​Emily Knight and Matthew Peters were Mennonite Voluntary Service participants in Aibonito, Puerto Rico from 2019-2020. Photo provided.

By Zachary Headings
Wednesday, December 16, 2020

When Matthew Peters started his Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) term in the fall of 2019, he couldn't have imagined how it would conclude. As with most things during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Peters' service opportunities and responsibilities either ground to a screeching halt or changed so rapidly that they were unrecognizable once the dust settled.

But Peters' service didn't end with the advent of social distancing. He persevered.

Peters is a Silverton, Oregon, native and attends Calvary Mennonite and Rock of Salvation Church, a joint congregation in Aurora, Oregon. Peters knew he wanted to do service between college and medical school, but he hadn't landed on exactly what.

His mother told him that his cousin had been an MVS participant, and after checking the program out, he applied right away. "I [thought], 'this is a sweet program,' largely because it is faith-based," Peters recalled.

Peters said that he's very relational. He enjoys meeting people and building community with them — a muscle that MVS allowed him to flex quite often.

During his placement in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Peters spent most of his service time at Academia Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite Academy), a bilingual, PreK-12 school in the neighboring city of Coamo. The school focuses on integrating Christian faith values with academic knowledge. While there, he continued to accumulate more and more responsibilities.

"While things at the school started out slowly, by the end of my time there I had quite a bit going on," Peters said. He began working as a crossing guard, helping with P.E. (physical education) class, and assisting with the kindergarten class. As his Spanish-language skills grew, so too did his responsibilities.

"I started substitute teaching," Peters said. Then, he began to fill in for various teaching positions, eventually teaching English, physical education and science. He even had the opportunity to coach the basketball team.

With a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from George Fox (Oregon) University and plans to go to medical school, Peters wanted to volunteer in the medical field. In addition to his work at Academia Menonita Betania, he spent some time at a medical clinic in town. There, he spoke with patients and helped them check in for their appointments in the morning and then, shadowed the doctor in the afternoons.

Peters said that there were many things that excited him during his time in Aibonito. His connection with his students at the school was chief among these. When the younger students became more familiar with him, they greeted him with ecstatic group hugs. "It was so touching," Peters said, "and it feels like forever ago now, partly because [the pandemic] makes it hard to imagine hugging anyone without worrying."

The older students, too, brought great joy to Peters' service term. "It was exciting when they wanted to talk to you about things, because it meant that we were actually building a relationship," Peters said.

When the pandemic hit, things changed. He couldn't volunteer at the clinic anymore, which he said was "a major bummer." Additionally, in-person classes went the way of hugs and dine-in eating. "I was also teaching three science classes and an English class, so I had to figure out how to move those online, which was crazy," Peters said. "I ended up making YouTube videos and sending out assignments via email."

Peters said that teaching is tough, even without the added stress of moving everything online. Moving from in-person to cyberspace was tougher still, since the relationships he was building with students were stymied by distance and screens.

During his struggle with this new reality, Peters said he turned to God. He read the Bible and prayed often. He also stayed connected with his friends via video calls.

The people in the Aibonito unit community made the experience much easier for Peters, he said. Emily Knight, another MVSer from Moundridge, Kansas, also served in Aibonito during Peters' term. Peters said that his experience wouldn't have been the same without her, local leader Alex Gonzalez, and the Iglesia Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite Church) community — especially José Luis Vargas and Linette Colón, the pastoral couple of the community.

Peters is currently working on his family's farm in Oregon and is applying to medical school. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been volunteering at a local clinic. Peters said he is looking forward to the new year, when he will work as a scribe — someone that oversees the documentation of each patient's visit — in some of the larger emergency rooms around Portland. He plans to continue his medical school applications along with potentially more schooling to prepare for medical school.

Despite the pandemic limiting his ability to build relationships, Peters doesn't regret signing up for MVS. "It was such a fantastic experience for me," Peters said. "It was honestly one of the best years of my life. It wasn't without its struggles, but that's how we grow."






​Zachary Headings is a marketing associate for Mennonite Mission Network.



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