In the 1950s when Kay Dixon was growing up in a small western Pennsylvania town, expectations for a girl were few and simple. You became a teacher, a nurse or a secretary; then you married and raised a family. Or you skipped the career stuff and proceeded directly to the altar.
But Dixon wanted something more. In 1962 at 21, she became one of the first Peace Corps volunteers. Her mother’s reaction? “But what will I tell my bridge club?”
Dixon recounts her Peace Corps adventure in her memoir, “Wanderlust Satisfied,” published last year by Peace Corps Writers.
Established by John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps’ mission of service and furthering understanding and peace among nations captured Dixon’s imagination, and after graduating from Juniata College, she signed up.
The Peace Corps had just begun to allow women to join. “The original group didn’t include women because they didn’t think we’d survive,” she said. “It was such an experiment!”
She got a brown envelope in the mail informing her that IF she completed her training successfully, she’d be sent to Colombia. Very few details followed.
Not knowing what to expect, Dixon boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Albuquerque, N.M., to embark on her training.
All of her instructors spoke Spanish and her introduction into language immersion was rocky. Dixon had taken plenty of Spanish courses but had never actually spoken the language.
After eight weeks at the University of New Mexico, her group flew to Puerto Rico. “They were building the first Outward Bound program,” she said. “My group built the first obstacle course.”
But mountain climbing in Puerto Rico wasn’t nearly as frightening as the next phase of her training. “We were sent to New York City because we were an urban community development team.”
Her experience in New York proved eye-opening. She said the poverty she saw in her own country was greater than she experienced elsewhere. “I’d never seen poverty before.”
Finally, the team traveled to Colombia – their home for the next two years. Dixon and her partner were sent to Barrio Antioquia in the city of Medellin.
“The neighborhood held the unique distinction as the third largest Red Light District in South America,” she writes. “I am 21, single, a college graduate, and my first full-time job is in a Red Light District. How to explain this to my family and the folks back home?”
She worked at the neighborhood health center, teaching the women how to cook with the food that came in CARE packages. To her dismay many of their original plans to expand their outreach in the area were stifled by local politicians.
Nevertheless, her time in Colombia had lifelong effects. She met her husband, Kevin Dixon, there. He too, was a Peace Corps volunteer. Though they didn’t date in Colombia, they kept in touch when they returned to the States. They married May 21, 1966.
But Dixon’s overseas adventures were far from over. In 1976, her husband accepted a job in Saudi Arabia. She packed up their three young daughters and joined him. A fourth daughter was born there the following year. “She was one of the last Western babies born in a Saudi hospital,” Dixon said.
After five years of desert living, she and the girls moved back to Cape Cod. Kevin continued working in Saudi Arabia but was able to come home every three months.
In 2010, the couple made another big move when they settled in Spokane to be near their oldest daughter and her children.
Dixon said her wanderlust was prompted by her desire to leave small town life in western Pennsylvania behind, and she’s never regretted that decision.
In the epilogue of “Wanderlust Satisfied,” she writes, “Never have to say to yourself, ‘I wonder what would have happened if I had …’ ”
Recently, she expounded on that sentiment. “People need to have a dream,” she said.
“They need to explore, risk and discover. If you don’t have a dream, where are you going?”
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