Several years ago, Angel Velarde took a risk that would change the direction of his life.
He quit a stable job as a marketing analyst and embarked on a road trip to California. He soon realized that what he really wanted to do was help people—so he applied to the Peace Corps.
In 2007, Velarde began a two-year assignment in the village of Bangou in the west central African nation of Cameroon. The experience led him to form the American Association for the Development of Bangou, which funds various community projects.
Velarde, 32, now works as a management analyst at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. He graduated from McKinney High School in 1998 and is just one example of former students who are making a difference beyond our community.
Velarde makes the analogy that the world can be viewed as a puzzle with pieces scattered everywhere.
“Having those experiences helped me put those pieces together to see what life should be about,” he said. “Peace Corps at the end of the day is not just development work. It’s about relationships and building bridges between different cultures.”
At first, adjusting to Cameroon was difficult. Velarde’s home had no running water. Electricity outages were common. He slept under mosquito nets to protect himself from malaria and waged a constant battle with cockroaches.
He also was learning French, the official language.
“They drop you off in the village by yourself, and once you get to your house you feel like you don’t want to leave because it’s so intimidating to go out and talk to people,” he said. “But the fact that it’s challenging makes it more rewarding.”
He soon became part of the community. Velarde attended funerals, church services and cultural celebrations to make connections. He adjusted to the slow pace of life, often spending hours talking with leaders about how to improve the village.
In his official role with the Peace Corps he worked as a small business development volunteer—he holds a business degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. He was partnered with the MC2 of Bangou, a microfinance bank. It had a history of corruption and inefficiency.
When he arrived, the bank’s employees kept handwritten records. He taught them how to document financial transactions and track the bank’s loan portfolio using Microsoft Word and Excel. Velarde helped turn the bank’s losses into a profit. He also taught computer and business classes.
Bangou’s chief recognized Velarde’s achievements by giving him the honorary title of “sop mbieu gong,” or “prince who sustains the village.” Fellow volunteer Tara Smith attended the celebration.
“When you receive a title in Africa it means the entire community has come together and said we respect this person a lot and we really appreciate what he’s done for our community,” she said.
Velarde’s father, also named Angel, said the family is proud of his son’s choice.
“We need people like him in the world who not only think about making money for themselves, but think about helping other people,” he said.
The AADB, which was founded by Velarde while he was in Cameroon, has raised more than $7,000 for Bangou development projects.
The organization offers scholarships to twenty high school students annually. Funds were also used to build a public toilet. A development center with a computer lab and internet access was opened. In December, a well with clean running water in the center of town was completed.
Velarde returned to Bangou for two weeks about a year ago.
“It was like visiting an old friend,” he said. “I know that I will always remain in contact with the people of Bangou because they took me in as a stranger and let me be a part of the village. I’ll always think about helping them.”
He gives credit to teachers in McKinney ISD for making a positive impact on his life. His mother, Johanna, works as an aide at the district’s Lawson Early Childhood Center.
“The teachers seemed genuinely interested in seeing their students do well and wanting to be good teachers,” he said. “I’m still happy to call McKinney home—even if I don’t currently live there.”
To learn more about the AADB, you can visit Americansforbangou.org. To read Velarde’s blog about his time in Cameroon, visit Goingon27.wordpress.com.
Written by Katherine Leal Unmuth. This story is the first in a series of profiles on McKinney ISD graduates making a difference at home and around the world.
Note: Thanks to MISD for this story!