Family seeks to change Peace Corps guidelines
Ryan Summerlin December 21, 2006
Tessa Horan had an idea to build a library while on Peace Corps assignment in Tonga last February. She detailed her plan and e-mailed for help with grant writing just three days before a tiger shark killed her on the afternoon of Feb. 1. This two-part series details her family’s healing journey to Tonga to fulfill Horan’s dream of building the library and explores some of the difficulties her family dealt with following Horan’s death, including complaints with the way Peace Corps handled the tragedy.
Aspen, CO ColoradoThe Peace Corps’ handling of volunteer Tessa Horan’s death in a shark attack in Tonga in February left her family with a bitter feeling. Horan’s mother, Kristena Prater, said the Peace Corps refused to pay for the memorial service and misled the family about retrieving the body. Though Horan’s family achieved a great deal of healing on a trip to Tonga to build a library in her name, the difficulties they encountered have pushed Prater to try to change Peace Corps guidelines.”My daughter was serving her country,” Prater said. “I wrote to the Peace Corps, and they weren’t receptive, so I’ve involved my congressman and my governor.”Within five hours of Horan’s death at the age of 24, a Peace Corps representative was standing on Prater’s doorstep. The only problem was that the representative – Sharon Sugarek – was from the recruiting and marketing office, with no experience dealing with a death. Soon after, Sugarek said costs associated with a memorial service would be paid for, according to Prater. However, while Peace Corps guidelines cover the cost of a headstone and burial plot, they do not cover the cost of a memorial service.
Horan’s family decided against a headstone and burial plot. Since then, Prater has talked with other families that lost children in Peace Corps service. She found the Peace Corps has reimbursed other families more than $10,000 for funerals, but though Horan’s memorial cost less than $10,000, it was not paid for. “The Peace Corps has paid for all those costs related to Tessa’s death for which it had authority,” Peace Corps spokeswoman Amanda Host.Prater, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., has called that, too, into question in a letter she sent through her congressman, U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.”We sent a letter of support with her correspondence,” said Robert Vasquez, Udall’s constituent service director. “It is my understanding from a conversation I had with [the Peace Corps] that they are looking into possibly making changes on guidelines based on her suggestions.”One of those suggestions is that the Peace Corps simply cut an equal check to each family that has lost someone in service. As it stands, many people with different belief systems will receive less and have to pay more. The family also feels misled regarding the escorting of Horan’s body back from Tonga. Though Kevin Horan wanted to bring his daughter’s body back, the Peace Corps told him that by the time he got to Tonga, her body would be en route to the United States. Weeks later, after further investigation, the family found that he could have made it to Tonga before the body returned.
Prater said she is dealing with it by trying to improve the Peace Corps, but a certain level of distrust remains. Prater said her family members are not the only ones who had problems with the way the Peace Corps dealt with deaths. One thing that troubles Prater was the Peace Corps request that the family write a letter to volunteers discouraging them from coming to the memorial service in New Mexico. The family wrote the letter, an action Prater said she now regrets. “The long trip, uncertain accommodations in New Mexico, personal expense and hiatus from their living and working lives in Tonga were burdens we did not believe the volunteers should have assumed,” Host said. “The early termination or separation of the volunteers in Tonga were all considered separate incidents, and each volunteer stated a variety of reasons for their desire to return to the U.S.”Prater said that if the Peace Corps had encouraged them to grieve, then six out of 14 would not have quit. “It was psychologically very debilitating for her colleagues,” Prater said. “When she died, the Peace Corps brought them together in the capital city. They sat vigil with the body until her body left Tonga. It’s a really beautiful thing what they did. How can we honor these people who took care of Tessa’s body? What can we do to honor the boy who tried to save Tessa’s life? It ended up that our family did it instead of the Peace Corps helping out with it.”