2010-12-23 / Front Page

AHS alumnus: Travel is the best education

After serving in the Peace Corps, Eric Smith plans to work in microfinance in Latin America
BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP Staff Writer
Eric Smith believes that the world is just too big to stay in one place his whole life.

Above: Cream Ridge native Eric Smith, who graduated from Allentown High School in 2005, teaches recycling in Costa Rica, where he is serving 27 months with the Peace Corps. Left: Smith helped the San Jose de Upala community build a recycling center to generate revenue for their high school. Above: Cream Ridge native Eric Smith, who graduated from Allentown High School in 2005, teaches recycling in Costa Rica, where he is serving 27 months with the Peace Corps. Left: Smith helped the San Jose de Upala community build a recycling center to generate revenue for their high school. The 24-year-old Cream Ridge native who graduated from Allentown High School in 2005 went to the University of Vermont where he attained a degree in business administration with a concentration in finance. After working at a small hotel on 215 hectares of rainforest in Costa Rica for three months, he joined the Peace Corps. Now, he’s living in Costa Rica.

“I decided to join the Peace Corps because it offered exactly what I was looking for — a way to challenge myself to see what I was capable of,” Smith said. “It offered the chance to live in a foreign country, speak another language and have adventure. Most of all, it was an opportunity to share my education with those less fortunate, to be able to help those in need and serve my country at the same time.”

Smith also said he was looking for a way out of the fast-paced U.S. culture and an opportunity to see how other people live.

“I wanted to get back to the basics, remove all the distractions and live a simpler lifestyle,” he said.

While living in a community with a population of about 500 called San José de Upala as a member of the Peace Corps Community Economic Development project, Smith helps micro-entrepreneurs, especially women and children, plan and implement businesses, use information and communication technology, and learn English.

“I am supporting a women’s credit business in the strengthening of their business administration skills,” he said. “The women buy shares of the business, which forms the capital and in turn becomes loans to the shareholders. The loans are repaid with interest and the stockholders make dividends based on the success of the repayment. The loans go to help the women in various ways.”

Some women use the loans to fix the tin roof over their house so it does not leak during the rainy season. Others buy materials to build an oven and invest in a bread-making operation or build a coop to raise and sell chickens, Smith said.

“It is amazing to see how a small amount of money can help these women,” Smith said. “A $100 loan has the ability to generate a bit more food security for a family with the proper investment and management of the loan. These Empresas de Credito Comunales have a unique methodology in the world of microfinance and have spurred my interest in further understanding the different systems that exist in the growing field of microfinance today.”

Smith also helped form a recycling committee to build a recyclable collection center in the high school.

“There is no trash service here,” he said. “The communities only have the option to burn, bury or toss their trash. It has huge impacts on the health of the community members and the environment. Thus, I will be helping to manage a district-wide recycling program with 23 schools and over 2,200 students and their families.”

The recycling center will function as a small business with social ends, selling the recyclables to large businesses that want to buy them for profits to invest in the high school.

“I will be teaching an environmental education class at the high school this year where we will be doing recycling projects and learning about building with recyclable materials, getting students involved in the success of the project,” Smith said.

Smith has also been working with a group of six young adults, ages 18-22, to build a nursery where cacao trees will be raised and sold.

“In a community so poor, where large companies come and extract all the profits from the harvests (they rent the land, do all the work with big machinery and then leave with all the money), it’s essential to return an economic source of income to the community,” Smith said. “The youth will be running the nursery as a small business, in which they will teach me about cacao and I will teach them business skills.”

The most memorable parts of Peace Corps service involve relationship building, Smith said. “It’s getting invited to someone’s farm to go horseback riding and help bring the cattle in,” he said. “It’s being invited over for lunch to hear about someone’s business plan for making cheese. It’s the endless afternoon coffees talking about the old days without electricity and running water, how the only transportation was by boat up the river into Nicaragua where they sold their products, or how they came 70 years ago with machetes, and whatever they cut down and fenced off became theirs.”

The most memorable experience for Smith thus far was playing in his first soccer game with the local team.

“And, 15 minutes into the game having the soles of both cleats completely come off the shoes because they have been sitting in the store for three years, the glue having melted away because no one has size 12 feet,” he said.

The biggest realization Smith has had while living in Costa Rica is that the ends are in the means.

“Only with strong relationships and support will I be able to successfully carry out my projects,” he said. “It’s more about sitting and enjoying that afternoon cup of coffee than rushing to tell someone else why they should or should not do something. Also, I have learned that we are capable of so much in this world, and there’s too little time to be filled with hate or sadness. We have to seize every day and make the most out of what we have been given.”

The Peace Corps has challenged Smith to see what he can accomplish and what he is capable of as a person.

“Peace Corps is an adventure, one that I have fallen in love with,” he said. “It gives you the chance to see other parts of the world, learn about new cultures and new places, and discover who you truly are. I would absolutely encourage others to join to find out what else life has to offer. For me, it was also about getting away from the speed of the U.S. culture — the race we live. It allowed me to slow down and get out of that competitive mind-set, in which many lose themselves. It allowed me to disconnect, leave the television behind and rediscover the things I love — soccer, reading, writing and playing music.”

When Smith made his decision to join the Peace Corps, his dad Scott’s initial response was “get a real job.”

“But when he understood what Peace Corps is and what I was going to be doing, he was 100 percent supportive and proud about what I was going to be doing,” Smith said. “My mother [Susan] has always encouragedme to do what I love and taught me that travel is the best education. I couldn’t agree with her more.”

Smith will be serving in Costa Rica for a total of 27 months. Afterward, he plans to pursue work in microfinance somewhere in Latin America.

“I’d like to continue on to Colombia, Mexico, Argentina or Chile to continue to learn about differentmicrofinancemethodologies,” he said.

To learn more about Smith’s service in Costa Rica, visit his blog at Erockjohn.wordpress.com.

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