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January Spotlight: Mark & Alissa Cooprider

Mark & Alissa Cooprider: Peace Corps Volunteers 2012-2014

Please meet our January Spotlights: Mark and Alissa Cooprider!


Mark and Alissa served in both the Vava’u and Tongatapu Island groups from 2012-2014, as English Language Facilitators.  They have been married for over 11 years and currently live in Bangkok, Thailand, where they have lived for the past seven years.  They have two children: Jubilee (4) and Paxton (2).  Since their time in the Peace Corps, Mark has taught high school English at International Community School and next year will be promoted to the role of Secondary Assistant Principal!  Alissa, on the other hand, was the director for a program supporting unaccompanied refugee minors before having children.  Since becoming a mother, she hasn’t worked full time, but remains actively involved in the urban refugee community (primarily the Somali refugee community) through various volunteer and contract base positions.  Most of her time is spent with former clients of her and detainees at the immigrant detention center.  They have consistently served as an inspiration to their friends, family, and colleagues.  


Mark has loved the profession of teaching ever since he chose to study English and education in college.  His desire to live abroad started early as well, and his choice to teach was-- in part-- because it would allow him to have a service-oriented job that he could use in an international setting.  So after meeting Alissa in college, they worked for a couple of years in Denver, then set their sights on the Peace Corps, as their first step into international work.  


Like many who are invited to serve in Tonga, Mark and Alissa first had to find it on a map!  He states, “To be honest, neither of us knew anything about Tonga before we got the assignment from Peace Corps.  But in retrospect, we could not be more thankful that we were placed there.  We quickly grew fond of the Tongan people and culture.  We loved the closeness that the small numbers of volunteers and in-country staff in Tonga fostered, and our group (Group 77) was an amazing group of people.  We were also pleased to get placed on an “outer island,” the island of Nuapapu in Vava’u, which challenged and pushed us in ways that we could not have imagined.”  


Their “outer-island” experience had a variety of unique challenges.  For example, they had neither running water or electricity and had to integrate into a very small and tight-knit village (only 30 houses).  They also had the added challenge of navigating and integrating as a married couple.  They recount that, “Nuapapu  is a deeply traditional community and culture that seemed to grow in complexity every time we thought we had a handle on things.  But we have countless amazing memories there -- from late-night kava circles and feasts, to dance performances and weekend boat rides to Neiafu.  We cherish those people and that place, and our experiences there were extremely formative.”  


They are immensely proud of what they accomplished professionally, during their time in Tonga (and they accomplished quite a bit)!  Their standard days involved Alissa teaching in the local primary school and Mark walking 30 minutes across the island (often accompanied by their dog) to teach in the primary school in Matamaka, the other village on the island.  They taught English language curriculum, much of which they either created or revised, and they leaned into that creative challenge.  They successfully acquired a new water tank for their school through a grant application, and started a kindergarten on the island.  They even recorded a CD of children’s songs with their students and made copies for their fellow Peace Corps Volunteers to use in their classrooms, across the Kingdom (which you can still listen to:!  

Another stand-out part of their time in Nuapapu was their dog, Buster, who they adopted as a puppy from one of their neighbors.  Buster left such an indelible mark on the Coopriders that Mark decided to write a children's story about him: “Buster the Tongan Dog Goes Exploring”!  Mark originally had the idea to write about Buster, before their oldest was born, right before a summer road trip, and sat down and wrote the manuscript.  He knew he wanted to incorporate some Tongan culture and language in it, and imagining Buster wandering their island was an easy chance to focus on the Tongan phrase “'eva pē” (Tongan for “just exploring'' or “just wandering around”).  For Mark, one of the most fun parts about writing it was that it felt like writing poetry.  He is a self-proclaimed “poetry nerd, who loves old-fashioned rhyme and meter.”  He attempted to write the book in an anapestic meter, which is the triple-beat, galloping rhythm that you find in children’s authors like Dr. Seuss.  


Mark and Alissa tried to get his manuscript published and reached out to a series of publishers; however, they didn’t hear any strong interest back, so the manuscript was shelved, life continued and children happened.  As Jubilee became older, they began reading books and stories to her, which reinspired progress on the manuscript.  Mark recounts, “It was a bit sad to me that I had written a children’s book that she wasn’t getting to read.  So, I commissioned a former student of mine named Anna Chen, who is a university design student, to do illustrations for it.  She based the illustrations on our pictures of Nuapapu, and she did such an amazing job.  Originally, I had thought it would be just a fun book that I would get printed for friends and family, but by using a print-on-demand service from Amazon, anyone can order a copy!”  


Having the book has been a great way to teach their kids, along with friends and family, about Tongan culture and give them a peek into their lives there.  It’s a consistent reminder of that season of their lives.  The Coopriders also wanted to acknowledge the work that their wonderful Group 77 friends have done staying connected to Tonga.  “It is a treat to connect with this great organization!”


If you are interested in buying a copy of “Buster the Tongan Dog Goes Exploring,” you can find it at this link: