When I was a young Peace Corps Volunteer in Capinzal, Santa Catarina, Brazil, I lived with Guilherme and Miriam Doin, along with their four children, Zezo, Jota, Tânia, and Jane. I was 21, young and idealistic. I was committed to do my job in rural community development in this small community of about 1,000 people.
Joe with Tânia, Jane, Zezo and Jota Doin - 1965
I did not pay much attention to living in the small town, although I did play with the local soccer team, and eventually helped start a local basketball team. Many afternoons after a day in the nearby rural communities I would return to play backyard soccer with the boys and their dad, who was somewhat of a local star on the town’s number one team.
For my Peace Corps project I was very fortunate to be part of the 4-H Club Foundation’s partnership with the Peace Corps and ACARESC, the local Brazilian government department offering services to the farmers and rural areas of Santa Catarina, a state in southern Brazil. Working with local leaders and our Brazilian counterparts, my Peace Corps partner, Bonnie Reeser, and I helped develop active and vibrant 4-S clubs in the surrounding areas of Capinzal and Ouro, Santa Catarina. The 4-S Clubs in Brazil are counterparts to 4-H Clubs in the US. It was encouraging to witness so many able and dedicated local leaders pick up the responsibility to nurture and grow their local clubs and community. See Joe and Bonnie below.
Like many Peace Corps Volunteers, I left Brazil in 1965 feeling I did okay, but sensing I could have done more. I was not sure how much difference I really made. Over the next 4 to 5 years, my ability to speak and write Portuguese dissipated and I lost contact with my family in Brazil. It was also during the period of my service in the US Army and the Vietnam conflict.
Over the next 30 years, I enjoyed working as a business consultant and executive coach. I married, raised a family and divorced. In 2004, I married Becky De Marie, and in 2010, we moved from the Los Angeles area of California to Alachua, a small town in Northcentral Florida.
In 2012, I received an email which asked, “Are you the Joe Thigpen that lived with us when you were in the Peace Corps?” Zezo Doin, the oldest son, with help from his more internet savvy nephew, Fabrício, had found a way to contact me and start our reconnection.
I learned that Zezo’s mother, Miriam, was turning 80 soon and it was her dream to have her family find me if possible and invite me to visit them in Brazil. She had an agenda and a program all worked out. With the help of Facetime and Skype, we enjoyed a few stilted conversations, and reminded ourselves of how special it was to have been a family for those few years. I was amazed at how moving our conversations were and how much emotion was shared as we rebuilt our friendships.
With the substantial help of Google Translate, we eventually scheduled a trip for Becky and me to visit the Doins in Santa Catarina in April 2014. In the meantime, we shared our life stories and caught up on where our lives had taken us. I was impressed to learn that Zezo is an engineer and owned a construction and development company; Jota is a veterinarian, Jane is a biology teacher, and Tânia is an artist. All of them still live in Santa Catarina, although in different parts of the state. I was quite surprised to hear how much credit they gave to me for setting an example of what an education means, although, I feel confident that the real heroes of this story were their parents, Guilherme and Miriam, who were astute in asking a young American Peace Corps Volunteer to share their home for those meaningful two years. Miriam - 2013
A few months before our visit, Zezo called to inform me that Miriam had passed away. It was sudden and unexpected, and they were all at peace with the full and vibrant life that she had lived, but he and his siblings were determined to fulfill her dream and execute her plan for our visit.
The “Dream” Visit
On April 17, 2014, Becky and I left for Brazil. When we arrived at the airport in Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, Zezo, Jota and their families were there to greet us. It is difficult to fully capture the depth of emotions and smiles of joy we shared after 50-years apart. Suffice it to say it was one of the most remarkable and touching moments of our lives.
Over the next couple of weeks, we reconnected with Tânia and Jane, and came to know and appreciate the families of these remarkable siblings. We were embraced as family and we learned how their children and grandchildren had learned about the American Peace Corps Volunteer who lived with them. To them, I was their “long lost brother” who went missing, and now was back to be with them.
Zezo, Joe, and Jota meeting at the Florianópolis airport after 50 years apart
Our last stop was a return to Capinzal, the town of my Peace Corps service, and where Jane and her family still live. One day while there, Zezo insisted that we jump in his car and head out to the rural areas to find some of the “kids” I worked with while I was serving in the Peace Corps. It felt awkward to me, but Zezo was not allowing my hesitancy to change his mind because this was what Miriam had wanted. Soon we were on the unpaved roads I remembered so well. Once or twice Zezo stopped and asked someone, “Are there any old people around here who might have been in the 4-S Clubs when they were young?” On the third stop, we were directed to a farmhouse at the bottom of the hill. A lady answered the door and invited us in. Her name was Edith.
Her husband, Naudi, was indeed a member of 4-S, and she sent word to him to return to the house. Soon, we saw him hurrying to greet us. He remembered fondly his experiences with Bonnie, me, and 4-S. It was especially emotional because when I lost connection with my contacts in Brazil they had assumed that I was killed in Vietnam. After coffee and conversations about our lives, he mentioned that Alduino Bonamigo, now in his late 80’s and one of the active local leaders supporting our work with 4-S, was alive and lived up the road just a few miles. Off we went to visit my old friend and colleague.
Alduino had lived a remarkable life. His old barn was now a museum of his life size sculptures and carvings. Shortly after we arrived, Delma, Alduino’s daughter, made a telephone call to her sister, Zélia, who told us how much her involvement in 4-S had meant to her. As Zélia said, “Working with you and Bonnie in 4-S opened up a new world of possibilities to me.” Zélia is now a freelance journalist and a book editor working in Curitiba, the capital of the State of Paraná.
Joe with Alduino Bonamigo along with Naudi and Aloir Buzelato
She asked her father to show us a copy of the book she and he had put together on his life. Although showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, Alduino’s eyes still sparkled as he paged through the biography. Soon he showed us the chapter on his work as a local leader with 4-S. A photo of Bonnie and I was on the first page, and it credited our work in introducing him to local leadership and 4-S. In return, I showed a photo book I had put together for this trip, which included photos of Alduino and Zélia as we worked together during 1964 & 1965.
Naudi, Joe, Alduino, and Zezo looking at photo book
All through this exchange, Zezo was thinking how proud his mother would be to see this, and he struggled to hold back his tears. At some point, Naudi and Zélia started talking about the next time I was back in Brazil they would gather the people from that era and host a reunion to celebrate those days. I smiled, but little did I know about what was to follow.
Before we left Brazil, Becky and I solicited a commitment from Zezo and Jota to visit us in the United States. Two years later, along with their wives, Marcia and Regina, they arrived in our small town of Alachua. Our family, our neighbors, and our friends went all out to give them an experience of our community and our country. Language did not seem to be much of a barrier to real moments of joy, laughter, and love. My brother, Larry, suggested that good wine may have helped as well.
Over the next three weeks, we introduced them to their first game of golf. I entered us in the Alachua Woman’s Club Scramble tournament. We may have been terrible, but I think no team had more fun. We took them to see alligators in Paynes Prairie: we kayaked the Ichetucknee River; we flew them out to Los Angeles and Hollywood; and we took them to the outlet malls of Orlando, Florida, which may have been their favorite place to visit. I think the evening dinners with family and friends turned out to be the most special time of all, and after three weeks we were still loving our time together. Before they left, they achieved the miracle of getting my brother and his family to agree to visit them in Brazil the following year.
A 50-year Reunion of Friendship and Memories
It was soon clear as the plan for the visit took form that the 50-year reunion with the 4-S kids was in the works, and I redoubled my efforts to improve my Portuguese. Larry even started to learn basic Portuguese, and his daughters, Susan and Lisa decided to relearn their high-school Spanish, believing that was an easier pathway to getting around basic language challenges in Brazil. Becky and Glenda, Larry’s wife, took on the task of selecting gifts and making sure the details of the trip were clear and understood. Just as point of reference, this was Larry’s first experience sleeping in a bed in a country other than the United States.
We arrived in Florianópolis, SC, Brazil on March 10, and we spent our first week with family members living near the coast. Juliana, Jota’s daughter, is a chef and owns Terraço Bistro, an elegant restaurant in Balneário-Camboriú. She and her boyfriend, Luis Felipe, joined us for great meals, local adventures, and tall tales of their father’s childhood. Tânia and her family also invited us over for an evening of friendship and family stories. On the sixth day, we headed to Zezo’s town of Curitibanos. His son, Anderson, and his daughter, Tathi, now had their own families there and work with Zezo in the family construction and development firm. Except for the common complaints about Brazil’s internet service, we again enjoyed local sights, family meals, and great conversations.
In the few days before the reunion, it was evident that this event was to be bigger than I had imagined. Marlo, from the local Ouro, SC, radio show, called to interview me and to work out arrangements with Zezo. Zélia emailed over a copy of her presentation, and my anxiety level increased as I began to practice my Portuguese in earnest. Soon I learned that the Mayor would open the event and a couple of the “kids” and town leaders would speak as well. It was clear by now that my image of a few people sitting around the dining room embracing old memories needed to be updated. The reunion turned out to be over 200 people from all ages, including over 20 people from my extended family, who had secured T-shirts that read, “The Doin – Thigpen Family.”
“The Doin – Thigpen Family” - 2017
It was pleasing to hear the various dignitaries speak of the impact our work had in their communities and in Brazil. You could tell that they were speaking with sincerity and conviction. It was difficult though to listen to the now adult 4-S Club members speak about the difference our Peace Corps work with them and the agricultural extension service had made in their lives. Their appreciation and gratitude was powerful and touching and it was impossible not to fully accept and embrace their words.
Even more surprising were the individuals who came to us afterwards to express personal appreciation for touching their lives in some special way. Moreover, several children and grandchildren came up to describe how their lives were different in some meaningful way.
To end the program, I played a short slideshow with photos covering our work with the “kids” over 50 years ago, as well as how the reunion came to be. My choice of music was “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” from Verdi’s ppera Nabucco, sung in Italian by the choir that Miriam belonged to. Since many of the attendees were of Italian ancestry, I hoped it had special significance for them. Becky tells me that more than a few had tears in their eyes as the photos quickly passed the screen. It is difficult to fully express the deep feelings of appreciation, joy, and admiration I experienced as we parted to return to more normal moments, but suffice it to say it was a very powerful and touching celebration of our time together and the impact that time had upon all our lives.
On stage with the 4-S guys from the 1960’s
In closing, allow me to offer three compelling lessons this reunion with my Brazilian family and colleagues pounded into my heart and head.
- You never really know the difference you make on the lives of others. Whether it is my extended Brazilian family, the youth I worked with and their extended families, or myself, I learned that influence spreads in ways you never imagined.
- Once again, I am vividly reminded that who you are as a person is as important as what you do. When I was in the Peace Corps, I focused my attention on doing my work with competence and dedication. I thought little of how I connected with people and the example I set as a person. Yet much of the appreciation and gratitude I received was not actually about the work we did, but it was about a shared experience and personal connections.
- Finally, I am learning ever so slowly to accept, embrace and give appreciation and gratitude as deeply as possible. My Brazilian family and “The Peace Corps kids” forced me to feel deeply their appreciation in ways that will stay with me always. In return, I am deeply grateful to them for their gifts to me. It is my intent to remember this lesson as I move forward with my life.
I am confident that my story represents many Peace Corps Volunteers and the differences they made over three generations, even though few may have received the affection and appreciation I did, especially with a 50-year celebration reunion. I will never forget the graciousness and kindness shown me by these special people that shared two wonderful years with me while I was in the Peace Corps.