Friday, December 9, 2011

Alaska Sudan Medical Project

I wrote the following blog post for my job at the Rasmuson Foundation.  It will soon be published on Rasmuson's blog, but I also wanted to share it here:

Earlier this year, I returned to Alaska after 27 months of U.S. Peace Corps service in Central America. I worked as a community health volunteer in Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere (after Haiti). The often deplorable living conditions I experienced and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health’s lack of resources were astounding. Water and vector-borne diseases were rampant, and many people lacked the resources to purchase a simple tube of toothpaste, let alone vital medications. Despite these hurdles, I was inspired by Nicaraguan nurses and doctors who worked long hours trekking through rivers and over mountains in 90-plus degree heat, just to deliver a few drops of polio vaccine or to check-up on a newborn in a far-flung village.

After returning to Alaska, I began to search for local volunteer opportunities. A friend told me of the famed Dr. Jill Seaman and her involvement with the nonprofit, the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP). Since 1989, Seaman has split her time between Bethel, Alaska working for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and in the outer reaches of South Sudan in Africa.

In July 2011, after more than 50 years of bloodshed, Africa’s largest country split in two and the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. I thought Nicaragua had dire health conditions, but after speaking with Dr. Jack Hickel, founder and board president of ASMP, I realized that South Sudan’s plight is much worse. The nascent country has no health care system and very limited access to infrastructure like running water or electricity. Hickel has a diploma in Tropical Medicine and began his work in Africa in 1982 as a medical missionary. In 2007, at Seaman’s invite, he visited the remote village of Old Fangak, South Sudan.

Dr. Seaman (left) and Dr. Hickel (right) at work
Hickel was shocked by the desperation and death he saw during his 10 days in the Old Fangak. The remote reaches of South Sudan carry some of the worst health statistics in the world. According to ASMP’s website, the infant mortality rate is 1,700 deaths per 100,000 births. Thirty-six percent of children are malnourished and just 10 percent of children have had full childhood immunizations. Due mainly to substandard healthcare, average life expectancy is just 42 years. Upon returning to Alaska, Hickel gathered together friends and supporters and formed ASMP.

With help from ASMP, the village of Old Fangak is now is in the process of building a health center. Past successful projects include completion of two wells, construction of six latrines, and the development of a vegetable garden small-business. ASMP strives for sustainable development where it works – ultimately providing jobs and opportunities for locals. Villagers have been trained to be community health workers (similar to Alaska’s Community Health Aide Program), or to work as welders. ASMP also hopes to train locals to use the drilling equipment and build new wells, creating a lasting impact in the region.

As Rasmuson Foundation’s visionary and former president, Elmer Rasmuson said, “Helping others is an Alaska tradition.” Seaman, Hickel and the over 30 volunteers who have traveled to Old Fangak since 2007 epitomize this Alaskan tradition.

Filmmaker and ASMP volunteer Todd Hardesty recently completed a video spotlighting the organization’s work entitled “The Village.” Portions of the video have been posted on ASMP’s YouTube channel. I had the opportunity to see part of the video at a recent ASMP fundraiser in Anchorage and was left speechless by the stunning contrast of the agony of human suffering and the beauty of the country and its people.

ASMP volunteers began the annual trek for the fall/winter building season in October and teams are still departing. Goals for this year include finishing the new health clinic building, beginning construction on a second clinic, completion of a water well, drilling of two wells in nearby villages, and fence construction around the medical compound.

Building the clinic
Seaman and Hickel remind me of the Nicaraguan counterparts I worked with in Peace Corps and admired for their perseverance and commitment to public health. I have been inspired to volunteer locally with ASMP, and I hope to make the trip myself to Old Fangak next year.  Many ASMP volunteers are spending this year’s holiday season in Old Fangak – a testament to their dedication and spirit of service. The tasks at hand for the new country are great; I am heartened to see an organization like ASMP that is leading the way in healthcare, development and service. To learn more, check out ASMP’s Facebook page.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wasted Potential of RPCVs

I’ve been back in the U.S. for almost seven months now (Whoa, where did the time go?! I still feel like I just returned). While I have a job, albeit a temporary one, some of the returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) in my group and groups that followed mine are still jobless and trying to readjust to life in America. As I talk with my RPCV friends and read blogs, I realize this is quite common nationwide. Many dedicated, smart, responsible, young Americans are being under-utilized in this country, due in large part to the current economy. I see a lot of wasted potential and wonder, is this a Peace Corps epidemic?

When you return from Peace Corps, you feel on top of the world. You’ve accomplished something you set out to do – you pushed through 27 months of blood, sweat, and tears (not to mention vomit, diarrhea, dirt, manure and torrential rains). In Peace Corps, you command respect in your community.  You can call together a meeting of the mayor, local leaders, teachers and parents with a simple handwritten note. They will attend because you are the token American. Your opinion and you matter. After such a positive experience, you return to the U.S. ready for a change.  You're ready to see family and friends, enjoy creature comforts, and to make some money!

My Peace Corps cohort with our end of service certificates. 
Ready to go back to the U.S. - we had no idea what was coming....
But reality quickly sets in. Back in the U.S., you’re just another face in the crowd of 20-somethings looking for a job. Yes, Peace Corps sets you apart and can often make the difference when you’re looking for a job; but in the current economy, this might not matter. When my cohort left for Peace Corps (the day after President Obama was sworn-in), the economy was just beginning its downward spiral. We felt lucky; we were leaving at just the right time. By the time we finished our service, the economy would be on the upswing, right? Right? Wrong. The deep valley of the recession seems to have no end.

Looking at the RPCVs from my cohort, I see that a few are now in graduate school (the ones that filled out grad school applications while in Peace Corps - not an easy feat!), a few are working in professional jobs, but the majority seems to be struggling to answer the question of “what’s next?” One of my RPCV friends wrote on Facebook recently that she was “wondering what to do with this life??” Some, lacking direction or not wanting a long-term commitment, decide to do another stint in Peace Corps in the “Peace Corps Response” program. The Response program allows RPCVs to serve 6-12 months in Peace Corps’ countries working in more advanced and managerial positions than normal volunteers. Others join AmeriCorps or Teach for America, continuing in the theme of service, and still living in poverty. A few of my RPCV friends are working various part-time jobs and networking and applying with a vengeance to jobs in their career field. One girl has visited numerous RPCV career fairs in Chicago and Washington DC; applied to probably 50 jobs; flown out to DC two times for interviews; but she is still working as a part-time caterer and cow-milker. Way to use your youth, America.

I feel lucky to live in Alaska right now where the recession is being felt somewhat less than in most states. Jobs seem plentiful, and although they may not be in my idea career field (International Relations), I can get good experience and make some money to save up for graduate school and beyond. I get frustrated though when I see my RPCV friends’ Facebook updates and we talk on the phone. I can tell many of them are getting burned out in the job search and are starting to feel without direction and lost in the crowd. I know that I'm just one job offer away from that as well. Who knows, maybe if this goes on for long enough we’ll all go back to Nicaragua or maybe we’ll give up on the whole idea of a career and a successful life in the U.S altogether. Nah – we’re Peace Corps volunteers. We can take a beating and we come back for more. Anyone who has been puked on by multiple small children in a “chicken bus” or pooped their pants from a bacterial infection and lived to tell the tale should never be underestimated.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shoes inspired by Peace Corps volunteers

SeaVees has come out with a shoe commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.  See article here: NY Times

At $78, it's too bad current PC volunteers could never afford them!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer Hiking in Sitka

Since I’ve decided to stay in Sitka for the summer, I’ve been trying to make the most of small town island living by getting outdoors as much as possible. Usually I do this through hiking since Sitka has a wonderful trail system, maintained by a local nonprofit organization and the U.S. Forest Service.
Here are a few pictures from some of the hikes I’ve been doing with friends and family. Sadly, most of the big hikes we’ve done up the tallest mountains have happened to fall on cloudy, rainy days so the view was less than spectacular. We climbed Mt. Edgecumbe volcano one Saturday (14 miles round trip), but at the top were faced with less than 20 feet of visibility due to heavy fog at the crater. After so much work, it can be very frustrating to not be rewarded with the wonderful view you were waiting for, but I just have to remember that this is Southeast Alaska and rain is the norm…

We also hiked Harbor Mountain on a rare sunny day in Sitka (64 F!!) and I was reminded again how beautiful it is here and how lucky I am to be able to call Sitka home. I’m enjoying the summer here and while I can’t see myself living here long term, I do plan on enjoying all Sitka has to offer in the meantime!

Up the volcanic rock summit of Mt. Edgecumbe

My father and me hiking Mt. Verstovia

Looking down at town from Harbor Mountain

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Peace Corps Nicaragua Reunion in Alaska!

Me, Danielle, Liz and Elisa
Although we spent about 27 months together in Nicaragua (in separate villages of course), apparently that wasn’t enough!  We just had to organize a post-Peace Corps (PC) reunion!  My good friends Elisa, Danielle and Liz who were in my same “group” of health volunteers during my PC service came this month for a two week trip to Sitka (my hometown) and Juneau.  The girls are from Minnesota, Texas and Oregon respectively, and this was their first time in “The Last Frontier.”  I was thrilled when they decided to do the trip last fall and we have been planning the trip using spreadsheets and Facebook groups for months.

Sunny Sitka!

Sitka's Mt. Edgecumbe volcano - it looked like it was erupting this night! (It is dormant however)

It was so nice to see their familiar faces again after having been back in the U.S. for a month.  We were able to re-connect, talk about readjustment to the U.S. and its culture, job-seeking, future plans, and our general feelings about life in America after Nicaragua.  After spending so much time together in PC training and finding weekends to be together throughout our service, I feel like I’ve known these girls my entire life.  After serving in PC, you find that no one quite understands what you’ve been through and can talk about it with you like other volunteers in your group.

Sitka National Historical Park (aka Totem Park)

We had fun seeing the sights of Alaska and enjoyed some amazing weather.  Although we had our share of rain and mist, we also had quite a few cloudless, sunny days with temperatures in the low 60s F (pretty good for southeast Alaska!)  We hiked a different trail just about every day, went camping at a beautiful Forest Service cabin outside of Sitka located right next to a natural hot springs, took the ferry to Juneau for a few days and saw the Mendenhall Glacier and the Alaskan Brewing Company, went out to Sitka’s “fisherman bars” – quite an experience, sang a lot of Nicaraguan reggaeton songs that we missed, made Nicaraguan food, gave a talk about PC and our service at the Sitka high school and the local library, and just sat around enjoying each other’s company and watched movies.  With just under 9,000 residents, Sitka is pretty small and the girls joked that after their two weeks here, they started to recognize most people in town.

The educational talk about Peace Corps we gave at the Sitka library
Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau

Juneau from above - we went up the Mt. Roberts tram
Hiking the glacier in Juneau

The chicas took off today and I already miss having three buddies to do things with.  I’m also a bit stressed about what’s next for me.  I haven’t planned much beyond this trip, and now that it’s over, I’m finding myself still conflicted about my next steps.  I’m debating between staying and working here in Sitka for the summer and living at home, or moving up to Anchorage (Alaska’s “big city”) and looking for work there and rooming with friends.  I plan on applying to graduate school this fall and would start in 2012, but after PC I realize that plans (even the well thought out ones) can change in a flash.  

Cabin we rented for a night

A friend we made
Nicaraguan food we made! (everything is basically fried...)
Like the "Words with Friends" iPhone app, but in real life!  Playing Scrabble...

I’m so happy that Danielle, Elisa and Liz were able to come up and I hope they had as much fun seeing my home state as I did showing it to them!  I enjoyed being a tourist as well as I showed them the sights and even learned a few things about Alaska myself! My family friends in Juneau the Trivettes, as well as my parents here in Sitka were wonderful and hospitable hosts.  We felt very cared for and I know the girls felt like they were “en casa.”  I can’t wait for our next PC reunion… we’re talking about a return trip to Nicaraguan next spring!

Until next trip!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

AMERICA! My favorite things...

Well, I've been back in the U.S. for about a week.  The transition is a bit hard at times and I haven't had energy to do much besides unpack and re-learn English :)  My major event has been adding an iPhone 4 to my life - my parents gave it to me as a welcome home gift.  And as I learn how to use it, I've been taking photos using the built-in camera, capturing a few of the things that I'm happiest to see back here in the U.S.A.  Here is a photo gallery of a few of "my favorite things."
Pedicures! To take care of my callused mistreated feet!

Sushi! (I don't eat meat, but I love fish!)

Sugar-free gum - an American jumbo pack with 35 pieces! They must have been thinking of me...

Washing machine.  Wow, just a simple push of the button wipes away hours of toil at a washboard.

Clean, drinkable tap water that doesn't contain parasites or bacteria

Family cat #1

Family cat #2 Both are flea-free and snuggly!


Kombucha.  I think I missed this beverage the most (well, after red wine)

Moutains and cool weather for wearing jackets and not constantly sweating!

Our family dog, Layla
My parents!

Take me on a hike, Penny!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Adios Nicaragua

Where were you when President Obama was sworn-in in January 2009? I was in Miami, Florida watching it on TV, enjoying my last day in the U.S. I was preparing to leave to begin my Peace Corps service as a community health volunteer the next day.

After 27 months living in this hemisphere’s second poorest country, I have completed my service and am now officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV).

I have learned a few things and changed a few pre-conceived notions about the world, about development and about myself. Here are a few things that I’ve recently been reflecting on as I prepare to leave Nicaragua next week to return to the U.S.:

I will never throw anything away before first thinking of how I could re-use it or give it to another person. Nothing should ever be wasted!

Development work is not as simple as I once thought

As much as we try in the developed world to be “green” and save the environment, our lifestyles are not sustainable and for all the little changes we make (using energy efficient light bulbs, using less plastic grocery bags, etc.) it makes just a small dent in the overall picture of our carbon footprint

Peace Corps isn’t perfect – but neither is the UN, Save the Children, UNICEF, the IMF or the World Bank (living here I’ve seen firsthand many of the programs these organizations implement and have realized their respective strengths and flaws). Peace Corps is just another tool to help increase diplomacy, communication and if development increases along the way, so be it
There are certain things that I will miss, and others that I cannot wait to get away from. Let’s start with the negative first and end on a positive note.  You’ll notice the latter list outnumbers the former.

Things I will NOT miss:

Rainy season – being wet and moldy all the time

Dry season – being dry, dusty and allergic all the time

Catcalls and verbal harassment on the street

Living alone and feeling vulnerable

Hours and hours spent on hot, sweaty, dusty and noisy chicken buses

Horrible customer service

Barking dogs and crowing roosters at night keeping me awake

The lack of separation of politics and education, health and other social and government services

Coffee so sweet you can feel cavities forming and food so salty, your mouth dries up eating it

Weekly comments by friends and neighbors on how “fat” or “skinny” you look that day (they are never even accurate)

Seeing heart-breaking poverty all around you – in rural villages and in the largest cities

Things I will miss about Nicaragua:

Bathing in my outdoor shower being able to see the birds and sun

Washing clothes by hand (it’s enjoyable to a certain extent)

Warm weather

Close friends I have made here and their open hearts and hospitable spirits

Vibrant Latin music and dancing. Everyone from babies to the elderly knows how to shake it to the latest reggaeton song or the most classic ballad or salsa song

The freedom I have in my work here. Also, the more relaxed pace of work and life in general

Seeing people who are so poor, yet so happy and giving

Kids dressed in school uniforms walking past my house at 6:45 am every day on their way to class, telling me it’s time to start a new day

Red beans and corn tortillas

Being able to really “eat locally”

Being within a day’s travel to a gorgeous Pacific beach

Brightly colored houses (my own hot pink house especially)

The camaraderie and closeness I feel with other Peace Corps volunteers –especially those in my group “Nica 49”

Nica 49 at our "Close of Service Conference" with our two Nicaraguan supervisors

The clip-clop sound of horse hooves on the cobblestone street outside my house

My site-mate Kristen

Kristen and me
“Visiting” people being a day-long activity

Fresh fruit – mangos, watermelon, pineapple, coconut and dragon fruit especially

Feeling powerful and capable because of my role as a Peace Corps volunteer. I feel confident calling a meeting of older leaders, parents, teachers, health center staff, and youth because I know they will respect me and listen to what I have to say both because I am from the U.S. and a Peace Corps volunteer

The hospitality of village people and their willingness to let you into their lives and homes

The black/white nature of male/female relationships here. You will know if a guy likes you or not right away. It will be made apparent when you first meet him by a whistle, cat call or sexist comment. No beating around the bush here!

I will never take for granted again the following things:

Indoor plumbing

Tap water that doesn’t make you sick

Customer service and efficiency in businesses

Quality clothing and shoes

Hot showers and bathtubs

Ubiquitous wireless internet

Having a car at your disposal

Washing machine/dryer


Vacuum cleaners

As I prepare to return to the U.S., I am finding myself feeling a little ambivalent about it all; sort of without emotions. I’m not excited to leave, but I’m also definitely ready to go. I do feel that my time here has been sufficient and I am ready to move on to the next step, whatever that may be. I plan to move back to Alaska to work for a time before possibly beginning graduate studies next year in international relations somewhere on the east coast. My life feels very up-in-the-air at the moment, and this surprises me. When I started Peace Corps I thought that by the end of these two years, I would “have it all figured out.” I would know what I wanted to study in graduate school and I would feel more mature and have finalized my “life plan” (whatever that is…). However, this of course is not the case. These two years have gone by faster than any other period in my life, and I find myself asking just as many questions today as I did when I began Peace Corps in 2009, perhaps even more questions, and more complicated ones.

My body and my spirit are tired though. I’m ready to go back to the U.S. for a bit to recuperate before I will be ready to think about what comes next. After being sick with some intestinal parasite or bacteria every 1-2 months here, I am physically exhausted and ready to feel healthy and energetic again. I am also emotionally worn out. I have worked so hard here to learn the culture, learn how to work with the Ministry of Health, troubleshoot problems that arose, deal with failed projects, strategize how to implement successful ones, and deal with the daily stresses of life in a third world country – all of this alone.

I am proud of myself for sticking it out until the end, through some very tough times. Of my group of 21 volunteers who entered the country, 13 of us finished our service completely. These are pretty normal Peace Corps statistics. It has been an emotional and physical rollercoaster – Peace Corps is definitely not for everyone, and that doesn’t mean that volunteers that complete all their service are superior to others, it just means we’re more stubborn perhaps :)

At our end of service presentation with our supervisor (far left) and the Peace Corps country director (second from left)
On my last day in-site, it was very odd to see my pink house empty of all my possessions. I will definetly miss the $45/month rent, but I am looking forward to indoor plumbing again! I sold most of my furniture and household items to the new volunteer replacing me in my site – in one pick-up truck load, my entire Nicaraguan life was moved out! Saying goodbyes in site was a tearful but necessary evil and I had a hard time saying adios to dear friends such as Mariana and her family who have supported me through my toughest times (my robbery) and celebrated happy ones (our joint birthdays in June) with me like I was part of their family. It is so hard saying goodbye to people when you don’t know when you’ll see them again. I probably won’t return to visit Nicaragua for at least 3-4 years.

My last meal in-site at Mariana's house.  Plantain, beans and cheese.
Ready to go!

Ringing the bell at the Peace Corps office - a tradition for all volunteers who end their two years

Who hoo!
 Some people I do know I will see soon are three of my good girlfriends from my Peace Corps group “Nica 49” that are coming to visit me in Alaska in May for two weeks! I am excited to host visitors and share Alaska with them. We are already looking forward to this reunion and I know it will help us all go through the re-adjustment process to the U.S.

I’m ready for some rest and relaxation in the States – luckily my parents and I will be visiting Orlando, Florida for five days when I return. Although I’m not sure if Orlando is the place one goes for r&r, or if it will just rudely shock me back into American culture. Either way, I’m looking forward to visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and drinking a butterbeer! I am also looking forward to buying an iPhone, drinking a Kombucha tea and seeing my nieces (and they will happen in that order as well). I will be traveling visiting family in Oregon and then going to my sister’s graduation in California in May.

I’m not going to become complacent however. I know that after a few weeks, I’ll be ready for the next adventure!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

World Map Mural

All over the world, Peace Corps volunteers have painted thousands of world map murals in schools, parks, city buildings, community centers, sports centers, health centers and hospitals. The first world map was done by a Peace Corps volunteer named Barbara in the Dominican Republic in 1989. Since then, a “world map kit” has been created and distributed to all Peace Corps countries with detailed step-by-step instructions on how to create this beautiful and educational mural. You can read about the project here.

The other Peace Corps volunteer who lives in my community (my ¨site-mate¨) Kristen and I decided to paint a world map mural in a rural school outside of our village. My parents graciously decided to give us the funding for the paint, brushes and other supplies. Kristen and I had both worked in that school in the past giving classes and knew the Director, teachers and students well. When we brought up the idea of a world map project, they were excited and ready to support the activity. We decided to use an empty wall on the side of one of the main class buildings. It would be seen by the school children and also by people walking by the school.

What we thought would be a relatively quick project (a few weeks at most), ended up taking us 10 months from start to finish due to rainy season, summer vacation, and the conflicting work schedules of Kristen and me. The map was further complicated by the fact that we had to take a “chicken bus” out to the community ever time we worked on it, taking up practically an entire day. However, we pushed through. We were determined to have something tangible come out of our Peace Corps service, and I think we just wanted to see if we could actually do it!

Here is our map project, step-by-step:

Step one: Wash the wall.  Have a carpenter (or otherwise skilled person at measuring) mark out the 6x12 foot space on the wall. This took one day, and required us to coordinate with the carpenter and pay his bus fare and for his labor that day.
Washing the wall
Don Enrique measuring
Step two: We painted the rectangle a light blue (ocean) background color. We did two coats (two separate days of painting).
Painting the background
Step three: Have the carpenter return to mark out the grid system on the map. The Peace Corps world map kit uses a grid system to transfer a relatively small map image onto a larger surface. We made 1,568 blocks (28 rows x 56 rows) in pencil.

Step four: Draw the map! We used pencils and the map guide to draw each individual square. This tedious task was made easier by many hands and eager kids.
Drawing countries
It´s done! Ready for paint!
Step five: Outline all the countries and borders with black permanent marker. Be careful not to make mistakes! We had a little trouble with this part in the area around the former Soviet Union since the guide we were using was quite outdated and needed some new countries added. We had to improvise a bit on this part and not use the guide. Let’s just say it’s not perfect, but it gets the job done.

Step six: Paint the countries! The guide told us what color to paint each country, and we divided the work up among students. This required two coats of paint as well and involved a lot of paint drips on clothing and on each other. We bought primary colors and from those were able to mix other colors like purple, pink, and brown.
Painting countries, one by one
Our arms got a bit tired
Step seven: Use the light blue ocean color to paint over the pencil grid lines (they wouldn’t erase!)

Kristen and Me
Step eight: Re-draw all the borders with black permanent marker and write country and ocean names.

Step nine: Celebrate the map! We didn’t have time for this step since we finished just days before I will be leaving my community, but you could tell the kids felt accomplished and proud of what we had done. Even if they had just played a small role: painting a couple countries or helping paint the ocean, they felt part of the larger overall activity.

The younger children in elementary school loved to crowd around the map as we were writing the country names yelling out “Look! There’s China! It’s so big!” “Wow, Nicaragua is so small!” “I didn’t know that’s where South Africa was…” “Wait, Africa is a continent?” I can tell that many hours will be spent sitting in front of this map contemplating the various countries on it and giving these children a greater sense of their world and their place in it.

¨This map was made in 2010/11 with the Peace Corps volunteers Kristen O´Neil and Lilia Penny Gage with the fourth and fifth year students with funding from Steve and Amelia Gage.¨
On the top of the map we painted a Peace Corps symbol (“Cuerpo de Paz in Spanish”), and the Nicaraguan flag. On the bottom we wrote when the map had been made and by who, as well as noting my parents for their financial contributions which made it possible.

Kristen and I, very satisfied!
Good work kids!
I’m happy to be able to leave this map behind which will last long after the memory of my presence has faded.