As the last leaves fall and the holidays rise, it’s the season for home. 

“Volunteering became a great way to get to know Northern Virginia, my new home,” said Oakton resident Sara Holtz. “You learn so much about what the needs are in the community when you volunteer.”

While attending the College of William & Mary, Holtz applied to the Peace Corps for cross-cultural volunteering. She started serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural village of Togo in August 1995.

“I wanted to be a health volunteer because I had volunteered as a youth at the hospital right down the street from where I grew up,” Holtz said. She worked in a basic health hut with two other health volunteers, Henou and Adjoua.

They educated the community on services to improve women’s and children’s health, such as pre-and antenatal care, labor and delivery, infant growth monitoring, family planning, STI prevention, and HIV/AIDS care.

“The welcome that the two volunteers gave was so incredible that people … would cross the border and even pass another health facility to come to the one that was in my village because the care was so great,” Holtz said.

They dug wells, distributed bed nets, held safe sex demonstrations, and biked door-to-door to administer polio vaccines. She trained the Togolese volunteers so the services would continue beyond her service.

“The year I left the village … the country decided [that] because the health services were going so well in the village health hut they would build a larger health facility,” she added. The larger facility was equipped with running water and electricity and staffed with salaried employees.

Holtz stayed until August 1998–a year beyond the standard two years of service. When she returned to the U.S., she got her master’s and doctoral degrees in public health before settling in Virginia. 

“The experience of being in the Peace Corps really determined what my career was going to be,” Holtz said.

She spent the next 21 years writing letters in French to Henou. In 2019, Henou told Holtz that his entire family returns home every Aug. 15 and encouraged her to come. Holtz took the chance this year.

“What can I do to continue the effort that I started 27 years ago to improve the lives of women and girls?” she asked herself when she was anticipating her return to Togo. “Like in many other cultures, in Togo when you come home after going someplace you bring a gift.” 

She decided on reusable menstrual pads made by the nonprofit she volunteers with, Days for Girls. She filled two checked bags with 60 reusable menstrual pad kits.

Upon her return, she reunited with many of the villagers she knew before including the health volunteers Henou and Adjoua. In addition to Henou’s entire family, she got to see some of Adjoua’s kids. “They’re taller than me, … they have kids, and they were driving me on their motorcycles,” Holtz said, chucking. “For me, it was so much about the people.”

She also got to see the way the services and facilities they established during her volunteer service have continued to benefit the community. The wells they built during Holtz’s service are still functional and have increased the development of nearby communities. 

This year marks the 61st anniversary of the Peace Corps Act. Since its inception, more than 240,000 people have volunteered in 142 countries, but “somehow it’s a small community because … you constantly run into people that you’re connected to somehow through the Peace Corps,” Holtz said.

Holtz is part of a broader community of volunteers. She has volunteered with the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, the local Days for Girls chapter, and Volunteer Fairfax among others. She and her kids have participated in Give Together as part of Volunteer Fairfax’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend of Service for years.

Volunteering is as much about learning about your community as it is learning about yourself and meeting your need for connection. While people define what home is to them this holiday season, Holtz finds hers in Oakton as much as in Togo. To the Togolese villagers who were amazed Holtz remembered them, “You’re with me always,” she said.

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