To The Corps –
Tom and Tina O’Keeffe came into their relationship each wanting to join
the Corps, and their shared curiosity fueled each other’s interest in the
program even as their blossoming relationship seemed to block the way
talked a little about it when we first started dating,” Tina explained,
“but you cannot do the Peace Corps together unless you are married, so we
tabled the discussion.”
Once they got married, though, they decided to throw themselves into the Peace Corps together, diving into life as newlyweds while simultaneously immersing themselves into training for their roles as Peace Corps volunteers.
and Tina O’Keeffe spoke with the Tribune via email from Ukraine as
their training neared completion and discussed their Queens life, their
feelings about the Peace Corps and their experiences as newlyweds.
Tina is quick to point out that the Peace Corps is not their honeymoon —
“We spent ten days in Tahiti. That’s
a honeymoon, this is work!” — their experience as fledgling volunteers
has shaped their entry into married life.
are using this time to build a strong foundation for our marriage and
family. We depend on each other
quite a lot,” Tina said.
In Love, Then Into The Corps
After completing his undergraduate studies at Iona College, Tom O’Keeffe found himself with the opportunity to do some traveling before moving along with his professional life. He spent three months backpacking through China followed by another three months making his way across Europe. “That’s where the idea of Peace Corps first hit me,” he explained.
The newlywed volunteers are shown (above) in front of a statue of
Taras Shevchenko, a famous Ukrainian poet and leader.
kept running into volunteers who were also traveling and they would talk
about their experiences. All of
them loved it.”
27, Tom is the eldest of five siblings and was born in Jackson Heights and
raised in Bellerose, where his parents live currently. His mother teaches at St. John’s University and his father
is a pharmacist at Creedmor Hospital.
Peace Corps seemed like a perfect way to see new places and learn about new
cultures while doing important work. Tom
said he initiated an application even while he was still trekking across
Europe, only to put his plans on hold in order to finish his studies for an
MBA and gain some experience at an investment firm.
“The idea of the Peace Corps was shelved, but always stayed in the
back of my mind,” he added.
ideas came surging forward again when Tom met Christina Teresa Lopez in
met Tom at his own housewarming party in Astoria,” Tina said.
The two had several mutual friends from high school — Tom had even
taken one of Tina’s friends to the prom.
Tina, now 28, was raised in Fresh Meadows, the youngest of three children born to Cuban immigrant parents. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997 with a degree in English and communications, and landed back at her home in Queens to work on a novel before joining the Peace Corps.
talking at the party, Tom and Tina’s relationship gained intensity almost
immediately. Tina recalled,
“The party was on a Saturday night. We
had our first date on that Monday, two days later.
We never looked back, we became serious right away.”
two discovered their shared interest in the Peace Corps early on, Tom said,
but didn’t seriously consider joining until after they were in engaged in
October 2001 — shortly after the events of Sept. 11, which put the risks
associated with Peace Corps in a new perspective, they told the Tribune.
were many reasons we wanted to join: the excitement of experiencing a new
culture in a new land, the chance to learn a new language, the opportunity
to use our skills and education to make a real difference,” Tom explained.
“And, frankly, we started feeling that other countries weren’t
any more dangerous than New York anymore.”
added, “Basically, we continued forward with the idea that we could back
out. But in the end, we felt it
was right for us and we really wanted to do it.”
Days On The Job
O’Keeffe’s were assigned together to the program in Ukraine, where there
has been an active Peace Corps presence since 1992, right after the country
gained independence from the former Soviet Union.
Currently, there are 82 volunteers working in the country on business
development, education (especially teaching English) and environmental
in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy in the spirit of his now-famous remark,
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your
country,” the mission of the Peace Corps is to promote world peace and
friendship. There are now 6,678
volunteers serving in 70 countries around the world.
embarking on active development work within a local community, volunteers
receive a training course that lasts several months.
is intense,” Tina said. “We
lived for three months in a town called Obuxiv just outside of Kiev.” Tom
and Tina lived together with a host family, but attended separate training
volunteers undergo language, cultural and hands-on technical training.
said, “While in training, we learn the language and also do an internship
program where we work with a local organization. My group held a seminar on grant writing for the Women’s
Business Alliance of Obuxiv.”
the O’Keeffe’s are bound for western Ukraine to a town called L’Viv,
they spent the months of training learning to speak Ukrainian and use the
Cyrillic alphabet. Eventually,
they will both assist in business development in L’Viv — Tom employing
his MBA and investment bank experiences at the local credit union, while
Tina works at the town’s Youth Employment Center.
are being trained on how to convey basic business information and skills to
the people of Ukraine,” Tina explained.
Not The Usual Volunteers
only are Tom and Tina relatively exceptional for embarking on the Peace
Corps as a couple (there are five other couple in their program), but they
are also among the youngest volunteers.
most in the group are single and struggling with loneliness in a foreign
country, other volunteers are reacting and adapting to the stability Tom and
Tina’s established relationship brings.
“People tend to confide in us, and we get to see the problems that
they are facing compared to our own,” Tom said.
share an apartment but will work in different job sites,” Tina said.
“Similar to our life back home in many ways.”
explained that, in coming to the Peace Corps as part of a married couple,
she avoids the “state of in-between” that is difficult for many of the
singles. “People at home
don’t fully understand what you go through and the people here don’t
understand where you came from. You
are in limbo,” she said.
added, “For married couples, you brought your best friend with you — the
person who knows you best and who you are and who now understands what you
are going through.”
disadvantage, however, is that marriage is work — between Peace Corps and
their new marriage, the O’Keeffe’s have two jobs.
were advised by our parents and married friends not to take for granted that
the first few years of marriage are very difficult, even in the best
situations,” Tina said.
irony of their situation, as they set out to live in an area of a country
neither had visited just months ago, is that they are reliving the
experiences of their immigrant heritage — for Tina, from her parents; for
Tom, from his grandparents.
feel sometimes as if we are mimicking the experiences my parents went
through 40 years ago as newly married immigrants in New York,” Tina said,
“trying to adjust to a new language and a new culture simultaneously.”