By kristine gill
Witnessing poverty firsthand changes a person. Three former Youngstown-area residents can attest to that.
Each traveled abroad in the 1960s when the Peace Corps was just beginning, and each returned with new perspectives on life in the United States.
“When we signed up, this country knew nothing about the rest of the world,” said David Entrikin, a Boardman native who served with the Peace Corps in Afghanistan beginning in 1967. “Rich people went to Europe, and the rest of us knew nothing. And that changed. All of a sudden young people were getting out. Almost everyone afterward traveled and brought it back. I think we got more out of it than the host countries did.”
The organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, having sent 80 Youngstown-area residents and more than 200,000 other volunteers abroad in the last five decades. President John F. Kennedy started the program to aid Third World countries, but the experience also benefited volunteers.
“I learned about my own ability to survive,” said Entrikin, 65, who was kidnapped for days by Afghans along with another volunteer. “I was in very remote places. You learn to live off your wits. I learned I could do that.”
Jack Haplea, who graduated from Boardman High School, served in Bogota, Colombia, for two years with his wife beginning in 1963.
“It was our honeymoon, and it kind of strengthened our marriage,” he said. “We were down there together and didn’t have family around the corner. We took care of each other.”
Haplea, 69, majored in psychology at Case Western Reserve before joining the Peace Corps but ended up working for nonprofits upon his return to the States.
“When I got back, I got into business, I think because of my experience with working in the community,” he said. “I came back and got involved in a number of different nonprofit boards, went back to grad school, then became director of United Way in Erie County.”
Alan Taradash graduated from Liberty High School in 1961 and served in Bombay, India, from 1965 to 1967, where he saw the harsh realities of afflictions such as leprosy.
“You see the way the disease eats away at their face and fingers and toes, and you watch them slowly die,” he said. “Bombay picked up the dead on the streets with carts each morning.”
Taradash, 67, was aiding a community in its urban development like Haplea did in Bogata. He is now an attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., where he has represented Navajo Indians in cases that have reached the Supreme Court.
Much like his time in Bombay, living on a Navajo reservation for 13 years taught him what’s important in life.
“It gives you a different perspective on things,” he said. “Things the rest of the world thinks are important are really far from it.”
Living in a country where food and water were rationed and health care was nonexistent was tough, he said. Three of the 45 volunteers sent to Bombay ended their tours early. One was taken away in a straitjacket.
The experience also made it difficult for Taradash to adjust when he returned to the United States.
“To say there is a culture shock coming back is a gross, gross understatement,” said Taradash, who also was treated for meningitis while overseas.
“You run a very high fever. It’s just incredibly painful ... like a hammer in your brain,” he said.
He was sent to a hospital where treatment consisted of lying horizontal for three months and hoping to survive.
“They were killing me in that hospital, so I left. I unplugged myself and left,” he said. “You live through stuff like that and get a fair amount of empathy for people who don’t even have access to that; who live on the street.”
Taradash played in the state championship for Liberty High School’s basketball team in 1961. The team lost by two points, but Taradash said the discipline he learned from coaches and teachers at the school prepared him for his time abroad and later in life. He played in a city league while in Bombay on courts made of mud and cow dung. His Indian teammates went barefoot to grip the surface better and played at night when the air was cooler. The team won the Maharashtra State Tournament but couldn’t afford to travel to nationals.
“My legacy of sorts is that they did build a community center complete with a basketball court because they used to follow me when I played for different city tournaments,” Taradash said.
Entrikin called his time in the Peace Corps an adventure.
“As a young male graduating from college, you went to Vietnam or you did something like grad school or got married and had a baby,” he said.
Entrikin chose the Peace Corps and was one of eight volunteers from a larger group of 80 who worked on an agriculture experiment growing wheat with native farmers.
After their Peace Corps leader went blind while serving and Entrikin learned some of the farmers he was working with had been taking bribes, he decided to end his tour early. He turned down a new offer to help other farmers plant opium poppies.
Instead, he took a year to travel and returned to the States where he was arrested for avoiding the draft. He reported for duty but failed a physical and never served.
Entrikin worked in Washington, D.C., for a year teaching welfare recipients to read. In the past seven years, he’s become the unofficial documentarian of homelessness in Seattle where he photographs people living on the streets.
“Made friends with two fellows [in the Peace Corps]who have been lifetime friends since then,” he said. “They were better people than me. They were teachers, so they actually stayed three years. One became a high school teacher, and one is the head of a home for mentally disturbed children. My experience was I was an adventurer. It was my opportunity to get out, and for me, to travel was extremely important.”
In Bogota, Haplea helped community members start their own gardens and establish basic health procedures as well as a park system. Villagers renamed the town where Haplea stayed “Kennedy City” after the president was assassinated.
“I still think what I brought back is my love for my country,” Haplea said. “If everybody had to go and live in a country like that, they would be so proud of what we have here.”