporadic. Cassaro taught candle making to women and that became a small business. They sold to tourists not to compete with local shops. Theirs had scents, colors, and natural bits and were much more expensive. They sold at fairs and to resorts. One person was able to restore electricity to her home with the earnings.

Keywords: Activities; Adaptation; Adjustment; Careers; Cohorts; Community; Community development; Community involvement; Cultural training; Family; Host families; Host family; Language skills; Language training; Languages; On-site training; Peace Corps directors; Pre-service training; Secondary projects; Spanish (Language); Teaching; Technical training; Training; Women

Subjects: Acculturation; Careers; Dominican Republic; Families; Host family; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers; Volunteers in community development

00:18:52 - Assignment, community, and economic development work

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Partial Transcript: Uh, let's back up a bit. Um, after training, how did you get assigned?

Segment Synopsis: Cassaro was placed just outside of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, near the ocean and a major highway. She was with a small organization that provided microloans to businesses. She saw other ways to help and expanded into helping to start businesses. The loans were often just a bridge until remittances from U.S. arrived. She helped women create three businesses. The host families helped introduce her to the community. The first host family mother was not available much as she moved. Once when she was lost, a taxi driver helped her find someone who recognized her. After she knew a few people she was welcomed easily. She lived in an apartment but across the street was a family she cooked and ate with, as well as doing laundry together. Her apartment was small and water had to be pumped in. The door did not lock but there were no security issues. It was about a 15 minute walk to the NGO she worked with. It was founded by a church. There were three employees. She was mainly a bill collector for microloans, then did other work. Entrepreneurs needed advice for figuring out expenses and how to make a profit.

Keywords: Acceptance; Acclimation; Accomplishments; Activities; Adaptability; Adaptation; Adjustment; Advice; Assignments; Blending; Community; Community development; Community economic development (CED); Community service; Contributions; Living situation; Running water; Secondary projects; Support systems; Women

Subjects: Acculturation; Daily routines; Dominican Republic; Families; Family; Food; Food culture; Food habits; Friends; Friendships; Host families; Host family; Host mother; Host mothers; Housing; Hurricanes; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Lifestyles; Living conditions; Non-governmental organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

GPS: Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic)
Map Coordinates: 18.466667, -69.95
00:28:55 - Typical day and common activities

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Partial Transcript: What would a typical day be like?

Segment Synopsis: Each day, Cassaro woke early to exercise, have breakfast, and walk to the NGO. The day began with an hour long prayer (which she skipped after a while). The staff worked together to meet with clients. She would go home to cook with the dona (the host mother). In the afternoons, she visited clients or worked with the women on their projects. Children were out of school after 4 o'clock and hung around rather aimlessly. That concerned her, so she began an after school club. Only boys joined (because girls were not to be with boys) so she began separate sessions for girls. Women are productive family providers so girls were less of a concern. The club was for leadership skills, education, and critical thinking. They learned to count beyond eleven, and shared geography of U.S. and the Dominican Republic. A friend had joined Peace Corps and warned her of loneliness and frustration. She felt that until a quiet boy said hers was a house of learning, and that uplifted her. Girls did similar activities and began entrepreneurial thinking. Clubs met four to five days a week. The school appreciated that behavior improved as students followed rules, especially respect. Four girls and nine boys were active participants.

Keywords: Accomplishments; Activities; Age ranges; Assignments; Attitudes; Childhood; Community development; Community involvement; Community service; Contributions; Cultural differences; Cultural exchange; Daily routines; Education; Host family; Mothers; Role of women; Secondary projects; Teaching; United States; Women; Young people

Subjects: Dominican Republic; Families; Food habits; Interpersonal relations and culture; Lifestyles; Non-governmental organizations; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Teaching; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

GPS: Dominican Republic
Map Coordinates: 19, -70.666667
00:38:28 - Successes in community economic development

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Partial Transcript: Did you go beyond the candle business? Were there other things that, um, you were able to help them with?

Segment Synopsis: There was a woman with a salon in her home who was able to move to a better location, and with that advice she made much more money using her existing skills. It was a lesson in marketing. Cassaro similarly advised about 20 people who significantly improved their lives. There were 36 volunteers in her cohort, about 15 in community economic development. They communicated and visited each other, resulting in good information to enhance the work of all. Cassaro felt this was a great advantage of Peace Corps. The other workers in the NGO mainly collected debts, and trained new clients one-on-one (after learning that this was more effective). They had had little training in business. She had little interaction with her project manager. She did share plans with the Peace Corps country director. She felt her purpose at the NGO was to make the office look good for having an American. She was asked to wear short skirts. So she realized that to be successful she had to be proactive and on her own.

Keywords: Accomplishments; Activities; Advice; Assignments; Assumptions; Attitudes; Clothes; Clothing; Cohorts; Community; Community development; Community economic development (CED); Contributions; Expectations; Family; Jobs; Male-dominated society; Peace Corps directors; Secondary projects; Treatment of women; United States; Women

Subjects: Dominican Republic; Non-governmental organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

00:46:17 - Socializing / Sustainability of projects

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Partial Transcript: Did you have any, uh, social relations with your colleagues, or was it mostly just, uh, work-oriented?

Segment Synopsis: Cassaro socialized with colleagues, one with a two year old and a large extended family. The women on the street did a lot together. She never felt friends to aid or socialize with were lacking. Colleagues had quite a commute. The NGO stopped functioning but some of the small businesses are still functioning, even after 20 years. Others suffered when the U.S. economy declined.

Keywords: Activities; Blending in; Buses; Community; Community economic development (CED); Community involvement; Family; Friends; Friendships; Recreation; Support; Support circles; Support networks; Support systems

Subjects: Dominican Republic; Families; Friendship; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Non-governmental organizations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

00:49:50 - Expectations / Vacations / Major accomplishments

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Partial Transcript: So, um, what expectations did you have before coming to the D.R. and, and how did they change once you hit reality?

Segment Synopsis: Cassaro was 39 when she arrived, with no expectations but ready to have an adventure, to use patience, and to have love to help. She was not disappointed, even in difficult moments. Airfare was cheap so she went home twice, after a year and for Christmas. She visited resorts on weekends. Water in her home burned her painfully. She was allowed to take baths at the embassy. Working with the children and knowing she made a difference was the most important accomplishment to her. She was connected to them by fax for a long time and has recently tried to send a letter.

Keywords: Accomplishments; Challenges; Childhood; Contributions; Expectations; Living conditions; Living situations; Problems; Running water; Secondary projects; Teaching; Travel; United States

Subjects: Dominican Republic; Expectations; International travel; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Teaching; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

00:53:41 - Lessons learned / Life changes after Peace Corps impact

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Partial Transcript: What, uh, lessons do you think you took away from your service?

Segment Synopsis: For the most important lesson learned, Cassaro said she received the gift of knowing what it is like to walk in another's shoes. She talks about respecting others, knowing that we are all different and approach things from different perspectives. Peace Corps influenced her life tremendously. She does not waste water. If she can help others to understand that and to appreciate transportation, that is the type of thing she maintains. She buys fresh food--nothing packaged. In her career, the change is the biggest. She knows people are important, not money. She returned to school to study art and has worked for social change through art. She has had exhibits and projects for social change. In one tourist area she displays monthly items to have people see from a different perspective.

Keywords: Adjustment; Attitudes; Career paths; Careers; Coming home; Education; Personal growth; Re-entry; Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Returning; Transportation

Subjects: Careers; Dominican Republic; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

01:01:00 - Peace Corps connections

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Partial Transcript: Have you, uh, maintained any involvement with the, the Peace Corps network?

Segment Synopsis: Cassaro went to middle and high schools and universities for many years to talk about Peace Corps. She sees this as a valuable, intimate tool. A local Peace Corps group had cookouts, feeling a bond of common understanding. Her assessment of Peace Corps goals is that they are invaluable. She hopes the COVID time helps to find new perspectives. Many times she heard that returned volunteers are respected for the ability to do almost anything after the two year experience. Mentoring would be a good idea. She mentors college students from underprivileged areas and helps to broaden their perspectives.

Keywords: Advice; Age ranges; Ages; Attitudes; Career paths; Careers; Coming home; Community involvement; Community service; Contributions; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Education; Peace Corps Volunteers; Personal growth; Re-entry; Returning; Young people

Subjects: COVID-19 (Disease); Dominican Republic; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Universities and colleges; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteering; Volunteers

01:05:28 - More on the impact of September 11, 2001 / Experience as an older volunteer

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Partial Transcript: That pretty much ends the, uh, formal questions of the interview. Um, do you have any sort of, um, closing statement you'd like to make about Peace Corps, about your service?

Segment Synopsis: Cassaro says that being evacuated for COVID must have been devastating for Peace Corps volunteers. She had offered her home for any who needed a place to quarantine. After September 11, 2001 the country changed. She could see it more than those who lived through it in America. Having been away, she could see fear and less openness, so she did not feel she belonged. That made her work for social change. The re-acclimation is more difficult now. A sense of adventure and a sense of humor are good qualities for a Peace Corps volunteer. She says volunteering changes us for the good, forever, so she wants to go again to make a difference for herself and others. The interviewer asks if she felt she experienced ageism as a trainee or volunteer. Cassaro feels young at heart and did not feel younger volunteers saw her as different, except when she was more responsible and did not join activities that violated policies. She was asked for help later and did help. Before, there were volunteers in every age group, 20 to 60. In returning as a volunteer, her previous experience should be good and her attitude remains helpful. As an American she was respected (except for a taxi who tried to overcharge). Until she spoke she was seen as a Dominican. She changed in seeing herself as an American and recognized her privileges, a disconcerting realization.

Keywords: Acceptance; Adjustment; Advantages; Advice; Age ranges; Ages; Attitudes; Blending in; Buses; Coming home; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Drinking; Family; Older volunteers; Parents; Peace Corps offices; Personal growth; Pre-service training; Re-entry; Readjustment; Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Returning; Transportation; United States; Young people

Subjects: Acculturation; COVID-19 (Disease); Dominican Republic; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Dominican Republic; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers