Daniel Meden waited patiently in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest. About half of the world‘s population of endangered mountain gorillas live in this part of Africa, and he hoped to get near one.
After an hour, a gorilla approached and made some noise close to the 27-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. It was as though he was being scolded, Daniel told his mother, Cindy Meden of Davenport.
“Gorilla trekking had been my bucket list since I set foot on Ugandan soil,” he wrote in an email to the Quad-City Times. “I did it on my 27th birthday.”
Daniel has finished one year of teaching biology at the St. Francis Secondary School in the village of Acumet. He is almost halfway through his 27-month stint in the Peace Corps, and his parents continue to marvel at his accomplishment.
The young man was diagnosed with autism when he was 4 years old. In those days, the condition had a different label (pervasive developmental disorder–not otherwise specified, or PPD–NOS), but as he grew up, it became known that his condition is among those on the autism spectrum.
'You have no idea how far he's come'
The eldest child of Gary and Cindy Meden, Daniel moved with his family as Gary’s position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took them to Germany, Indiana and back to Germany, where Daniel graduated from high school.
Middle school was a horrible experience for him, his mother said.
“He was bullied, picked on and had his things taken from him,” she added.
Daniel’s obsessions, and fears, were sensory-oriented. The wind in the trees or a flock of birds flying by, both would bother the young man.
But one day he grew into a person who could cope. As his mother said, he wouldn’t be able to complete a task and then, boom! He’d master the task and eventually even excel at it.
One example: He loves art and drawing. While one teacher told him his art was unrecognizable, Daniel was chosen to show his work to then–President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, when the Bushes visited his high school in Germany.
The family moved to Davenport in 2008, choosing the city partly because of geography. Cindy’s late mother lived in Des Moines at the time and her husband is originally from Rockford, Ill.
Daniel finished his biology degree at Augustana College in Rock Island. After college, he worked part-time at Hy-Vee and for the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation District in Davenport.
“You have no idea how far he has come,” his mother said.
Daniel’s African experiences
Daniel wrote email messages while on holiday. He was in Tanzania and had plans to climb the famous Mount Kilimanjaro with three other Peace Corps volunteers.
He works in Acumet, a close-knit community of less than 1,000 people. He is learning the local language, Ateso, and teaches sophomore-level biology at St. Francis Secondary School.
Roosters awaken him daily at 5:30 a.m. He uses a mosquito net on his bed to protect himself from diseases and gets to school by 7 a.m. He is the most punctual teacher on the staff.
The main food is cornmeal. There is also fish and some meat. Daniel had stomachaches when he first arrived in Uganda, but he has become acclimated to the diet.
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His students speak little English, and there is not a lot of parental support for the teens taking advanced studies.
Daniel said his favorite part of being in the Peace Corps is the side trips and going on adventures such as a safari. He also enjoys sharing “cross-cultural relationships with cool people,” he said, and makes every effort to bring positive, sustainable change to needy communities.
In fact, Daniel is credited for a new community center building going up in Soroti, a city about a three-hour bus ride from Acumet. He got support for the project through the Peace Corps’ Small Project Assistance Program.
The building has several purposes: to educate people about farming as a business, to support those with disabilities and disadvantaged backgrounds, and to reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the region. The walls of the structure are already standing.
Peace Corps support
Peace Corps officials are well aware that Daniel is autistic, but he has not been labeled as such, his mother said. His 27-month commitment began in November 2012 and will end in February 2015.
Next, he plans to pursue an advanced degree in biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Daniel’s parents admire how he’s learned to cope with life. The extent of just how much came in a text to his mother on the day he left the Quad-Cities and flew to Philadelphia.
Cindy messaged her son to ask whether he was doing OK at the airport. His reply: “It’s thanks to you that I am here. Take care and keep in touch.”