When Hallie Kyrias was a kid, she would explore the forest preserves near her home in the south Hollywood section of Brookfield as if on an adventure.
Little did she know at that time that as an adult she’d spend two years hacking away with a machete in the rain forests of Panama, helping the people there establish coffee and fish farms as a member of the Peace Corps.
On May 31, the 25-year-old Kyrias returned from her two-year hitch — a complex experience mixing frustration with accomplishment — having helped establish nine coffee farms of 1,000 trees each and four fish farms, ventures that will hopefully assist those Panamanians earn a living beyond the subsistence farming that characterizes their remote area in Colon Province.
“We’re facilitators,” said Kyrias, who earned a degree in natural resources and environmental science from the University of Illinois in 2010. “The people have knowledge but they don’t have the specific skills to get it going.”
When Kyrias finally made it to the community of Nueva Esperanza, a spread-out village of about 150 people near the southwestern shore of Gatun Lake, in July of 2011, she had hiked with a guide for about an hour and a half — after taking a bus from the Canal Zone city of Colon to a spot where she flagged down a truck for a rough ride into the interior.
When she disembarked, she was housed with a local family, but the rest of the community didn’t exactly welcome her with open arms. The area is so remote that the people there had never worked with an agency like the Peace Corps before.
And their expectation of Kyrias differed from the reality. Some believed that the arrival of an agent of the U.S. would bring money, electricity and English. Kyrias was bringing some self-help.
“It took a while to break down the barriers,” Kyrias said. “Eventually you meet people who want to work with you, and you can teach them how to eat better, make money, have a better life.”
In all, Kyrias, a 2006 graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School, estimates that she really got her message through to a dozen or so people, which may not seem a lot at first glance. But nothing is easy in the Panamanian jungle. Houses are spread far apart, so visiting two or more is an all-day task.
And there are the living conditions. Constant rain turns the red clay soil to mud. Then there are the tarantulas and sundry tropical wildlife, like botflies (which Kyrias would come to know about personally), to contend with.
After about a year of living with host families in the community, Kyrias finally was able to rent a home — she calls it the nicest in the village. But even that’s a relative term. What made it nice was a corrugated tin roof and a concrete floor. And the painting of a tiger on one of the walls.
“Most of the homes had zinc roofs or leaves from the palm trees and dirt floors,” said Kyrias.
Such conditions, naturally, had Kyrias’ parents constantly worried about her well-being. Because the area was so remote, Kyrias and her parents would sometimes go months without talking to each other. The only time she had decent Internet access or cellphone service was when she would make trips into the city to get supplies.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Hallie’s mother, Carol Kyrias. “The hardest part was the lack of communication. We had to hold faith until she could get to town.”
Kyrias spent her entire first year in Panama trying to spark an interest in what she was talking about. She started small, showing families how to make compost heaps — the clay soil in that area is not particularly suitable for most types of agriculture. She brought in earthworms to show how they aid in making compost and she helped people establish home gardens.
It wasn’t until May of 2012 that things really began to get moving with respect to the coffee farms and she finally convinced a group of residents to dig a 7-by-10-meter tank (and 4 feet deep) out of the hard clay to raise tilapia in August of that year.
She found a coffee producer willing to work with community residents and teach them about coffee production and managing a business, and she assisted them in establishing plant nurseries to grow the coffee tree seedlings that would eventually be parceled out to the different farming operations in the area.
When the adventure was over, in May 2013, Kyrias was, frankly, ready to go. During a short vacation in the spring of 2012, she became engaged to her college sweetheart, Andrew Naber, an infantry officer in the U.S Marine Corps.
“Right now, I’m ready to settle down,” said Kyrias, who now lives with Naber just north of San Diego, where he is stationed.
The experience did change Kyrias, according to her mom, and her brother, Matt. It left her more self-confident and assertive — something Matt noticed during a short visit to Panama in 2012.
“Matt noticed how much leadership she had learned,” said Carol Kyrias. “We’re really proud of what she did over there.”