THE EVACUEE: Elena Kalahar (BA ’16)
Elena Kalahar was a year into her service with the Peace Corps in the Bocas del Toro province of Panama when the pandemic hit. She was just beginning to feel as though she knew how to maximize her skill set to help school kids learn English.
“A year in service is the time when everybody is starting to feel in the groove of things,” explains Kalahar, who majored in Spanish and international studies. Once Peace Corps volunteers have a few months on the ground, she says, they’ve built trust, established relationships and figured out what works.
In mid-March, the first coronavirus cases were identified in Panama City, and by March 13, Kalahar and the other volunteers in the country received “stand-fast” orders from the Peace Corps. These instructed volunteers to remain in their communities and wait for further word. It was only a matter of hours before the order came to evacuate.
The Peace Corps sent a private bus to pick up its volunteers in the area and transported them to Panama City, where they stayed in a hotel for several days, awaiting a chartered flight out of the country. “The vast majority of the volunteers were just really sad. None of us wanted to go,” she says.
When it looked as though the airport might shut down before the chartered plane could depart, Kalahar booked her own ticket home. Once back in Denver, she had to quarantine in her family’s basement for 14 days, largely because her mother cares for her aging grandmother, who was at particular risk from the virus. Kalahar picked up her meals at the top of the stairs and spent her time finishing up Peace Corps business and reflecting on what to do next.
Then she was invited to join several other Peace Corps volunteers — 7,300 of them were evacuated in just a few weeks — to share her tale via a video produced by Business Insider. That experience whetted her interest in journalism and storytelling, and she’s now planning to pursue a graduate degree in the field. In the meantime, she blogs about her experiences at anopendiary.com and has created a video log, or vlog, for Youtube.
Whatever path she pursues, it’s sure to combine her desire to serve with her urge to explore the world beyond her Colorado home. “I have always had an adventurous spirit,” she says.