I’ve come to know and respect Harpreet “Happie” Datt through our mutual board service with the League of Women Voters Lake Forest–Lake Bluff area (LWV). In addition to her many contributions to the League, including a term as president, Happie has also volunteered for other organizations such as the American Association of University Women and the Lake Forest International Club over the years.
Given her propensity to service, it wasn’t a huge surprise when I heard that she had returned from the Peace Corps in October.
But I wondered how a busy Lake Forest wife, mother, and volunteer managed to get away for 27 months to pursue such an endeavor.
With the Peace Corps’ recent culmination of its 50th year, Forest & Bluff thought it was the perfect time to learn about Happie’s road to fulfilling a childhood dream.
Happie first heard of the Peace Corps when she was 10 years old. “President Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961. I was really impressed by that and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be part of it? Many things happen in life that you put on the back burner.”
While this idea simmered on very low heat, Happie went to college, married, worked in management for AT&T, and had her first three children. She’d planned on taking only a few years away from the corporate world when her fourth daughter, Gita, was born. Happie stayed home to raise her four children and worked alongside her husband in their electric and solar contracting business.
When Gita was a senior in high school, and Happie found herself working as a gift wrapper in Lake Forest, she knew she had to do something more meaningful with her time. The Peace Corps came to mind again and Happie felt the calling to go work in another culture and help others.
“I realized I was reaching an age where it is important to live my own life,” explains Happie. “I had always been very independent.” Happie came to the United States at age 19 and gotten her change of status on her own. She put herself through graduate school. “I needed to take my risk,” she says. “I felt if I didn’t I didn’t do it, I would become embittered.”
“A lot of things happen in life according to good karma,” says Happie. “You realize you are not in control. So, when you see an opportunity, a fork in the road, you go left or right.”
Happie began down the road toward the Peace Corps with the long application process that included fingerprinting, basic clearance, and, for Happie, digging up 30 years of medical records from India.
She also had to convince her partner of 30-plus years. “My husband is a very down-to-earth and pragmatic person,” explains Happie. “I knew it would take him some time to come around to my going away for 27 months. But we had always encouraged our kids to go overseas and have experiences.” Her children were very supportive of the idea and helped convince him. “He went along with it,” says Happie. “He supported me more than many spouses would.”
Happie was finally given a placement to Macedonia and was scheduled to leave Lake Forest in September 2008. Three days before her departure, she tore her meniscus and had to endure a mandatory six-month “sit-out,” not knowing if she would ever be called back. But in the summer of 2009, she was asked to come to Macedonia again, leaving one year after her initial deployment date. “I ended up waiting two and a half years to go to the Peace Corps,” says Happie. “I’m not a Type A person, but failure was not an option.”
Happie went to Macedonia with her 37 fellow trainees for the three-month immersion training in the language and culture. She lived with a Macedonian family of three in Romanovce, a small village of 1,500. They didn’t speak English. “I had immersion into the language and culture 24 hours a day,” says Happie. She learned quickly how to make basic conversation as a way of survival.
During immersion, Happie remembers, “You start noticing things in the culture that are different and ideas come to you to improve and change things. By the time you reach your assigned site, you are ready to go.”
Happie was placed with a local municipal government office in Makedonski Brod, where she could utilize her skills and experience in government, policy, community development, and small business. Once placed, volunteers are given a job title and assigned a mentor to help them fit into the organization. But essentially, “Every volunteer makes their own experience,” says Happie. Her first undertaking was to start an English class for 16 people in the office. “I weaved stories about people in the village into the lesson plans. It became a means of communicating on a daily basis.”
Happie had only just begun to dig in when her husband became very ill with meningitis in February 2010. She flew home and faced the difficult decision of whether or not to return to Macedonia. “It was the hardest to go back,” she says. “But he was progressing rapidly, and my children stepped in to help.” After about three weeks, she returned to Macedonia.
Her gesture of returning was apparently meaningful to people in her village. “People were open to me after I came back.” To get to know people, Happie spent a lot of time walking in the community. “If anyone stopped me for coffee, I accepted. They knew who I was.” Happie learned about the community’s assets, local economic development, and how things worked—specifically, if she wanted to get something done, she needed to get the mayor’s support. She finally started to see some breakthroughs in her work.
After meeting a travel writer who came through to write about Macedonia for the Lonely Planet Guide Books, Happie proposed creating an information kiosk to be used during the festival season for tourists and was successful in getting it into the mayor’s budget and plan. She started a fitness club for older women, negotiating with the primary school director to use their gym for free for the first three months. A local businessman saw the success of it, took up the reins, and created a business that would keep going after Happie left.
Returning home has been a transition, of course. She realizes the consequences of being gone for so long. Her family had to get along without her, so they don’t automatically come to her for her opinion.
But overall, Happie recommends the Peace Corps experience. “It was so enriching,” says Happie. “You learn things you can’t learn in books—that the world doesn’t always move the way it moves here. Things didn’t happen the way I wanted them to, and I learned to deal with failure and realize it wasn’t about me. I learned to let go.”
To read details about Happie Datt’s Peace Corp experience, visit her blog at happiedatt.blogspot.com.