Barbara Dennie, a Salem teacher and Gloucester resident, will be one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to go overseas in more than two years.
Dennie, 59, will leave the United States on September 4 for a two-year stay in Colombia to teach English to children. A math and science teacher at Salem Public Schools for 17 years and a teacher of the deaf in Beverly for 18 years prior, Dennie said the experiment had been going on for decades.
“Throughout my life, I always wanted to do something where I could go somewhere, make a difference, and see the world from a different perspective,” Dennie said.
This will be his first stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. It is also the first time volunteers have returned overseas since COVID-19 forced mass evacuations from their host countries in 2020.
Since then, volunteers have served the state by helping to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 and fight the fallout from the pandemic. They will now continue this work around the world.
“Actions taken over the next few years have the potential to fundamentally impact development trajectories (across the world) for decades to come,” Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn said in a statement. “Peace Corps volunteers returning to Colombia will work alongside community members to support urgent development efforts and build critical connections.”
Dennie’s time abroad will be a far cry from her life in Gloucester, where she has lived for 24 years. She will stay with one host family during her initial three-month training, then move into another once she begins teaching. She will also be fluent in Spanish and assist with COVID-19 recovery work.
It’ll be an adjustment for sure, but one that Dennie is thrilled to make.
“I know it’s going to be a big challenge. But I also think the meat of the experiences is being part of a community and learning about everyday life living with a family,” she said.
Dennie’s road to joining the Peace Corps began about four years ago. While working as a math instructional coach at Salem Elementary Schools, an ESL teacher in the district asked for help with a new student from the Dominican Republic.
The student was just starting to learn English and needed help with math. It was a common case for Dennie, besides the fact that she didn’t speak Spanish.
The ESL teacher taught Dennie Spanish words for addition, subtraction and other expressions used in math. Soon after, Dennie joined an after-school professional development opportunity in the district to teach Spanish to his teachers.
She hired a Spanish tutor that summer and traveled twice to the Dominican Republic to attend language schools.
“I became completely addicted to learning Spanish,” Dennie said.
“I had the bug of learning Spanish and visiting places where it was the language.”
Most Peace Corps volunteers are recent college graduates, said Erin Curran, spokeswoman for the organization. It’s part of what makes Dennie’s journey so special.
“When Barb told me she had 35 years of teaching experience, and she was bringing that to Columbia, my first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, how lucky,'” Curran said. “There are benefits for all of our volunteers as they go through different stages of their lives, but I think that’s what’s really unique about Barb’s experience.
Dennie said “going into this field with experience and a bit of gray hair” is a good thing.
“Maybe some things would be easier if I was 26, but when I think about the job I’m going to be doing – working with teachers who are already teachers, who are already professionals who have experience in their asset – that’s what I do in Salem as a teacher coach,” Dennie said.
Besides teaching, Dennie – originally from Rochester, New York – enjoys exploring Dogtown and other parts of Cape Ann. She has a 25-year-old daughter she adopted on her own from the Philippines and calls herself fiercely independent — sometimes mistakenly, she says.
The garden of his house in Wheeler’s Point is full of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apple trees and peach trees. While she typically grows “a crazy amount of vegetables,” she has cut back this year in light of her travels.
“I live not too far from the water, which is true for anyone living in Gloucester, so I’ll definitely miss it,” Dennie said. “But it will be there when I return.”