Peace Corps volunteer JP Banks said the untimely death of 24-year-old Kate Puzey in West Africa earlier this month is a reminder of his own service and risks abroad.
Puzey, whose parents live in Forsyth County, was found dead March 12 outside her home in the village of Badjoude in Benin, where she taught English. Friends and family gather today in Alpharetta for her funeral.
Banks, of Gainesville, said that before he traveled to the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan in March 2000, the Peace Corps trained his volunteer group extensively on keeping safe in the field.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cut his term of service short, but Banks said he never felt his life was in danger. At that point, there had been two deaths in the history of Peace Corps, he said.
"I never really was worried about my own safety," Banks said.
But Lindsey Parramore-Oliver said she was robbed three times — once at gunpoint — during her service in Peru. She said the possibility of danger is something no volunteer escapes.
"It’s not without risk, for sure," said Parramore-Oliver, who also lives in Gainesville. "Because basically, you’re placed in a community, a country, that’s not your own."
But when Puzey was found dead and authorities suspected she had been killed, Banks and fellow returned Peace Corps volunteers here at home feared her death might deter others from service.
"People are now going to think about this country where she was serving, and my concern is it’s going to not just put a dark cloud over Peace Corps, but unfortunately put a dark cloud over this particular country," Banks said.
Parramore-Oliver, who served from 2004 to 2006, encourages Gainesville-area students to join the Peace Corps.
"I would still encourage anybody to join Peace Corps, because to date, it is the most profound experience I’ve ever had," she said. "But I would just also encourage them to keep their safety as No. 1 priority."
Certainly, Banks and other volunteers say they feel a connection to Puzey’s death because of their service.
"I have a strong affinity for Peace Corps, and any time this sort of thing happens it makes me sad for the individual, for Peace Corps as a whole and for the country," Banks said.
Banks discussed Puzey’s death with fellow returned volunteer Angel Randolph, who also lives in Gainesville. Randolph worked to create a support network for teen mothers in the eastern Caribbean from 1995 to 1997.
Randolph said she was touched by news of Puzey’s death, adding there has been a lot of discussion between former Peace Corps volunteers since the news broke last week.
"I feel a connection to it, because (Peace Corps) was such an important part of my life for those two years and after the two years ... any time anything happens, I feel connected to it even though I don’t know her personally," Randolph said.
Scott Marquardt, who served in Benin in the mid-1990s, felt such a connection to Puzey’s death that he said he hopes he can travel from Manhattan to attend Puzey’s funeral today.
After the Detroit native learned of Puzey’s death, he said he immediately read her blog, and other news stories about her death. He learned that not only did they serve in the same country, but they also both attended the University of Montpelier in France at different times.
"I sort of feel like I know her now," he said.
Marquardt, too, said that he hoped Puzey’s death would not negatively affect the altruistic aspirations of others.
"This is an isolated incident," Marquardt said. "I don’t think it should give anyone pause. The world is always in need, and what Peace Corps stems from is that need. ... I don’t think it should sway anyone, frankly."
But he suspects that those who want to help, will do so despite the threat of danger.
The Peace Corps was established March 1, 1961, according to the organization’s Web site. The organization has had some 195,000 volunteers and trainees serving in 139 countries since then. There are 7,876 Peace Corps volunteers serving in missions around the world.