By Maxim Tamarov
Less than a year into his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia, Marc Flaherty received a message that he and the about 7,000 other Peace Corps volunteers were being pulled from their respective sites due to the coronavirus pandemic. With no time to say goodbye to his friends and students, Flaherty packed his things, travelled four days to the capital, Addis Ababa, got on a plane and flew home to Massachusetts. Mere weeks later, he was back to work helping children.
Flaherty, 23, has devoted much of his life to serving his respective communities: from camps in his hometown to schools near his college campus to classrooms in Ethiopia. And as of May 11, he is putting that experience to work as the youth program director at the Community Action for Safe Alternatives (CASA).
“It seemed like a really good fit for me,” Flaherty said of his decision to join CASA. In Ethiopia, he helped high school students through academic and extracurricular challenges. “CASA is just like that but here.”
A primary prevention coalition based in Winthrop, CASA addresses youth risk factors and aims to curb drug addiction in at-risk youth. According to CASA Director LeighAnn Eruzione, Flaherty stood out because of his unique experience and because the youth took to him. The youth staff are part of the interviewing process at CASA, she explained.
“The kids seem to really like the skill set that he brings,” Eruzione said.
Flaherty was born in Stoneham and grew up in North Reading. He attended North Reading High School, where according to his mother Jane Flaherty, he was the town’s designated driver.
“He would put notices out on Facebook, ‘If you’re in trouble, if you need a ride, call me anytime,’ Jane Flaherty recalled.
After high school, Flaherty enrolled at Colby-Sawyer College, majoring in history and political science. On the side, he led a group that worked with local high school students on, inter alia, drug-related issues. The group, Flaherty said, was very similar to what he’s now trying to facilitate at CASA.
“Where I was in New Hampshire, there was a really big fentanyl problem,” Flaherty explained. “I saw some of these kids absolutely struggling.”
After graduating, Flaherty said he wasn’t sure what to do and so decided to “constructively procrastinate” by applying for the Peace Corps. He didn’t expect to get in, yet soon found himself in Dulles Airport, awaiting a plane to Ethiopia and chatting with the man that would become his closest friend there.
Flaherty’s taste in music was foundational for his friendship with Martin Keough. Both were into classic rock: Flaherty fondly recalled meeting Steven Tyler in college; he named a few of his Peace Corps blog posts after Grateful Dead songs; and he and Keough spent a lot of time discussing Phish shows that they had attended. Both Flaherty and Keough were avid guitar players. Both shared a “childish” sense of humor, which helped them bond during the four weeks they lived together at the start of their service.
“I can remember from the second day that I met Marc,” Keough said, “he was very specific and intentional in informing as many people as he could that the only Chipotle that sells a breakfast burrito is in Dulles Airport.”
Flaherty found himself in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, beside the Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve, where monkeys were rumored to have once stolen a Peace Corps volunteer’s passport. Oromia is four hours from the South Sudan border and so far inland that, according to Flaherty, the concept of a boat was somewhat abstract to the locals. Electricity was unreliable in the region and every couple of weeks, he would go four or five days without power. The nearest Peace Corps volunteer, according to Flaherty’s blog, was a few towns away.
“There’s very few people that I know, including myself, that could’ve pulled that off,” Jane Flaherty said. She added that Flaherty, the youngest of her three sons, had the most wanderlust.
In Ethiopia, Flaherty continued his trend of helping facilitate youth engagement. With a female teacher at his school, Flaherty started a “Girls’ Club” where female students were encouraged to speak up and speak out.
“Society in Ethiopia is really male dominated,” Flaherty said. “In Ethiopia, girls are always told you’re to stay home and keep the house.”
The club also organized a RUMPs program, where the female students learned how to make reusable menstrual pads. It was a chance for the girls in his class to ask questions that they normally would not be able to ask in Ethiopian society.
Soon after returning to the U.S., Flaherty started looking for his next position and applied to CASA.
Covid-19 not only altered Flaherty’s life path, it changed the entire way CASA operates. But CASA is still operating, according to Eruzione, moving to virtual programming and relying on the help of the partnerships they’ve established with the local police department and schools.
Flaherty has already begun helping the youth staff he works alongside organize the events and programs they want to run. CASA will be starting a virtual “Q Club,” for example, for discussing LGBTQ issues. The club runs from 3 to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays. There is also a middle school group that runs from 2 to 3 p.m. and a high school group from 3 to 4 p,m, on Tuesdays. Flaherty urged those interested to reach out to him via email: [email protected]
There is a certain wisdom that Flaherty carries with him from Ethiopia, although his stay there was cut short. He learned the language of Oromia, Afaan Oromoo, but also some Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. And his favorite phrase in that language, he said, was, “ayzoh.”
It means, “Keep strength.”