Brothers in Peace: Altoona siblings volunteer overseas

Altoona brothers Wes and Tyler McCloskey did not know they were both making the same life-changing decision when they separately began to fill out their applications to join the Peace Corps in 2009.

Wes, 31, was in Washington, D.C., working as a government consultant for Pricewater-houseCoopers, while Tyler, 29, was wrapping up a stint as a volunteer in the Americorps, the domestic Peace Corps.

The brothers became a support system and motivation for one another, Tyler said from his family’s Altoona home Wednesday.

Tyler got back from the Philippines in October 2012, while Wes is still teaching English in Madagascar until May. He will return to serve a third year after a month home.

Their service was difficult at times – Wes was mugged at knife point and Tyler spent nine days in the hospital with pneumonia and was transferred after stumbling upon a government scandal.

“You get to test your mettle. It’s an adventure, but it’s not an easy one,” Wes said in a Skype interview. “If you get through all of the hardships to do your work, it feels all the more rewarding. So the bad things kind of make the good things better.”

Before joining the Peace Corps, Wes was unhappy with the life he had carved out for himself.

“My job helped me make that decision,” he said of why he joined the Peace Corps. “My life was getting really monotonous. I was working hard over weekends and holidays. I didn’t have any huge obligations holding me back. I wanted adventure, a different kind of work. I like traveling, but there is a difference between traveling and living somewhere. I wanted to learn a new language, a new culture.”

Tyler said joining the Peace Corps was always in the back of his mind to do, and serving in the Americorps fostered a sense of service in him.

The Peace Corps was established in 1961. Since then, more than 210,000 Americans have served in 139 host countries, according to the organization. Currently, there are 330 Pennsylvanians serving, and since the program was established, 7,618 have served from the Keystone state.

Tyler said the Peace Corps’ goals for volunteers are to share their skills and American culture with the people they are serving, and share what they learn about the culture they are immersed in with Americans.

As he imagines most Peace Corps volunteers feeling, Wes had expectations, and the experience has not been exactly what he had anticipated, he said.

“It’s difficult, but if you can get used to a new way of life, things will go a little more smoothly,” he said.

Their mom, Margie, said she saw a change in him after he left. The first photos he sent back home showed a smiling man with the stress and dark circles erased from his face, she said.

“He just really looked happy,” she said. “I think it’s a great experience. I’m jealous.”

Wes said he went to Madagascar to volunteer as a small business adviser, but ended up teaching English. He teaches a class in the morning and afternoons five days a week. Wes feels like he has become a good teacher through trial and error.

Day-to-day life takes so much more effort over there, Wes said.

Now, he washes his clothes by hand in a basin. He has to get water from a well, and to make coffee he builds a fire, boils the water, roasts the beans and grinds them with a mortar and pestle, Margie said.

He had to get accustomed to the cultural differences, too.

He tells humorous stories on his blog at where he writes about his experiences such as how male friends in Madagascar will hold hands, and natives will pop up for no reason at his door and just watch him, leaving him with little solitude in his off hours. But he has adapted, noting he is able to eat with an audience now.

Tyler said being the minority has its pros and cons. The people were interested in celebrities, and when he would tell them he was from Pennsylvania, some would ask if that was where Dracula was from, Tyler said.

The people are nice and helpful, and where he lives has a family atmosphere, Wes said of Madagascar. Tyler said Filipinos are known for their hospitality and are willing to invite a stranger into their home.

Tyler said he learned flexibility and adaptability through his experience stationed in the Philippines. He also learned three dialects and the Tagalog language.

Tyler studied abroad in Costa Rica in 2004 and Peru in 2006. After studying in Peru, he moved back to Costa Rica to get certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

The McCloskey family, including their father, Wesley, and Wes when he could go, has also traveled to Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Peru. Wes had studied abroad in Paris.

Tyler was with the Coastal Resource Management sector of the Peace Corps option in the Philippines. The other two options were education and a program for children, youth and family.

When someone applies for the Peace Corps, assignments are given based on one’s skills, Tyler said. He had taught in the Americorps so he was ready for a change when given an option with the Peace Corps.

About halfway through his time in the Peace Corps, Tyler was transferred to another assignment location after stumbling upon a municipal government scandal.

He was stuck between information from where he was working and what he was learning from local fishermen, he said.

Tyler, who wants to become a travel writer, wrote about the experience as a traveling correspondent for the Matador Network, an online publication. He also wrote a story on prostitution in the Philippines.

His mom worried about his safety more than he did, he said.

In 2009, Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey was murdered in Africa after she told her organization superiors she believed a fellow employee was molesting female students, according to the ABC News website. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, helping to “protect Peace Corps whistleblowers and improve the treatment of victims of violence and sexual assault,” the website said.

After building a makeshift gym out of pipes and sandbags with rigged pulley systems for himself, Wes ended up sharing it with his neighbors, and building another gym in another location.

After raising money, Wes is also working to build benches for the schools. The task seems a simple one,but is also one that will make a difference, Tyler said.

Tyler’s time in the Philippines gave him an appreciation for basic necessities such as water and food, he said.

The last project Tyler worked on was helping to establish a World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which is a trend in tourism where travelers volunteer at farms in exchange for room and board.

One bit of advice for someone interested in joining the Peace Corps is they should be prepared to get sick, Wes said. And not just sick, but “third-world” sick, he said.

“They also must know they might not end up doing the type of work they want,” he said. “I encourage people to look into the Peace Corps and apply for it, but they have to be willing to be very flexible and know that there is hardship involved. On the other hand, the work is very rewarding, you can learn a language, it looks great on a resume, it can open doors and it’ll be a great life experience.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.