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Peace Corps volunteer invited back to Korea


CANTON — When Catherine E. Mathews joined the Peace Corps fresh out of college, she was excited to travel halfway around the world to work in a poor, rural South Korean village.

That was more than 30 years ago.

Next week, Ms. Mathews is getting a chance to travel back to the Asian country where she still has many friends and fond memories.

“It was a peaceful, gentle place,” Ms. Mathews recollected. “Everyone worked together and shared. I liked the community aspect of it. I’m excited about going back.”

After her three-year Peace Corps stint ended, Ms. Mathews returned to Korea, where she worked for about decade at various jobs. Her work included counseling soldiers serving with the U.S. Army who were suffering problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder. She also taught English and worked for the U.S. Embassy.

Her years in Korea turned out to be a life-changing experience that cemented her desire to help others. Her parents were first-generation immigrants to the United States, coming from Germany and Indonesia.

Ms. Mathews is director of the Canton Church & Community Program, an agency at 7 Main St. that provides food, clothing and other emergency assistance for those in need.

Earlier this summer, she was contacted by the South Korean government, which has organized reunions for former Peace Corps volunteers.

“They want to show us how far they’ve advanced in the rural areas, partly because of the contributions of the Peace Corps volunteers,” Ms. Mathews said.

During her first visit in the 1970s, people in poor rural areas lived in thatched-roof houses and had little money. There were mostly dirt roads.

“They want to show us the highways and the other changes,” Ms. Mathews said.

The Korean government is paying for her airfare and hotel stay during the 10-day trip, which begins Wednesday with a flight from Syracuse to Detroit and then to Seoul.

During her stay, Ms. Mathews will get to visit Nangsan, the village in Chola Bukto Province where she spent three years living with a single mother and her daughter in a two-room house without electricity or running water.

“It was known as the rice basket area,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of money. They were recuperating from the war and most of the economy was going to the military.”

Although her host mother has died, Ms. Mathews will spend time with her “Korean sister,” Choi Young Soon, who is a retired nurse.

Ms. Mathews helped fund her sister’s nursing education. When she returns this time, she’d like to find another project to help fund and hopes Choi Young Soon will join her.

“That way the two of us are giving something back,” she said.

Ms. Mathews also is looking forward to once again eating authentic Korean food such as blowfish soup. Another favorite is squid with green onions and hot peppers.

“It’s a like a stir fry,” she said.

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