TOTONICAPÁN, Guatemala

Jennifer Daley had a great career as an honors student and basketball player at Lee High School. After graduating in 2004, she went on to study government and history at Smith College, and spent time traveling, working and studying abroad in places like Paris, Geneva and the island of Guadeloupe in the French West Indies.

Despite all that, like many people in her generation, she found herself working in New York City at a job for which she is over-qualified -- waiting tables.

According a Pew Research Center study in 2010, Daley's generation, the Millennials are "on track to become the most educated generation in American history."

But at the time of the survey, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were reported unemployed or out of the workforce -- the highest share among this age group in more than three decades.

"Their entry into careers and first jobs has been badly set back by the Great Recession," the report said," but they are more upbeat than their elders about their own economic futures as well as about the overall state of the nation."

Daley, 27, the daughter of Nelson and Margaret Daley of Lee, knew she wanted something more, so she applied for the U.S. Peace Corps.

"I wasn't down in the dumps per say in New York, but it was a factor in my decision to apply," she said. "The Peace Corps has always been something that I've thought about and had in the back of mind."

"After I graduated college and went abroad, I knew I wanted to keep traveling and work with international communities. I thought Peace Corps could be the next step in my career in international work," she said.

Mostly on her own

She was accepted and assigned to work in Santa Lucia La Reforma, a rural town in Totonicapán, one of 22 regions known as departments, in the Central American nation of Guatemala. She has been there for two years, mostly on her own.

"The area I live in is in the western highlands," she said in a phone interview from Guatemala earlier this week. "When I first got to my site, I didn't know anyone, I didn't know Spanish or K'iché. I thought, how am I going to work there if I can't even communicate."

She had three months of training, but still had to overcome her own emotions of working with malnourished children, and families who must thrive often without electricity, little income and two-hour walks to the nearest school, workplace or food source.

"It's been really daunting at times. I was just making my presence known during my first three months of service, and it was lonely at times. I'm at the end of my service and it's so much sweeter now that I've gone through those challenges," said Daley.

Teaching background

Since she joined the Peace Corps with a background in teaching, Daley has been assigned to and is working for Guatemala's Healthy Schools Project. She is teaching teachers how to work with children and families through the schools to educate them about nutrition, taking proper health precautions and learning various ways of cooking.

As Daley points out, Peace Corps is hardly a "9 to 5" gig.

The volunteer minds two other community-service projects. She runs a girls group with about 15 students in grades 4 through 6, which meets one afternoon a week for about three hours. Together they practice English language skills, learn about the environment and nature, cook and play basketball.

"I also try to encourage them to continue their education," said Daley. "Where I live here, it's almost unheard of to have a girl go to school past the sixth grade."

She said the culture in the town maintains that girls and women should hold household roles and responsibilities, which she tries to also respect.

Starting a library

There have also been successes, such as when the girls painted a world map to hang in the town's new library which opened this fall -- Daley's other project.

Once feeling a bit more integrated into Santa Lucia La Reforma, Daley began talking to community members about the idea of a library, which the town did not have. From there, townspeople formed a library committee which met with the mayor, who chose and trained a librarian.

The group then worked and secured a space, furniture and partnered with an organization called Child Aid, which provides free books to rural communities in Guatemala, with materials in Spanish and indigenous languages like K'iché.

Daley is currently working to collect more materials, from books to school supplies, for the library and working with community leaders to ensure that the library, health program and girls group can be sustained after she departs the country in March.

She said that an experience like hers "teaches you to be patient, to trust in people you're working with, and the importance of being present and social" in new situations "without expectations."

Has benefited in return

Though Daley had her projects and missions, she said she's equally benefited from attending town parties and festivals, talking with members of her host family, and engaging in favorite activities like basketball and soccer with the kids.

She said as much as she's looking forward to returning home to see family, friends, eat pizza and her mother's cooking, and watch the season's change, she said she'll also miss the faces, the food and the "generosity of people who have so little and give so much" in Guatemala.

"Coming from the Berkshires and being able to leave and see how things are in different parts of world made me really appreciate the Berkshires. I'm proud of where I'm from," said Daley. "It's important to experience as much as you can so you can appreciate what you have."

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6239
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink