ReGeneration Resources


Talking the talk, walking the walk

Saturday, January 8, 2000

From Nicaragua to Keene, mediator uses his skills

On his last trip to Central America, mediation specialist Greg Hessel took a walk.
It lasted 10 months, covered 5,000 miles and crossed the borders of eight countries, all to commemorate 500 years since the first encounter between Europeans and Native Americans and to promote world peace.
Hessel, then 29, made the whole trek in one pair of New Balance running shoes.
They had to be re-glued along the way, he recalls, but the sneakers lasted from Panama City on December 20. 1991, to Washington D.C. on October 12, 1992, the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.
The physical exertion didn't bother Hessel
Instead, it was the lack of privacy and the strain of living out of a backpack for almost a year that affected him.
"But I'd made a commitment to doing it," Hessel said. "I'd been entrusted with a lot of stories along the way, and they had to get out."
Commitment seems to be a cornerstone of the 37-year old's life. His first job after graduating from St. John's University in Minnesota in 1983 was working in a homeless shelter in Washington D.C.
It was there that Hessel, who comes from a small town in Wisconsin, met many Latin Americans who were fleeing their native countries during a decade of revolutions and political repression.
A spark ignited in Hessel, and soon he was taking Spanish lessons and planning a trip with Witness for Peace to Nicaragua.

"I had a sense that our government was involved in some things they maybe shouldn't be," Hessel said of his awakening. "I believed in peace and nonviolence and I wanted to be of use if I could be."
He documented human-rights abuses, mediated conflicts and became a peace activist, living in Central America on and off for a total of three years during a six-year period. In Nicaragua he helped negotiate the release of an Italian priest who had been kidnapped by the Contras.
"We appealed to the fact that the Contras said they were for human rights." Hessel said of the negotiations. "They let him go."
Was he ever afraid during the years he spent in war-torn countries where entire villages disappeared overnight, where kidnappings and murder were commonplace and acts of violence and such as burning crops and attacking civilians occurred daily?
"You experience moments of fear." Hessel said. "But most of what happens is so random, like driving over a land mine, that you just can't live in constant fear. So you just get over it."
He also did mediation and peace work in Honduras and Guatemala during the 1980's.
The 5,000-mile walk in 1991-92 was simply the last in a string of peace pilgrimages Hessel made in Central America.
Sometimes there was a group of 10 people walking; some stretches had 1,000 participant. Hessel, and a handful of others, including a Japanese Buddhist monk who organized it, made the entire trip.
"I was most stuck by the experience of being supported completely by the generosity of people for 10 months," said Hessel.
"The hospitality of the people was amazing," Hessel said. "It was quite an overwhelming when you contrast it with this culture and how we deal with strangers. We have a lot of fear and are taught to react to strangers with suspicion. But people in villages welcomed us and took care of us."
His tall, lean frame bends easily into a chair as Hessel sits in his tidy Main Street office, part of Monadnock Family Services. An oval table dominates the sunny room facing Railroad Square.
Hessel, who lived in Charlestown for a few years before moving to Brattleboro, says the skills he used in Central America help him in his profession here in Keene.
"I feel very rooted here," Hessel said of New England. He worked at the Lake Sunapee Mediation Program and small claims court in Woodstock, Vt., before joining Monadnock Family Serices' Cheshire Mediation 2 ½ years ago.
"But my experiences in (Central America) are related to what I do now. Trying to help people with problems in their lives, trying to understand human pain and suffering."
Here, in his office, is where the mediations between parent and child or warring spouses occur.
A tissue box sits in the center of the table.
"Things can get intense," Hessel says, glancing at the tissues.
Hessel helps to resolve conflicts between divorcing spouses, estranged families and troubled young people. He also mediates workplace conflicts.
"My training is in a process that empowers people to solve their own problems," he says.
Hessel dresses in earth tones, soft browns and beige corduroys, as though he wants to mesh into his surroundings - not stand out.
But it was hard for him-a tall, lanky American - to not stand out in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama.
In Keene, Hessel is more successful at meshing in, focusing his energy on his clients and their troubles.
"I'm not very good at fun," Hessel, who lives with his girlfriend and two dogs, admits with an easy smile. Stomach problems caused by years of living in remote villages plague him and require him to follow a special diet. He doesn't complain about it though, shrugging off the discomfort and the activities he's had to give up, like running.
"But I like outdoor hiking, canoeing, and reading," Hessel says. Favorite authors include Russians Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, "because the characters aren't black and white," Hessel said. "They deal in complexities."
As does Hessel's work in mediation.
"I like the diversity," he said of his job on a bright winter's afternoon. "It's an honor to be involved in people's lives as they move through things during a vulnerable time. It can be gut-wrenching."
Certified in mediation by Woodbury College in Vermont, Hessel has also made peace pilgrimages to the former Yugoslavia, lived in a Zen community in France, and raked blueberries in an international community in Maine.
At the blueberry farm in 1995 Hessel reunited with two married friends he had made in Guatemala - Andrea Walsh and Andy Davis. The couple moved to Keene in September, but will soon move to the World Fellowship Center in Conway as the center's new co-directors.
"Greg has an amazing ability to endure, both physically and emotionally, " Walsh said. "Whether it be toiling in the blister hot sun or working with groups of people in conflict situations, he endures."
"He has faith in people. He values people and relationships more than material things," Walsh said.
This emphasis on personal relationships seems to be rare in today's increasingly materialistic society, but Hessel says he thinks a lot of people choose to live this way.
"The question for me is, what is a meaningful vocation," said Hessel. He calls himself spiritual rather than religious and tries to live simply. "As long as I can survive on it, I don't feel like it's a sacrifice in any way."
"I think everyone is looking for meaning, and I don't think it's in acquiring things."



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