After a two-year wait, Wilmette resident Robert “Bobby” Richards is one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to return to overseas service since the agency suspended global operations in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Richards is serving in Colombia in the education sector of the Peace Corps, an international service network from the U.S. government that pairs volunteers with communities seeking support in education, health, environment, agriculture, economic development and youth development. Richards will work in the school system alongside teachers and educators, focusing on curriculum and lesson-planning techniques and strategies.
He was expecting to begin with the Peace Corps in September 2020, but the pandemic upended those plans before he could even leave the country.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to since 2019,” Richards said in a phone call from Barranquilla, Colombia, where he is currently in a three-month training program to sharpen his Spanish and prepare for the work ahead. “I’m just so ecstatic and grateful and appreciative to be here with my feet on the ground in Colombia.”
After training, Richards will be officially sworn in to the Peace Corps and learn more about his on-site assignment, which could be in the same coastal area as his training or further south in the Andean region near Bogota.
Wherever he ends up, he will be there for 24 months, entrenching himself in the community and using his skills to help.
Depending on the needs of his host community, Richards may find himself teaching English classes or working on side projects in town. One of the aspects of volunteering that Richards is most excited for is building collaborative relationships with local communities and figuring out what they are looking for and how he can support them.
In a press release from the organization, Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn said, “This is a historic moment at a pivotal time in the world. We are witnessing the largest vaccination effort in history, ongoing concerns about COVID-19 and a war that is expected to broadly impact food security. The return of Peace Corps volunteers to Colombia is just one step in returning volunteers to countries around the world to partner with host communities and support urgent response and recovery efforts.”
Though his service is coming at a time when it is needed, living in South America and working in schools was not initially Richards’ plan. After graduating from Loyola Academy in 2013, he earned a degree in finance from Xavier University and spent two years in commercial banking before deciding that it wasn’t the right career for him.
He decided to join AmeriCorps and ended up teaching in Milwaukee, which awoke within him a passion for education and service. After that one-year commitment, he applied for the Peace Corps with the hopes of stepping outside his comfort zone and continuing his growth.
“To be honest I’m really excited to get to grow as an educator. I really did find a passion for education and getting to be an advocate of it,” he said.
With his business background, Richards also expects to engage in some economic development projects as prioritized by the local community.
As he spoke from Colombia with persistent traffic horns as background noise, Richards could not help but reflect on the circumstances that brought him to where he was. Not only has he been in Spanish classes since an elementary student at Wilmette’s Saint Francis Xavier School, but also he recognized the many educators who inspired and supported him to get to this point.
He offered “a huge, huge thank you and appreciation to teachers and coaches and professors in my life who have made such a profound impact. I’m excited and honored and privileged to follow in their footsteps.”
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Christine Hinkel Adams has been covering events and news on the North Shore since 2018. A former high school English teacher, Adams grew up in Wilmette and now lives in the area with her husband and two children.