Orrin Luc posted an articleOne of those moments I thought, We’re doing something right. see more
Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia (1996–98) | Crisis Corps Volunteer in Guinea (2000) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Eastern Caribbean–St. Lucia (2006)
As told to Ellery Pollard
Photo: Reviewing HIV records in St. Lucia: Lily Asrat working at the National AIDS Program Secretariat. Courtesy Lily Asrat
I’m Ethiopian American, and my parents exposed me to a lot of travel early on; they essentially raised me to be a global citizen. I understood that there’s so much out there in the world, and that there isn’t just one way of being. I saw Peace Corps as a continuation of this trajectory that started from childhood.
For my first Peace Corps service, I went to Namibia, which had just achieved freedom from South African colonial rule and the apartheid system. It was like coming to the United States immediately following desegregation: a lot of post-conflict tensions, a society coming to terms with racial healing, and people trying to coexist in a new landscape. It was a difficult time because there were still vestiges of armed struggle. But it was also a hopeful time because the majority of the population — who had been brutalized and subjugated — were feeling and seeing hope, freedom, and access to information and education.
I was a teacher trainer on a collaboration with USAID. The country was moving away from an education system based on apartheid — separate and unequal. The new Ministry of Education charted a path to develop new curricula that would be accessible to the whole population of Namibia.
While I was training teachers, my community was faced with a growing HIV epidemic. There was no treatment or testing accessible. There was a lot of stigma; it was considered a disease of gay men in the Western world, so people didn’t speak about it. But there were people sick and dying — a lot of teachers whose funerals I attended. My host sister died from HIV. It was devastating. That was the impetus for me to go down the track of public health. I realized that the real threat to the education system — and to the majority of the young, viable, productive populations of the country — was HIV. I got involved in doing HIV prevention work and education, collecting teaching aids and materials that I could share within the community.
Over a decade later, I found myself once again in Namibia working for another organization and witnessed significant improvements in access to treatment. At one clinic there was an HIV-positive woman seeing her doctor; she gave me her baby to hold. The baby was HIV negative. They had the knowledge and treatment available to provide the mother with antiretroviral therapy so she could avoid transmitting HIV to the baby during birth and breastfeeding. It was one of those moments in my life when I thought, We’re doing something right.
They had the knowledge and treatment available to provide the mother with antiretroviral therapy so she could avoid transmitting HIV to the baby during birth and breastfeeding. It was one of those moments in my life when I thought, We’re doing something right.
In 2000, I went to Guinea as a Crisis Corps Volunteer seconded to the International Rescue Committee, which was responsible for providing housing, nutrition, education, and psychosocial support for Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees. Speaking French was one key criteria; the other was being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer — able to hit the ground running. Being professional and flexible, able to develop relationships and trust in communities where you’re working — and do anything required with minimal support within hardship areas.
Child refugees in Guinea, where Lily Asrat worked as a Crisis Corps Volunteer seconded to the International Rescue Committee, responsible for providing housing, nutrition, education, and psychosocial support. Photo by Lily Asrat
We had an entire stock of food intended for refugee kids that was stolen overnight. It was clearly an inside job; the people responsible for guarding it had disappeared. Those moments are heartbreaking — but not so uncommon. I sought out immediate solutions, using our resources to help navigate that crisis. While the theft of food intended for refugee children was difficult, we also had many examples of wonderful community engagement such as the groups of women who volunteered on a daily basis to cook, distribute, and clean up. They put time, effort, and love into preparing meals for those kids. They made the hardships worth the effort.
By the time I served as a Response Volunteer in Eastern Caribbean (St. Lucia), I had worked at the CDC for three years, had two more master’s degrees, and I’d been in my doctoral program at U.C. Berkeley, studying public health; it was an opportunity to apply my training and experiences, and give back in a different way. I was placed at the National AIDS Program Secretariat to support strategy and guidance, monitoring and evaluation, and planning and grant writing. I have been very lucky in my career to have worked for three government agencies, several multilaterals, and prestigious academic institutions, but nothing has been as rewarding for me as my three stints as a Volunteer in Namibia, Guinea, and St. Lucia.
This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.
Orrin Luc posted an articlePeace Corps Response: An anniversary. A pandemic. A historic moment for this program launched a quarter century ago.Short-term, high-impact. Now marking 25 years since its founding. see more
Short-term, high-impact. Now marking 25 years since its founding.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Photo by Christian Farnsworth
A quarter century ago, at a midsummer White House Rose Garden ceremony attended by President Bill Clinton and Sargent Shriver, first director of the Peace Corps, a new type of Peace Corps service was announced to the world: Crisis Corps. Short-term, high-impact, it was, as then-Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan explained, “an effort to harness the enormous experience, skills, motivation, and talents that the Peace Corps, including its returned Volunteer ranks, possesses, and bring them to bear in an organized fashion during such crisis situations.”
At the outset, all Crisis Corps Volunteers were required to have already served in the Peace Corps. In fact, the program traces much of its origins to grassroots work by returned Volunteers. The National Peace Corps Association Emergency Response Network, activated to help in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, provided powerful inspiration.
IN ITS FIRST YEARS, Crisis Corps enlisted hundreds of Volunteers to serve in places from Bosnia to Guinea to El Salvador. Volunteers worked with communities recovering from conflicts, hurricanes, earthquakes, and more. Following the devastating tsunami that hit Thailand and Sri Lanka, among other countries, in 2004, the largest cohort ever of Crisis Corps Volunteers deployed there. Months later, hundreds more began serving Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — the first time Volunteers served in the United States.
Flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy Wikimedia
By 2007 the broadening nature of assignments led the agency to rename the program Peace Corps Response. Assignments last three months to one year, shorter than a standard 27-month term of Peace Corps service. That makes them more feasible for working professionals, who have to take a leave of absence. And, since 2012, Response Volunteers have included individuals who haven’t previously served in the Peace Corps.
Mothers and daughters pick up gifts of cooking oil as an incentive for school attendance, part of a World Food Programme effort in Guinea documented by Christian Farnsworth, who served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer.
It’s interesting to note that in 2020 the Commission on Military, National, and Public Service issued a report that called for exploring virtual service assignments for Peace Corps Response, to further open up opportunities for people able and willing to serve but not, perhaps, able to travel to other countries. Indeed, after the evacuation of all Peace Corps Volunteers in March 2020, the Peace Corps agency launched the Virtual Service Pilot — which connected evacuated Volunteers and Response Volunteers with organizations and communities in countries where they had been serving.
In May 2021, more than 150 Peace Corps Response Volunteers deployed domestically, as part of a partnership with FEMA. “By sending specialized volunteers to targeted assignments, we are helping to advance Peace Corps’ mission of world peace and friendship,” Peace Corps Response Director Sarah Dietch noted. Response Volunteers began serving with community vaccination centers to reach underserved communities — an effort that seems more important with each passing day, as another wave of COVID-19 takes a terrible toll.
Grandmother in a Ukrainian village, photographed by Michael Andrews as part of the Baba Yelka project.
In the 25 years since Peace Corps Response began, more than 3,800 Volunteers have served in over 80 countries — and twice in the United States. As we go to press, Response is recruiting for 136 openings, with Volunteers departing “no earlier than late 2021” for Belize and Guyana, undertaking assignments that include literacy specialist, adolescent health specialist, and epidemiology specialist. They’re recruiting for positions departing “no earlier than early 2022” for more than 20 countries, from Mexico to Malawi, Uganda to Ukraine, Georgia to Guatemala, Jamaica to South Africa.
Kudu released into Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, where Betsy Holtz worked as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer
Response Volunteers were at the vanguard as Peace Corps returned to countries such as Liberia. Civil war forced the program there to close in 1990. In 2007, when Response Volunteers arrived to serve, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia, personally attended the swearing-in ceremony.
In the pages that follow, we bring you a brief history of the program. Along with milestones, take note of the stories of lives and communities that have been shaped by the experience. It’s no coincidence that there’s a recurring theme of building together, whether that’s infrastructure or shared knowledge, and undergirding it all, that commitment to nurturing peace and friendship.
Three girls in Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, eastern Panamá; Eli Wittum documented environmental work in the country, and when he visited this region these three were delighted to pose for a photo.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
Communications Intern posted an articlePeace Corps’ untold story of fighting the virus in Guinea see more
Peace Corps’ untold story of fighting the virus in Guinea
By Douglass P. Teschner
This story first appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of WorldView magazine. We bring it to you here as we battle another pandemic.
In West Africa between December 2013 and June 2016, there were 28,616 known cases of the Ebola virus and 11,310 deaths. 3,804 of those cases and 2,536 deaths were in Guinea, where I was Peace Corps country director. But there would have been many more if it hadn’t been for the work of Peace Corps staff and RPCVs. When the epidemic was finally contained, the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea, Dennis Hankins, wrote, “Peace Corps local staff were able to make a key contribution in fighting Ebola. Through their collective efforts, I am convinced hundreds if not thousands of lives were saved.”
‘Who will help Guinea?’
The very contagious and deadly virus first appeared in Guinea in December 2013 and soon spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. When it became clear that the disease would not be easily contained, Peace Corps evacuated more than 300 Volunteers from the three countries in August of 2014. As the Guinea country director, I asked each of the 97 evacuating PCVs to write on post-it notes their parting thoughts about Guinea: “Family,” “My Home,” and “Love” were typical responses. One Volunteer asked painful questions in her award-winning blog: Who will help Guinea? Who will be their hero?
Within a month Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signed an interagency agreement to use Peace Corps motor pool, offices, and staff to support the growing CDC mission in West Africa. That agreement included drivers and staff acting as translators and guides for CDC health workers. In Guinea, we initially hosted 10 CDC infection control training events for health care workers. Together with RPCVs working at CDC, Peace Corps Guinea staff saw an opportunity for even greater impact given Peace Corps’ training expertise, national network, deep history and knowledge of the culture.
A key part of eradicating Ebola was contact tracing: identifying every person who had been in close contact with those infected, followed by daily checks for 21 days to ensure that they did not become ill or spread the disease to others.
A key part of eradicating Ebola was contact tracing: identifying every person who had been in close contact with those infected, followed by daily checks for 21 days to ensure that they did not become ill or spread the disease to others. There were, however, many rumors and widespread resistance; many of those who had contact with Ebola went into hiding, and there were incidents of crowds attacking government convoys.
A Red Cross worker shows how to dress in body suits to work among infected populations. Photo by Douglass Teschner
Grassroots Community Education
We designed a four-phase cascading training-of-trainers approach. CDC trained 25 Peace Corps staff and trainers as master trainers. Peace Corps staff recruited homemakers, teachers, students, NGO workers, youth leaders, and community leaders in all parts of the country to become community educators. Our 25 master trainers conducted 26 workshops for these 995 people.
“We believe that this grassroots approach may be the key to ultimately gaining the cooperation we so desperately need.”
Each training included discussion of common rumors and how to overcome fear and resistance, including role plays using UNICEF picture books. Ebola survivors shared their experiences facing stigmatization. A CDC epidemiologist said, “We were so impressed with the training. Community acceptance and cooperation are so critical to stopping transmission, and we believe that this grassroots approach may be the key to ultimately gaining the cooperation we so desperately need.”
Each community educator developed a personal action plan starting with family members and people they knew and reported that without any resistance they taught 295,612 people about the virus. “They accept us because we are from the community,” said one of our educators. “They don’t trust people coming in a car.” We estimate that this initiative reached 3.2 million people all told, one quarter of Guinea’s population.
Called on to act
The commitment of our trained community educators went beyond simply teaching. In the town of Dubreka, a truck hit and killed two young motorbike taxi drivers and the Red Cross arrived to bury the bodies, a standard practice during the Ebola crisis. When a gathering crowd of young people saw their dead friends being placed in plastic body bags, they threatened to burn down the hospital.
Two of our community educators talked to the angry youths about why all burials needed to be secure. “Let’s protect ourselves, families and others,” they explained. By stepping forward they defused the crisis and escorted the Red Cross to the cemetery to ensure that the bodies were respectfully buried, and that the crowd remained peaceful.
When a local politician told villagers that the virus was only a rumor spread by the ruling party to delay elections, an educator convinced the crowd it was, in fact, a deadly and contagious virus.
Among their many acts of public service in the face of personal risk, our community educators discovered people who were hiding and persuaded them to seek treatment. They discovered others who tested positive, were treated and cured. A young trainer discovered a sick man in a taxi and took him to a health center where a nurse found that the man had died. He was safely removed. Another persuaded a family to test their dead daughter and, when tested positive, she was safely buried and the family agreed to follow up contact for 21 days. When a local politician told villagers that the virus was only a rumor spread by the ruling party to delay elections, an educator convinced the crowd it was, in fact, a deadly and contagious virus. Another educator persuaded a frightened community to let their school re-open and was invited to hold Ebola awareness classes.
Washing bodies, tracing the virus
Those who faced the greatest risk were those who came in close contact with victims: family members, health care workers, and the people who washed the bodies of the dead, a deep cultural tradition in Guinea that proved to be a source of many infections. In collaboration with the Red Cross, our Peace Corps staff conducted 38 trainings for Muslim imams and body washers who trained 2,798 people in local languages. The lead imam in Dubreka told U.S. Ambassador Alex Laskaris that this training was the best he had ever received.
Our Ebola training initiative succeeded for many reasons. We identified respected community members to volunteer as community educators. These community educators gained credibility, earned respect and gained trust as unpaid educators. They asked open-ended questions and did not judge people who were skeptical or who had heard false rumors. They applied participative approaches to learning, used their local languages and adapted messages to the community level. They were trained with role-playing techniques that helped them communicate effectively.
Peace Corps Guinea staff played a major role in other efforts to contain the epidemic. We collaborated with CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) on training 361 contact-tracing team health workers to use the most effective communication skills to negotiate positive citizen cooperation. Our language trainers worked with the U.S. embassy and Carnegie Mellon University to translate key Ebola messages into local languages for mass distribution via cell phone. We assisted the government of Guinea, the Red Cross and WHO to pilot training of a rapid diagnostic test to be administered by Red Cross staff and other health workers.
The Peace Corps Guinea staff and Doug Teschner (standing, far right) celebrated their Ebola Community Education success after 17 months battling the often-fatal 2014 virus. Photo courtesy Douglass Teschner
As we know, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers make a vital difference long after their service as PCVs, and this was never more true than during the Ebola response. CDC sent many people to each of the three countries, including RPCVs who had served in rural villages in Guinea and other francophone African countries. Seven who played a key role supporting our efforts were Molly Gaines-McGollom, Dana Schneider, Angela Thompson-Paul, Ben Dahl, Peter Kilmarx, James Ham, and Hermence Matsotsa. CDC also hired five of our own evacuated Volunteers for their language and cross-cultural skills. Other RPCVs contributed to the Ebola response through their work with the State Department, USAID, and NGOs.
Back in the United States, our evacuated Volunteers fundraised with NPCA and sold T-shirts to support Guinea NGOs. When family packages arrived in Guinea after the evacuation, PCVs we contacted asked that the toiletries, clothes, and food be donated to Ebola survivors.
By the fall of 2015, the epidemic was in retreat. A new vaccine was being used, local cooperation increased, and the number of cases fell dramatically.
By the fall of 2015, the epidemic was in retreat. A new vaccine was being used, local cooperation increased, and the number of cases fell dramatically.
”I'm so proud of our outstanding, amazing, extraordinary staff in Guinea,” Peace Corps Director Hessler-Radelet wrote to our staff. “What heroes you all are! It's such a privilege to call you our own … You are saving many lives and your work could not have a higher calling.” Peace Corps sent a cash award to the whole Guinea staff, and we bought a large quantity of pagna, traditional fabric. Each staff member was given a piece and, as is the tradition in Africa, asked local tailors to make us each a shirt or dress. Then we went out to lunch at a Conakry restaurant in our matching outfits! Mr. Fode Tass Sylla, communication coordinator for the Guinea National Ebola Coordination Committee, came to express his gratitude for the way Peace Corps operated in Guinea.
On December 29, 2015, WHO declared Guinea free of Ebola free (although a few isolated cases later popped up in 2016). On January 5, the first 15 Peace Corps Volunteers returned to Guinea: seven Response Volunteers (five of whom had been evacuated 17 months previously) and eight Volunteers transferred from recently evacuated Mali.
We held an emotional welcome back ceremony with our new ambassador, Dennis Hankins. We had left on the walls the post-it notes written by the PCVs evacuated 17 months earlier. I asked the five returnees to take down their post-it notes and read aloud what they had written. Staff and new PCVs were then asked to pick one that had meaning to them. I chose one — labeled “Home.” I had been in country less than three weeks when the evacuation order came, but Guinea had become my home.
“One day soon Ebola will be a part of Guinea’s history, not its reality. And when that day comes, I hope people will remember the part that the Peace Corps played.”
More than Ebola
The work we did had far more impact than helping to end the epidemic. At one of the community education trainings, a host country national enthusiastically told the group, “This training is about more than Ebola, Peace Corps trains us to improve ourselves.” When a local radio station asked two of our community educators where they had received this great training to fight the Ebola virus, one of them answered, “Peace Corps.” And both of them smiled with pride and joy.
A key to our success during the epidemic was Ousmane Diallo, Peace Corps Guinea’s deputy director of programming and training. He wrote, “One day soon Ebola will be a part of Guinea’s history, not its reality. And when that day comes, I hope people will remember the part that the Peace Corps played: that at a time of so much tragedy and so much need, our Peace Corps staff stayed, and stood true to our partnership with the people of Guinea.”
You can read this story and more than a decade’s worth of WorldView archives in the WorldView app. Sign up and download it here.
Dr. Douglass Teschner served in Morocco 1971–73 and was Peace Corps country director in Burkina Faso, Ukraine, and Guinea. He trains and coaches effective leadership. See www.GrowingLeadershipLLC.com.
Steven Saum posted an articleEquality and justice. Empathy and compassion. see more
Equality and justice. Empathy and compassion.
Teaching health or English, working in youth development or fisheries, nurturing enterprises or advising in agriculture.
Building friendships to help the world understand our complex and troubled nation, bringing understanding of a wider world back home.
Navigating lives as individuals and parents, children and siblings, citizens and friends in a time of need.
Colt Bradley calls North Carolina home now. He took this photo of the primary school in Missamana, Guinea, where he was serving as a Volunteer until he was evacuated in March. As tough as the journey sometimes is, beauty and wonder are part of it, too. So is community.
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Steven Saum posted an articleGlobal evacuation — and friends and communities left behind see more
Photos from Nepal, Timor Lesté, Guinea, and Jamaica
Along with the dozens of stories we’ve shared from Peace Corps Volunteers evacuated from around the world, here are snapshots from more Volunteers. They capture the friendships and communities left behind. And they capture the heartbreak of leaving.
Nepal | Eddie De La Fuente
When Peace Corps announced the global evacuation, we were actually en route to visit our permanent sites a month early. I, and many of the other agriculture volunteers, never made it to our sites given the distance; I had just finished two all-day bus trips and was still another day-and-a-half away when we got the order to get back to Kathmandu ASAP.
We gathered at the Nepal Peace Corps headquarters and effectively had a close of service conference after only two months in the country, and only about four to five days away from being able to swear in as full Volunteers.
The Nepal Peace Corps staff was very compassionate though all of this; our Country Director and her partner even brought their brand new puppy and American candy to help comfort us.
We are, in my opinion, an extraordinarily cohesive and supportive group of people and I believe that these sentiments — as well as our continued, steady communication and mutual support — is truly exemplified in these photos.
Nepal welcomed us so readily and so fully that we were all absolutely heartbroken when we were told we were going home. I even had the good fortune to sit next to a gentleman on the final flight from Qatar to Nepal that served as an language instructor for Peace Corps back in the ‘70s!
This photo of the gentleman greeting was actually from our first night in Nepal. He was far from the only person that was unabashedly eager to meet us and get to know us — and for us to know them.
Nepal farewell: Training to become Volunteers, Rachel Ramsey, left, and Elyse Paré had to evacuate instead.
Timor Lesté | Andre De Mello
Andre De Mello arrived in Timor-Lesté in late 2019 in the country’s tenth group of Peace Corps volunteers. After training, he settled in with a host family and started teaching. But his two-year commitment was not to be. Read more about his story here.
“This picture was taken after Sunday mass in the Grotto located by the church in Railaco. The person to my left, wearing the white-dotted blue shirt, is my host brother Adi Carvalho. The person to my right is the son of the Chefe de Suco (sort of like a community leader).”
Guinea | Colt Bradley
Home: Mooresville, North Carolina
He served as a Volunteer in Kankan, Guinea, where he taught math and chemistry and served as the head of the Peace Corps Guinea Media Team.
Walk on: Colt Bradley heading home during the dry season in Guinea, West Africa.
Transport for Volunteer Colt Bradley and other visitors to the islands from Conakry.
Jamaica | Kate Rapp
Students at Spring Garden Infant and Primary School, where Volunteer Kate Rapp worked with counterpart Lorraine Clarke.