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Clarion twins return from Peace Corps work

Hilpipres had done work in Africa

October 20, 2008
By KAREN WELD Messenger correspondent

CLARION - Garrett and Greg Hilpipre, identical twin brothers from rural Clarion, fulfilled a dream of a lifetime for travel and adventure when they joined the Peace Corps following college. Both were assigned tasks in Africa, but lived and worked more than 3,000 miles apart.

The Hilpipre brothers, 2000 Clarion-Goldfield High School graduates and 2004 University of Iowa grads with degrees in political science, began their job searches following college. With encouragement from a college professor and digging into a Peace Corps Web site, they both made applications for an adventure that took them half-way around the world to help people in countries who could use some of the talents, education and venturesome spirits of volunteers like the Hilpipres.

''There are three basic areas which volunteers are asked to do,'' said Garrett Hilpipre. ''Environmental, health and education. Because of our interest and training, we both chose environmental work.''

Garrett Hilpipre in Madagascar

After the country selection comes the Peace Corps training, learning more about the country, its people and their language. Garrett Hilpipre was assigned the island of Madagascar. It is the fourth largest island in the world, geographically twice the size of Arizona with a population of 15 million.

''Madagascar is just off the coast, east of South Africa,'' he said. ''The village where I lived was near the southern tip of the country.''

While there were 144 Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar, he was the only one in his village, where 200 to 300 people lived. He was in his assigned village from February 2006 until May of this year.

Garrett Hilpipre was the second Peace Corps volunteer to be assigned to the village. His job was to continue the work that the first volunteer had begun. He said the feeling of being dropped off by the Peace Corps vehicle and watching it drive away can't be described.

''I had a native home with solar panels on the roof,'' he said. ''The villagers gathered around. I had a limited command of their language (Madagascar has 18 dialects). I knew that I wouldn't see those who had left me off for three months. As I waved goodbye to the vehicle, I couldn't help but think, 'What have I gotten myself into?' ''

It didn't take Hilpipre long to get to know the people who, in his words, ''looked intimidating'' at first. He also learned to enjoy the plants and animals, 85 percent of which are native to Madagascar.

''Because they had had a Peace Corps volunteer with them in the past, they were happy to have me as part of their family,'' he said. ''The goal of Peace Corps is to have three volunteers stay in an assigned village, rotating in one after the other for about six years total, to carry out goals for that area and to teach the village how to continue what has been started.''

One of Hilpipre's projects was reforestation.

''I was able to write a grant and have it funded by the Pittsburgh Zoo Conservation Fund for $1,500,'' he said. ''We were able to use the funds to organize 100 to 150 villagers who planted octopus trees.''

The trees, which are used for food, fuel and building, can be started by using live branches from existing trees which are stuck into the ground. Prior to some of the Peace Corps work, wooded areas were being used, but not replanted.

''The most exciting thing for me was the village people were able to repeat what we had done with my instruction without any help from me or others,'' he said. The tree is a main food source for a species of lemurs found only in Madagascar.

Another favorite project was upgrading work supporting eco-tourism.

''With all of the plants and animals in Madagascar which are only found on the island,'' said Hilpipre, ''there are many travelers who are interested in research or study. We worked to develop the infrastructure, train guides, set rates, figure out travel maps, make improvements in roads and camp sites. These things make it more user-friendly to anyone visiting the area.''

While there was lots of work to be done, Hilpipre had time to interact with the villagers and enjoy their customs.

''The next closest Peace Corps worker was about seven hours away,'' Hilpipre said. "But I had the opportunity to meet up with him now and then, which was great.''

Greg Hilpipre in Senegal

Greg Hilpipre's adventure in the Peace Corps took him to Senegal, which is the northwestern-most country on the main continent of Africa.

''Senegal is slightly smaller than South Dakota and has a population of about 10 million,'' said Greg Hilpipre. ''There are seven different languages. Mine was Pulaar, which is the second-largest. The area is very dry, arid and hot climate.''

He was the first American volunteer to live in the area.

''Just because there had been no one there before me, they were still very friendly, community-oriented and welcomed me with open arms,'' he said. ''They were excited to have me there. It was a great cultural exchange.''

Hilpipre said he started purely with community assessment, trying to learn areas of need and where he could help.

''My work was more in environmental education,'' he said. ''I worked to help teachers, as we worked with conservation themes in their school curriculums. We added some materials to the teachers' lesson plans, which would deal with deforestation, techniques of gardening, working with tree plantings, health, sanitation and proper waste disposal.''

A side project which Greg enjoyed was an environmental club that he started at one school, attracting 25 students ranging in age from 5 to 17 years old.

''We worked on proper gardening techniques, using organic pesticides to protect growing local plants,'' he said. ''We had school gardens, which we used as a teaching tool. We worked to teach techniques through action, not just in classroom settings.''

Hilpipre said he was happy to work with the second Peace Corps volunteer to whom he handed off some of the programs he had started.

''He was able to continue the environmental club and is able to bring a wider scope to the reforestation project which was begun while I was there,'' Hilpipre said. ''The new recruit is continuing to teach the villagers how to use the branches, to begin new trees The village people are learning that it is important to put nutrients back into the soil for future crops and generations.''

Small successes

The twins learned very quickly to claim victory for small successes.

''We are such a success-oriented society here,'' said Greg Hilpipre. ''Our experiences in Africa taught us patience.''

There are several things the twosome have particularly enjoyed since returning: air-conditioning and porcelain toilets.

''And to be clean,'' said Garrett Hilpipre. ''We were probably never truly clean. A bath would be in the nearby river.''

They also learned how to get along without so much stuff.

''We have so much available to us in the states,'' said Greg Hilpipre. ''We go into the stores and there are so many brands of every kind of product. We received $200 from the Peace Corps each month and we were able to live like kings. Now that we are home, our deferred student loans need to be paid and we have cell phone bills and lots of other expenses. Life is harder in Africa, but it is less complicated.''

Garrett Hilpipre agreed.

''The pace of life is so much slower,'' he said. ''We have sort of a rat-race mentality here.''

Both said they are trying hard not to get caught back up in the latest new technology gadget which is offered to American consumers.

''I am happy that I did it,'' Garrett Hilpipre said. ''What I was able to help them do was really rewarding.''

Greg Hilpipre added, ''The rewards which we got for helping teach them some things which they didn't know before were great. Now we know that we can do about anything, any place in the world. We would recommend anyone to look into it. It is a different experience plus an adventure. We had a really great time and learned more about ourselves at the same time.''

The next adventure for the two is their traveling to Colorado and attending the University of Denver in graduate international studies, hoping to continue their work with profit or not-for-profit organizations, which could, like the Peace Corps projects, be located anywhere in the world.

Contact Karen Weld at (515) 573-2141 or



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