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A teachers lesson
Leslie McAbee is learning from her students as part of Peace Corps work in Madagascar
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Leslie McAbee, 24, demonstrates how to wear lamba hoany, a cloth wrap worn in warmer weather in Madagascar, while spending some time at home in Lumpkin County. McAbee a 2006 graduate of the University of Georgia, joined the Peace Corps and spent the past year in Madagascar teaching English. She will soon return to the country for another year of work. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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Leslie McAbee talks about her Peace Corps work in the country, an island nation off the eastern coast of Africa

In a couple of weeks, Leslie McAbee leaves for the second and final year of her Peace Corps stint in southern Madagascar.

She'll leave the comforts of her hilltop home in rural Lumpkin County, just outside Hall County, for a 20-hour flight to the island nation off the eastern coast of Africa.

There, she'll embark on a 12-hour road trip in tight quarters to her destination in the Antandroy region, or southernmost part of Madagascar, and resume teaching English to the country's equivalent of high school sophomores and juniors.

"I have definitely been surprised at myself, to ride the ups and downs of living in a completely different culture than I'm used to," said the 24-year-old, a 2002 Gainesville High School graduate.

The experience has allowed her to fulfill a longtime passion to explore other countries and cultures.

"For a long time, I felt like I should see a part of the world I have always read about or not read about, especially in the case of Africa," McAbee said. "... I felt like it was time for me to live a life I was not born into, to understand a different part of the world."

McAbee, daughter of Randy and Rita McAbee, earned her bachelor's degree in English and romance languages from the University of Georgia in December 2006. She began applying to become a volunteer in the Peace Corps, a federal agency that places Americans in developing countries to live and work, in the summer of 2006.

McAbee went through the Peace Corps because it pays for expenses, including food, housing and any needed materials.

"Also, I think it really enables you to become a part of a community and to help people from the inside out," she said. "I think it's a more sustainable way of reaching people who have little education and health."

After a period of submitting essays and recommendations and going through interviews, she learned in February 2007 that she would be going to Madagascar (she could request the continent but not a specific country).

She left for the country on June 17, 2007.

Her teaching efforts in an Antandroy school system have been frustrating at times.

"Many (students) are very motivated and some are less motivated because the opportunities to use English are really not available," McAbee said.

"I often think if my work is worthwhile there, but you do find students who you know will use English to their advantage to find jobs in the larger cities."

She also has seen corruption.

"Some teachers take their pay and don't come to school," McAbee said. "Students come and wait for their classes and they go home 10 minutes later.

"So I think, just being a constant, to come to school and (students) know that I care, and they know they should be there and they should be studying every day, that makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile."

McAbee said she tried to go to the country "with as little expectations as I could." Still, she had hoped for a little more "time for myself and my thought life."

"It has been less a meditative experience. ... You have got so much work to do and so much to distract you from yourself, which is good."

McAbee left Madagascar last month for about a three-week break to celebrate her grandfather's 90th birthday. Her brother also is celebrating a birthday.

Peace Corps allows volunteers to return home for a break, but volunteers have to pick up the expenses, McAbee said.

She can apply for a third year at the end of her service.

McAbee doesn't feel that urge. "I feel like my time will be done. It will be time for me to come home."

Overall, though, she said she believes she has gained a larger appreciation of other cultures and what the United States and other countries could learn from each other.

Her father said he is proud of his daughter.

"I admire young people who are courageous enough to go out and do this kind of work in the world," said the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. retiree. "But it's hard to see your kid leave for an entire year - you can't even set eyes on her."

Still, "when you think about young people running away from home, this is a good way to do it."

When she returns from Madagascar, McAbee plans to begin applying for graduate school.

"I love academia, so I hope to get a degree in American literature and teach it at a university," she said.

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