Committed to service: Zionsville couple recalls life-changing Peace Corps mission in Liberia

Mark and Sally Zelonis after giving a presentation on their Peace Corps mission at the Hussey- Mayfield Library in Zionsville in February. (Photo courtesy of Mark and Sally Zelonis)

More than 50 years ago, longtime Zionsville residents Mark and Sally Zelonis dedicated one year of service as Peace Corps volunteers inside the village of Karnplay in Liberia, which inspired a lifelong dedication to serve.

“Helping others to better themselves seemed like a noble goal,” Mark said.

In a recent book titled ‘Never the Same Again: Life, Service, and Friendship in Liberia,’ published in 2022,  Mark and Sally shared their story and experiences in the West African nation of Liberia. In February, the married couple spoke at the Hussey-Mayfield Public Library in Zionsville on the importance of volunteering in underdeveloped nations.

For the Zelonis, now retired, serving in the Peace Corps from 1971 to 1972 was a natural next step in their lives. Both had college degrees but heard a calling to serve, so they embarked on a journey and traveled across the world to Liberia.

“I had always wanted to go to Africa because my family had hosted students from Ethiopia and Vietnam,” Sally said. “Peace Corps offered Liberia, and I felt fortunate.”

The Peace Corps is a volunteer program that sends Americans to work in developing nations to help promote peace and understanding through cross-cultural exchange.

The Zelonis arrived in Liberia with a goal to enrich the villagers’ lives through farming and teaching English.

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Sally Zelonis with a resident of Karnplay village in Liberia. (Photos courtesy of Mark and Sally Zelonis)

Mark, specializing in horticulture and garden cultivation and management, was assigned to help the villagers grow coffee and cacao to address the village’s food security needs and provide sustainable income for the Liberians to buy medicine for their families and to send their children to school.

“I had never grown coffee or cacao, but I did have the education,” Mark said. “I would go from village to village and meet with the chief to promote a program to the farmers to buy seeds for coffee and cocoa to start a nursery.”

The Karnplay village, right outside Monrovia — Liberia’s capital city — is a cocoa bean and rice-farming community that Mark said has “distinct signs of abject poverty.”

“Most people there live day to day,” Mark said. “They grow enough rice and vegetables for the day. People there don’t have a lot, so when we arrived, it was obvious to us that they needed our help.”

   Sally, who has a degree in elementary education, was assigned as a teacher in the village school to teach children up to sixth grade how to read, write, and speak English.

“When I arrived in the village, I only had five days of language training,” Sally said. “The language they speak in the village isn’t a written language. It is one of 16 dialects with no books or written alphabet.”

Sally said she would climb a hill to get to the school with her rice bag satchel, a notebook, a pencil and chalk.

“When I looked out in front of me, there were six long rows of students numbering at least several hundred,” she said.

Many of Sally’s students faced daily obstacles, from no food or uniforms to long-distance walks and chores on the farm.

During their time in Liberia, the couple became acquainted with one of the villagers, Gabriel Mongrue, who taught the young couple about Liberian culture.

“Gabriel looked out for us and introduced us to important people in our village of Karnplay, like the blacksmith, the weaver and potter, and even the paramount chief,” Mark said. “Without him, we would have missed much of the life in that distant corner of Liberia.”

Gabriel said Mark and Sally helped him recognize himself as an individual.

“Now I know family is not all about genetics, blood and skin color,” Gabriel said. “Family is about who loves you and is always there to hold your hand and lead you into the light from the darkness of destitution and on to a destination of light and hope. For this, I’m very thankful to the Zelonis.”

The Zelonis attended traditional ceremonies, including the Devils’ celebration. The Devils are men dressed in costumes who perform special black magic and are meant to resemble the spirits of the forest.

“Some of the village’s celebrations would have dancing and drumming that would go on all night,” Mark said. “It was very exciting, and the locals enjoyed it.”

Despite the challenges, the Zelonis returned home with a new appreciation for life.

“I carry my Liberian lessons of life and learning with me to this day – 50 years later,” Sally said.

After several years of teaching elementary education, Sally began a 25-year career in fundraising for nonprofits. She serves on the board of directors for Friends of Liberia and the Indianapolis Zoo.

Mark, who spent his career in public horticulture and museum work, worked at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He said he keeps busy with various volunteer work and leads tours to gardens and cultural sites around the country. He is also active in the historic preservation efforts in Zionsville, at Crown Hill Cemetery & Arboretum in Indianapolis, and with the Library of American Landscape History.

The couple said their experience with the Peace Corps was “life-changing,” and they hope to continue inspiring others to volunteer.

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Mark and Sally Zelonis with fellow Peace Corps volunteers in Monrovia, Liberia, in the early 1970s.

About Friends of Liberia

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps in Liberia, Friends of Liberia — a nonprofit started in 1985 by returning Liberia volunteers — has sponsored readings from the new book, “Never the Same Again: Life, Service, and Friendship in Liberia.” Mark and Sally Zelonis of Zionsville were contributing authors.

The book is an anthology of 63 stories and poems written by FOL members. Proceeds from its sales are to benefit humanitarian programs in Liberia. The book can be purchased at Amazon and Peace Corps Worldwide, among other places.

Most contributors were first-time authors. Their periods of Peace Corps/Liberia service spanned 60 years. The selected stories and poems all have the qualities of eliciting emotion and providing a learning experience.

Friends of Liberia is a U.S.-based, non-governmental nonprofit that seeks to positively affect Liberia by supporting education, social, economic and humanitarian programs through advocacy efforts. It has more than 2,000 members in the United States, Liberia, and other nations. Friends of Liberia, Inc. is a volunteer-managed organization.

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