On March 25 Reed Leong’s luggage was languishing in a Lesotho warehouse thousands of miles away. Meanwhile Leong, a 2015 graduate of Big Bear High School, sits out a two-week cautionary quarantine in a Big Bear cabin.
Leong is part of the Peace Corps contingent of 125 volunteers called home from Lesotho by the service organization. He said it wasn’t because of concern over COVID-19 so much as the shutdown of air travel. The Peace Corps didn’t want its volunteers stranded for an indefinite period of time.
“It’s still so surreal,” Leong says a week later during a telephone interview with The Grizzly. “I wish I was there, but I understand why they did it.”
Leong’s mother, Debbie, says she was shocked to learn about the evacuation. She received notice from Reed while during a Big Bear High School meeting, where she works. “I wasn’t expecting him to be in a positive place mentally,” Debbie says. “Reed cared about what he was doing. He had these projects he was working on. I was so blown away with how well he’s taken it.”
Reed is glad to be home, even though he is separated from his parents. But Reed isn’t alone. Another Peace Corps evacuee, Allison Hoops of Calabasas, is sharing the quarantine cabin with Reed. “We’ve been hanging out at Mr. (Mike) Cline’s cabin,” Reed says. “We have to thank him.”
Reed was in the middle of his first year of a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, a tiny independent country surrounded by South Africa, when the service called its volunteers home March 15. He joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Bucknell University in May 2019 with bachelor’s degrees in economics and environmental studies. Reed’s interest in joining the Peace Corps came from a professor, who talked about his experience as a volunteer. “He had an amazing time so I looked into it,” Reed says, adding that he applied to take whatever assignment was available, no matter where in the world.
That place was Lesotho. “It’s pretty cool,” Reed says. “I’d never been out of the country, except Mexico or Canada before. It’s cute.”
Reed’s Peace Corps experience began in September when his flight took him from New York City to Johannesburg then Lesotho. He spent three months in a training village, learning the culture and the language. “You learn how to teach, why you’re there,” Reed says. “They assign you to the best fit for you.”
By Dec. 12 Reed was on assignment, teaching eighth-grade math at a public school in a Lesotho village. “It was awesome,” Reed says. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience to see how education works there, how it’s thought of there.”
Lesotho is not a rich country. Unemployment is high. Most of the jobs are in South African mines. Education, even public education, requires tuition, Reed says.
Reed’s stint in Lesotho was supposed to last until October 2021. He and friends had planned an Easter vacation in nearby Durban, South Africa. Now, he’s sharing a cabin in the mountains in Big Bear with another volunteer until April 3.
The journey home wasn’t easy. They had short notice that they were being evacuated, Reed says. “We packed up everything and put our checked luggage on a truck.”
The truck left first, heading to South Africa for the Johannesburg International Airport. Reed and the other 124 volunteers spent several days in a hotel before a chartered flight took them from the Moshoeshoe Airport to Johannesburg International.
That’s when things got interesting.
“We waited around a while, thinking we were waiting for a plane,” Reed says. But they were waiting for their luggage, which was stored off the airport grounds.
“We found out we needed a visa to leave the airport and get the luggage,” Reed says. “Nobody had a visa. And they wouldn’t bring the luggage to the airport.”
So, carrying a single backpack, Reed boarded the Peace Corps flight to Dubai without the rest of his possessions. He changed planes and landed in San Francisco on March 20. Another plane — this one to Palm Springs — brought him closer to home. He’s been in Big Bear since then.
What are Reed’s plans after his quarantine ends next week? “I’m COS’ed,” Reed says, meaning completion of service. “I’m officially done with my Peace Corps duty. “I think I would definitely sign up and go back. The most upsetting part of this was that I didn’t get to do a lot. It feels like I’ve left something unfinished.”
If Reed chooses to volunteer with the Peace Corps again, it will be at least a year before he can expect an assignment. It’s a long time to wait, he says. He might consider returning on his own, he says.
“The people (of Lesotho) are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Reed says. “They were very open and welcoming.”
Reed’s father, Chris, is glad his son is safe, and proud of Reed’s dedication. “What I think is really cool is he’s not worried about himself at all,” says Chris, a teacher and coach at Big Bear High School. “He was most upset about leaving them.”
Reed says the Peace Corps did a good job getting the volunteers home. Reed took a flight on Emirates Airlines from Dubai to San Francisco. Emirates shut down operations a day after his flight, Reed says.
“We all had this knee-jerk reaction of why are they evacuating,” Debbie says. “But they could actually have been stranded there. And if the virus was there, they could become a burden to the country they were trying to help.”
It was the right decision, Debbie says.
His health is good, Reed says. Reed shows no signs of COVID-19. The clock is ticking when he will be able to leave the cabin and stay with his parents. Reed has time to think about what he wants to do next, he says.
“It’s pretty special to be home,” Reed says.