Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Mester

Tom Mester is a retired community college Biology Professor. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines and in Sierra Leone. After obtaining a Ph.D. in Agronomy and prior to his teaching career, Tom worked in the USA and internationally as a Manager of Contract Agricultural Research.

Why did you choose this program?

I wanted to return to Africa, in the southern part instead of the West. I wished to see and work with plains and bush animals while also providing a valuable service. I was also excited about the thought of possibly working with people from around the world. I chose this program because I was looking for a volunteer placement that had a strong support system and would be considered reasonably safe – no guarantees.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The program provided me with a multi-page description of the programs and a list of all the details for the trip. We talked on the phone several times. They provided suggestions for travel insurance – much cheaper than what I had found. They also suggested a travel agent that booked a great 15-day experience prior to the volunteer placement.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Always be flexible. The placement may not be 100% as in the written statement. I consider my experience even better than expected. Another plus for me was that I was the only American; I got to meet people from Great Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. The POD Volunteer Program is aimed at Gap Year people but was fine for me as a retiree.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

We worked 6 days per week. On the day off, we could go into town at our own expense or stay on site. During my 15-day stay, they organized 2 excursions at our own expense, but were great. I stayed in camp and enjoyed my day off.

The other was an evening river boat tour with dinner. On this tour, I saw a leopard (my only leopard sighting) and a hippo out of the water (more than just top of head/back). There also was one night where volunteers could sleep in a bush camp under the stars.

We started each work day at 5:30 (self-serve breakfast before) when the truck left camp to count game or birds or repair bush roads or service the camera traps. We returned about 9:30 or 10:00. We were free till 3:00 when we went back out and perform the above listed activities.

We had several hours of in-class training as well as several hours out in the bush training – species ID, track ID, how to behave around dangerous game like elephants, buffalo, lions, etc.

We also worked as teams to maintain and clean the camp – bunk houses, bathrooms, kitchen, other living spaces, and to cook dinner each evening.

These activities were completed when we were not out in the bush. The camp was located on the bank of the Oliphants River with a riparian strip between us and the river. Every day, we watched the elephant, greater kudu, nyala, and giraffe from our lounge area, often less than 40 yards in distance. One teenage bull elephant entered our camp multiple times to browse on the bushes, 15 yards away!

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

Earlier in my life, I had spent over 4 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and in Sierra Leone; therefore, I didn't have many fears. I knew that I was capable of adapting to fluid situations – not to be fixated on doing exactly as written or other perceived expectations.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I also had malaria along with a host of other minor ailments. Needless to say, I was prepared with my anti-malarial meds and had a small tote of other meds which I didn't need, thankfully!

How did you prepare food in the placement?

Be adaptable. The cooking teams had people from all over the world, various ages (mostly under 25) and many with little cooking experience. We also had a couple of vegetarians.

The rangers went into town once a week to get food; we had electricity so a lot was frozen. We had to cook with what was available. The rangers would try to satisfy requests, but an up country South African town may not have what you want.

Sometimes, some of the volunteers became too complacent, and didn't properly close windows or doors, and the vervet monkeys or chacma baboons would get into the kitchen where they would poop and pee and eat and destroy food. A real mess, and then we wouldn't have what was lost until a ranger could get into town for replacements.