An Update from Acting Director Carol Spahn at the Shriver Leadership Summit see more
An Update from Acting Director Carol Spahn
Carol Spahn served as a Volunteer in Romania 1994–96 as a small business advisor, as country director for Peace Corps Malawi, and as chief of operations in the Africa Region, covering eastern and southern Africa. She has held roles at Women for Women International, Accordia Global Health Foundation, and Small Enterprise Assistance Funds. Here are edited excerpts of her remarks at NPCA’s Sargent Shriver Leadership Summit in March 2021.
IN MY FIVE-YEAR TOUR AS COUNTRY DIRECTOR IN MALAWI, I swore in around 500 Volunteers. During each swearing-in ceremony, I reminded Volunteers that their service was not an adventure but a journey. One of my favorite things to witness was their growth and development — not just language skills or cultural competence, relationships or projects. I’m talking about observable growth in their character, awareness, humility, and global citizenship. They stepped off the plane eager and bright-eyed but walked back with wisdom and respect, and often tears of sadness to leave. The same journey was apparent amongst our host country staff: What started as a job became a passion for community development and intercultural exchange.
Peace Corps and our mission have never been more relevant. But in order to meet this moment, we must adapt.
For 60 years Peace Corps has been on a journey of development and growth, improvement and constant learning — the journey of a million miles, places, and people around the globe. The pace has been steady and the steps deliberate. As I have participated in panels throughout Peace Corps Week, particularly one with all living former directors, I have been struck by how Peace Corps has responded and adapted across the decades: to diseases like smallpox, polio, guinea worm, and HIV; and to historic events like the end of the Cold War. Given what the world has been through the past year, I can say without hesitation that Peace Corps and our mission have never been more relevant. But in order to meet this moment, we must adapt.
A welcome: Acting Director of the Peace Corps Carol Spahn, right, while serving as country director in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Peace Corps
What we see ahead
Our top priority is returning Volunteers to service as soon as conditions allow. Localized situations continue to shift daily, especially with changes related to vaccine accessibility and new variants of the virus. We’re unfortunately not yet able to offer a firm time frame for when Volunteers will return. However, we continue to assess each country’s situation based on robust medical, security, programmatic, administrative, and logistical criteria. We are very aware of evacuated Volunteers’ strong desire to return, along with a large and growing cohort of invitees anxious to begin their journeys.
Every one of our host countries has enthusiastically expressed their interest in our return. We are planning to reopen El Salvador; we have staff in place to launch Peace Corps in Viet Nam. Recruitment teams, now fully virtual, are working tirelessly, and we continue to receive new applications — not at pre-COVID levels, but significant given the pandemic and the pause in our operations. We expect interest to pick up even more once Volunteers start going back.
Returning Volunteers to service in a world where the ground has fundamentally shifted has required that we reimagine and reengineer almost everything we do.
Last week we announced we will require all Volunteers to receive a COVID vaccine before going into service. This decision was made not only to protect the health and safety of Volunteers but also host country staff and communities. Staff at each post will have the opportunity to be vaccinated prior to the return of Volunteers. Many staff have already been vaccinated; one host country government added our staff to their vaccine priority list — a testament to the value of our contribution.
Returning Volunteers to service in a world where the ground has fundamentally shifted has required that we reimagine and reengineer almost everything we do. This includes granular things like safety standards at training locations, to broader fundamentals of how to stay true to our core approach of people-to-people relationship-building when safety measures require social distancing. We have established systems to control for all the things that we can control for — and to be flexible in all the ways we can be flexible. I’ve seen photos of staff members getting their vaccines; these and the COVAX plane landing in Ghana this week have given us hope that we are rounding the corner.
Virtual and Grassroot
I’ve gotten the “So what are you all doing if you don’t have Volunteers in the field?” question a lot. Our Volunteers are our lifeblood. We feel their absence intensely and deeply. And the needs in the countries we serve have not gone away.
We’ve used this time strategically so that we can build back better — in ways big and small, including not-so-glamorous but critical things like cybersecurity and system upgrades. One positive aspect of moving into the Zoom world: We are in phase two of a Virtual Service Pilot program that involves 20 posts and 85 participants. Evacuated returned Volunteers, trainees, and returned Response Volunteers are donating 12 to 15 hours a week in countries they served in, for a period of 12 weeks. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and we believe there is tremendous potential for the future.
As an example of the virtual work being done, I’ll tell you about returning volunteer Samara, who coordinated with a local nonprofit in Costa Rica, whose goal is to create a domestic version of the Peace Corps, appropriately called the Costa Rica Corps. This organization was looking for help establishing their own pool of volunteers and matching them with counterparts. Samara was able to help them virtually to craft a volunteer profile and application brochure which will be used to train and interview interested volunteers.
Teams around the world are also getting creative with training and reporting; more than 600 staff from headquarters and the field have been trained in developing and implementing blended learning strategies. Teams mentored by host country nationals from other countries or HQ staff have developed 150 blended learning training projects. This has tremendous potential to reinvent how we do training — and utilize expertise across borders. Volunteers will be working with updated logical project frameworks and held to new reporting standards. By late this year, they will have a reporting system that will provide a personal dashboard on metrics. Program managers will be able to report consolidated results to host country partners and ministries. This has the power to transform how we relate with communities and Volunteers in the field.
There’s innovative work being done by staff to meet the needs of communities we serve — from contact tracing to virtual workshops to working with farmers. In Ukraine, post staff have repurposed PEPFAR funding to implement a cross-regional program supporting the most vulnerable youth through food vouchers and HIV/AIDS case counseling calls. In Malawi, staff and counterparts have continued in-person HIV prevention work for youth through Grassroot Soccer; they have tested new approaches following COVID protocols; and they continue to support partners through providing personal protective equipment and other resources so counterparts can safely continue work in rural communities.
Inequity and pandemic response
We have asked every post to meet with their ministries of health and partners in country to determine how we can help support their pandemic response. This will differ across countries, depending on needs, but we anticipate every Volunteer will have a role to play. The head of the World Health Organization has said that the world is on the brink of catastrophic moral failure due to unfair vaccine rollouts. And COVID has shown us once again the vast inequities in global health. To the extent that Peace Corps can play a role at the invitation of the countries we serve, we will be there.
COVID has shown us once again the vast inequities in global health. To the extent that Peace Corps can play a role at the invitation of the countries we serve, we will be there.
In addition to a dramatic reckoning around health inequity, we have a moment of reckoning on racial justice. The Peace Corps at its core is about honoring diversity around the world. It’s about building relationships and opportunity, and fostering equity and inclusion. It is important to all of us — staff, Volunteers, host communities — that our workplace, our volunteer system, and our culture reflect these values. We will be looking for Peace Corps to be a leader in addressing systemic racism.
At various points throughout our history, we have been called to do more, and we have stepped up, but we know that we have room to grow. In 2010 then-director Aaron Williams called on Peace Corps to diversify recruiting across race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and religion. At the time, 19 percent of Volunteers identified as a minority. In the last decade that has grown to 34 percent. Five years ago, we started doing intensive intercultural competence, diversity, equity, and inclusion training for entire post teams. This was a one-week foundations course. Last year we rolled out a pocket model that includes a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens as Volunteers undertake participatory community assessments. And we tripled the medical reimbursement for applicants to ensure that this was not a barrier to service.
I share this with you to honor the work that has been done up to this point. That said, we have heard recommendations brought forth by NPCA and through letters written by passionate and interested stakeholders across the Peace Corps community. We are listening. And we acknowledge the need to continue to address inequities, to reach out to underserved communities, to address gaps in training, to examine support structures during service. Our task force is busy developing recommendations on staffing, and pre-service and in-service support. We have barrier analysis underway looking at hiring, promotion, retention, and other staffing practices. A mandatory training course on unconscious bias will be launched on April 1 for all staff. This is just the beginning.
As we carry out this work, we are cognizant of the need to balance a collective sense of urgency with a need to be intentional, so that the changes we implement will be both effective and sustainable. Systemic change requires deliberate steps and endurance.
The “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” report was an enormous undertaking, and I want to commend everyone who was involved. We have read it, and I have shared it with agency leadership. It is striking how much overlap there is among the actions or initiatives already enacted or underway at Peace Corps; the input we received from the field and our community through our task force for diversity, equity, and inclusion; and the content of this report. We need to meet this historic moment on so many levels. We will be kicking off our strategic planning process shortly with new agency leadership, and this report will help to inform those deliberations as we chart the path for the future.
Ahead on this journey
We also recognize the critical importance of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community and celebrating the domestic dividend — the role that those Volunteers play more broadly in society, and specifically in international development. Perhaps even more important, these RPCVs bring perspective, problem-solving skills, and deep respect to their roles as parents, neighbors, and global citizens. How important those qualities are during this time of tremendous divisiveness — and when we have been incredibly isolated, as individuals and as communities. Our Office of the Third Goal is working closely with NPCA to help tell the story more broadly of the contributions of Volunteers as they return to the U.S. following service.
This will be an agency that promotes world peace and friendship at a time when the world so badly craves mutual respect, solidarity, and community.
We are preparing for a future that demonstrates how the agency, during a time of uncertainty, builds back better, and is more relevant than ever. This will be an agency that safely returns, just as it safely evacuated. An agency that is truly representative of the United States and all its people. An agency that builds on its strong history and foundation of embracing difference. An agency that is part of the global solution to the COVID pandemic. And an agency that promotes world peace and friendship at a time when the world so badly craves mutual respect, solidarity, and community.
Peace Corps service may look different in the future — from how Volunteers serve to how they are trained. But we will be there in a spirit of partnership and with humility.
Orrin Luc posted an articleHere Are Three Outstanding Leaders in the Peace Corps Community Honored with 2021 Awards by the Women of Peace Corps LegacyNancy Kelly, Amy Maglio, and Estee Katcoff honored for global service and leadership see more
Nancy Kelly of Health Volunteers Overseas and Amy Maglio of the Women’s Global Education Project are recognized with the Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. Estee Katcoff, founder of the Superkids Foundation, is recognized with the Kate Raftery Emerging Leaders Award.
By NPCA Staff
As part of the global virtual conference Peace Corps Connect 2021, Women of Peace Corps Legacy presented awards to three outstanding leaders in the Peace Corps community. Nancy Kelly and Amy Maglio were each honored with the Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. And Estee Katcoff was presented with the Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award.
The awards were presented by Kathleen Corey, president of Women of Peace Corps Legacy, on September 23 at the Peace Corps Connect conference. WPCL is an affiliate group of National Peace Corps Association and is part of a vibrant community that includes more than 180 affiliate groups focused on regions in the U.S., on countries where Volunteers have served, and around causes that matter to the Peace Corps community.
Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award
The Deborah Harding Award honors Peace Corps women whose contributions have made a significant difference in the lives of women and girls in the world.
Nancy Kelly has worked tirelessly for over four decades to help women and girls all over the world. She began her journey in 1979 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea, working in maternal and child health, and went on to develop a career in global health. As the executive director of Health Volunteers Overseas since its creation in 1986, she has been the driver behind a program which has enabled thousands of women, children and humans to receive improved, dignified, and compassionate health care — and has allowed thousands of health professionals to receive training and mentorship which otherwise would have been near impossible.
Under her leadership, Health Volunteers Overseas has facilitated over 11,900 volunteer assignments globally. The last five have resulted in, on average, 3,200 health professionals receiving training and mentorship each year — benefiting innumerate women and children both directly and indirectly. In so doing, she is helping to build a global cadre of talented, confident, and inspired women who are committed to advancing global health.
Amy Maglio is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP) which works with grassroots community partners to educate, empower, and promote equality for women and girls in rural Senegal and Kenya. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Amy saw firsthand the multiplier effect of girls' education in rural Senegal and how access to education — which was extremely limited for girls, not only increased their own opportunities — but also enabled them to provide for their families and catalyzed wider community change.
Inspired by Khady, her host sister who she assisted in getting an education as well as other girls in her village, Amy started WGEP in 2004, at her dining room table, determined to help girls and women succeed in school and reach their full potential. As director of this Chicago-area NGO, she helped ensure the increase of education opportunities for marginalized girls in rural Kenya and Senegal through innovative programs with grassroots community partners.
This NGO has proved to be tremendously successful and has held a 99% retention rate, reaching over 20,000 girls and young women to date. In 2010, she was invited to present WGEP’s model as a best practice approach to girls’ education at the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative Conference in Dakar, Senegal, and was a drafter of the UN Declaration on Gender Equality.
Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award
The Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award is presented annually to a woman with an affiliation to Peace Corps under the age of 35 who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and ongoing commitment to serve women and girls.
Estee Katcoff became aware of gender-based violence as a Peace Corps Volunteer and used this knowledge to lead initiatives preventing it in Paraguay during and after her service. She founded a girls' empowerment club and extended for a third year to continue her work, which included working with the Children's Rights Council of Gender-Based Violence Prevention.
Since then, Estee has piloted a successful youth program, originally called Zero Violencia, which continues now as the Superkids Foundation, working in Paraguay to mobilize children as agents of change in their communities. Seventy percent of the Kid Teachers who have risen to action through Superkids identify as girls and learn the knowledge and skills needed to not only end GBV but work towards equity in their communities, particularly in education.
Estee’s focus has always been on building the capacity of her Peace Corps community to use best practices to effect change, while championing women and girls and always including men and boys in the effort.
Story updated December 28, 2021 to correct spelling
Orrin Luc posted an articleIn 2019, Peace Corps Response launched Advancing Health Professionals. Then the pandemic hit. see more
In 2019, Peace Corps Response launched the Advancing Health Professionals program. Then the pandemic hit.
By Sarah Steindl
Advancing Health Professionals (AHP) is designed to strengthen health systems in five countries. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
Bolstering public health in communities where Volunteers serve has been part of Peace Corps since the beginning. In 2019, under the aegis of Peace Corps Response, the agency launched Advancing Health Professionals (AHP), a refocused effort to train healthcare professionals and improve healthcare systems in the African nations of Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Liberia, and Eswatini. The program came online just months before COVID-19 swept the globe. Healthcare disparities were exacerbated, scarce resources further stretched.
The value of AHP — to improve healthcare education and strengthen health systems at a societal level — became even more pronounced, notes program manager Dawn Childs. “The pandemic highlighted the need to help the countries grow their programs,” she says, “so that they can educate more nurses, pharmacists, and more physicians.” Yet the pandemic also interrupted the AHP Volunteers’ in-person work, as they had to be evacuated from their sites around the globe.
A training session with Advancing Health Professionals, Malawi — a program Towela Nyika has managed since 2018. Courtesy Peace Corps Malawi
For Volunteers with AHP, there is no age limit, nor is prior Peace Corps experience required. AHP staffs non-clinical assignments with individuals who have backgrounds in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, mental health, pre-clinical education, healthcare administration, healthcare services delivery, and midwifery.
“There’s going to be another pandemic in our lifetime. We’re one connected world. So we’re going to have to be a global program, strengthening health systems.”
— Anna Vecchi
Childs has worked with the Peace Corps agency for a short time, but she brings extensive experience in Africa with the CDC and the U.S. military. One member of the AHP team who brings experience as a Volunteer is Anna Vecchi, an outreach specialist who served in Malawi 2015–17. After that, she served as national malaria coordinator for Peace Corps Response in Malawi 2017–18.
“It’s the transfer of knowledge that the AHP program highlights,” Vecchi says. Along with bringing technical skills, Volunteers lean hard on their abilities as communicators, teachers, and students — learning about communities where they’re serving and how local healthcare systems work.
More broadly, Vecchi says, “It’s not enough to think in terms of public health. From now on we need to think in terms of global health. There’s going to be another pandemic in our lifetime. We’re one connected world. So we’re going to have to be a global program, strengthening health systems.”
This is part of a series of stories on and by Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future see more
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future
By Glenn Blumhorst
Illustration by Richard Borge
HERE’S A FAMILIAR CELEBRATORY REFRAIN: On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps with the mission of building world peace and friendship. In honor of that beginning, every spring is a time for us to recognize the ways that the Peace Corps has made an impact — in individual lives and in communities around the globe.
But this year is different. And an unprecedented time in so many ways.
One year ago, March brought the global evacuation of Volunteers from communities where they were serving. Communities were bereft, Volunteers heartbroken. Thousands in the Peace Corps community came together in an unparalleled response, assisting evacuated Volunteers in ways big and small. Some of those evacuees were able to help communities across the United States reeling from the pandemic; they began serving as contact tracers, working with food banks, making masks, or later deploying as part of NPCA’s Emergency Response Network in Washington State — and so much more. This May, many begin serving domestically as Peace Corps Response Volunteers, assisting at FEMA community vaccination centers.
Here at National Peace Corps Association, we rapidly launched the Global Reentry Program one year ago — at the outset to focus on the immediate needs of evacuated Volunteers. The program has expanded to provide broader, more robust support for returned Volunteers — such as counseling, mentorship, career advice, and more.
Last summer we convened a series of town halls and a Global Ideas Summit to ask deep and searching questions about the relevance of Peace Corps in a world profoundly altered by COVID-19—and the systemic inequities the pandemic underscored. Drawing on decades of experience and commitment, members of the community offered concrete ways we might reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
The report distilled from those conversations, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” has provided a road map. Recently it helped shape the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in decades: the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. John Garamendi to the House of Representatives on March 1. Garamendi served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia. This legislation calls for important reforms, including addressing better healthcare and providing protection for whistleblowers in the Peace Corps. And it calls for the increase in funding that will be necessary for the Peace Corps to help lead the way in reengaging with a world profoundly changed by COVID-19.
This legislation is one of the concrete ways that the report is yielding results. Several working groups focused on implementing the report—through Congress, the Peace Corps community, affiliate groups, and more — continue their efforts. And in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine, Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn speaks of how the report is already informing work at the agency.
A time of reckoning
In more ways than one, last year also began a time of reckoning for our nation. And it’s far from over. COVID-19 continues to exact a terrible price, even as vaccines are deployed in the United States. Globally, more than 3 million have died. We continue to witness the crushing toll of systemic racism: in terms of healthcare and economic opportunity, and with people of color being victims of hate crimes, as well as far too often violence at the hands of police. The murder of George Floyd last May was a catalyst for protests across the country and the world. Let us hope that the conviction of his murderer is a step forward on the journey toward justice.
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
Here at home, as part of our commitment to service, we have asked members of the Peace Corps community to take a stand to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We renew those calls for reform.
We know that equity and justice are works in progress. That intentionality matters. That service continues in the communities we call home. And as we look toward the future, we know that it is a sense of solidarity, not charity, that must be the compass by which we steer the Peace Corps.
In this anniversary year, thank you to all who have served. Thank you to the people and communities around the world who have undertaken this work together. And thank you for being willing to show the commitment that we all must in the ongoing work of building peace and friendship. It’s work that’s far from finished.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appears in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org
From Peace Corps to the house, senate, and more — at the state level see more
From Peace Corps to the house, senate, and more — at the state level
By Jake Arce and Jordana Comiter
New to the New York State Senate: Samra Brouk, who served as a Volunteer in Guatemala. Photo courtesy Samra Brouk.
John Garamendi (D-CA) is currently the sole Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in the U.S. Congress. What about at the state level? After recent elections, here’s where you’ll find a few in state houses, senates, and assemblies — as well as a secretary of state and governor.
Arthur Orr (Nepal 1989–91) was reelected to the State Senate in 2018. He has served since 2006 and chairs the $17 billion Senate Budget Committee for Education. With Peace Corps he served in a Himalayan village and established a college scholarship program for girls.
Jeni Arndt (Morocco 1990–92) was in her third term in the state’s House of Representatives but departs this spring; in April she was elected mayor of Fort Collins with 63 percent of the vote.
Gene Ward (Malaysia 1965–67; Country Director, East Timor 2005–06) was reelected in November to represent the 17th district in the state’s House of Representatives. Altogether he has served East Honolulu in the House more than 20 years.
Shenna Bellows (Panama 2000–02) was elected by the Legislature to be Maine’s secretary of state—the first woman elected to serve in the role. Served 2016–20 in the State Senate. At her swearing-in in January, she noted that her grandmother, who celebrated her 101st birthday days prior, was born in the year that saw final ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
Robbyn Lewis (Niger 1990–91) serves in the Maryland House of Delegates, representing District 46 in Baltimore. A public health professional who has worked with the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, she sponsored House Bill 28 to help address health concerns in communities of color.
Jon Santiago (Dominican Republic 2006–08) was reelected to the state’s House of Representatives in November. With Peace Corps he was a community health specialist. Now he is an ER physician at Boston Medical Center, the city’s safety net hospital; and a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve who has deployed overseas. In February he declared his candidacy for mayor of Boston.
Rebecca Perkins Kwoka (Senegal 2004–06) was elected in November to the State Senate. Former council member for the city of Portsmouth, she is the first openly gay woman in the New Hampshire Senate, and is also a wife and mother.
Richard Ames (The Philippines 1968–70) was reelected to the state’s House of Representatives. He is vice chair of the Jaffrey Energy Committee and has served in the House since 2012.
Samra Brouk (Guatemala 2009–11) was elected to the State Senate to represent the 55th District in Rochester. The daughter of immigrants, her father fled Ethiopia during its civil war. As a college student, she volunteered with cleanup efforts after Hurricane Katrina; as a Peace Corps Volunteer she worked in health education.
Tom Wolf (India 1968–70) has served as governor since 2015; he was reelected in 2018. To recover from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, in February Wolf announced a $3 billion “Back to Work PA” plan.
Mary Dye (Thailand 1984–86) won reelection in November to the House of Representatives for the 9th legislative district in southeastern Washington. She was first appointed to the House in 2015.
Sara Rodriguez (Samoa 1997–99) was elected in November as Wisconsin State Representative for Assembly District 13, which includes Brookfield, Elm Grove, Wauwatosa, West Allis, and Milwaukee. She is a registered nurse and healthcare executive, and she has had various leadership positions with public health departments at the local, state and federal level, serving as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with the CDC.
COVID-19 and how the Lord Baltimore Hotel served as a place of help in a time of need see more
COVID-19 and the Lord Baltimore Hotel
By Marik Moen
IN SPRING 2020, the State of Maryland, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, transformed the Baltimore Convention Center into to the 250-bed University of Maryland Medical System Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital. I was living in Fairfax, Virginia, at the time but was looking for an opportunity to serve in the COVID response — an infectious disease disproportionately affecting populations who have experienced historic discrimination. You could say it was my gig.
I went to get oriented and do a few shifts. I heard some pejorative language being used to refer to people of Baltimore and knew just who could address this concern: Chuck Callahan, vice president for population health with the University of Maryland, who served in incident command leadership for the Convention Center Field Hospital. I reached out to him to share my concerns and see how I could further help the response. Within days the approach to orientation was amended. Also within days, Dr. Callahan called to ask if I would serve as director of nursing at the Lord Baltimore Hotel.
These were people who couldn’t safely isolate at home and who weren’t so sick they needed to be in the hospital.
Amid the pandemic, the newly-badged Lord Baltimore Triage, Respite and Isolation Center (LBTC) was being set up to serve as a temporary residence for people diagnosed with COVID or suspected of having it. These were people who couldn’t safely isolate at home and who weren’t so sick they needed to be in the hospital.
It was a big decision. Normally I teach and do research or help to manage nurse-community health worker programs for people living with HIV. I’m an assistant professor of family community health at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, School of Nursing. COVID was hitting the communities that I was most familiar with — but I wasn’t connected to those communities in Fairfax, where we had moved two years before. I was connected to those communities in Baltimore. Taking this on meant waylaying research and, for me initially, moving to Baltimore. My husband, Gregg Wilhelm, was within walking distance of work at George Mason University, and our daughters were in second and fourth grade. I would be putting us at risk and adding more turmoil to an already pandemic-changed life. I was worried.
We needed everybody: Marik Moen, third from left, served as director of nursing at the hotel transformed into the Lord Baltimore Triage, Respite and Isolation Center. Photo by Matthew P. D’Agostino / University of Maryland, Baltimore
LAST MAY, when I came to the Lord Baltimore, it was maybe five days before we transferred people in — more than 50 residents from homeless shelters or congregate settings that had COVID outbreaks. Notably, the Lord Baltimore was the only hotel in the city that would accept any residents with COVID at the time. We had to figure out a plan: field a team of nurses, set up protocols. We had to answer questions like: What is the clinical aspect of it? How do you do health checks? What do public health and clinical guidelines say? How do we keep people safe? What is the security aspect? It meant working in multidisciplinary teams: the health department, the hotel, the University of Maryland Medical System. Not exactly streamlined — but we needed everybody.
It meant working in multidisciplinary teams: the health department, the hotel, the University of Maryland Medical System. Not exactly streamlined — but we needed everybody.
Then we launched. Overall, things went smoother than anticipated in chaotic times. Our Baltimore City Health Department colleagues had amazing experience doing this work on their own and led the way. Yet we’d quickly learn, Oh, wait, that doesn’t work, so we would work late into the night to revise the process — really building the ship as it was sailing for that first month — and even now, there’s constant quality improvement. Thankfully, we developed a strong core of personnel who are still with us today and carrying it through. (Oh, and by May 2020, I had uprooted my family, first to live at the Lord Baltimore Hotel with me, and then to resettle in Baltimore permanently. My husband eloquently describes our journey in the essay “Checking Out of Hotel COVID,” in Baltimore magazine.)
At the Lord Baltimore Triage Center, as with the epidemic, there’s disproportionate representation of the African American community, the Latinx community, and people with low incomes, mental health or substance use disorders. Those are identities and conditions. Yet the reasons for this impact are social determinants: multi-generational households or substandard housing, or people serving as essential workers who are not protected and can’t safely isolate. People in congregate living can’t distance. And people in substance use treatment often don’t have a stable home to go to after they leave recovery programs. Some are survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking. Some are students or parents who don’t have an extra room to shelter in, away from other family members.
With our health department colleagues, we were very intentional about setting up the Lord Baltimore to accommodate persons with these lived experiences on the outside so that they would feel welcome, safe, and comfortable. We established harm reduction and safety protocols and trainings and worked with many partners and institutions to assure these were implemented. The LBTC team includes nurses, clinical support technicians, nurse practitioners and doctors, social workers/case managers, logistics, security, cleaning/environmental services, kitchen/nutrition, and of course, the front desk and other hotel staff who make sure the facility is running and guests’ needs are attended to. I believe it is a testament to this approach that we have been able to serve over 2,000 residents since May 2020.
In addition, with the vaccine, LBTC leadership insisted that not just the healthcare staff but all frontline workers — security, cleaning crew, everybody — would get access at the same time. I’m proud to say that University of Maryland Medical System is following through on that.
How many lives saved
Every person who was in leadership position at the Lord Baltimore Triage, Respite and Isolation Center had international experience — a service project or even study abroad — that they referenced as we were building this thing. That says something.
Outside the United States, I’ve worked in Rwanda and Haiti primarily, and briefly in other countries throughout Africa and the Caribbean — but my work in public health began with the Peace Corps in Gabon 1998–2001. That work was focused on community public health initiatives: increasing vaccination — which is eminently relevant — as well as educating people about diarrheal, respiratory, and sexually transmitted infections; HIV prevention; and reproductive health. With Peace Corps, you get out to your site, try to apply what you’ve learned, and you realize some of it just doesn’t fly; you have to adapt. So a little bit of the audacity of being willing to take this on — certainly I got that from the Peace Corps.
The value of these respite and isolation hotels should be recognized and remunerated. The reasons that they need to exist in the first place should be admitted and addressed; the lack of adequate housing and income security is literally deadly for some people, especially under COVID-19.
The City Health Department and the University of Maryland Medical System jumped in to meet the need of Baltimoreans and Marylanders because it was the right thing to do. While altruism is laudable, the value of these respite and isolation should be recognized and remunerated. With colleagues, I plan to describe the benefits of LBTC's interventions, including modeling the numbers of infections and hospitalizations and deaths potentially prevented by safely isolating 2,000 people, as well as estimating savings in medical costs. That said, the reasons that isolation hotels need to exist in the first place should be admitted and addressed; the lack of adequate housing and income security is literally deadly for some people, especially under COVID-19.
More important than healthcare
In September I handed off the director role to Vanessa Augustin, a new grad of the University of Maryland School of Nursing’s healthcare leadership and management master’s program — and a nurse of Haitian descent. Vanessa was present from day one at Lord Baltimore, demonstrating leadership in action. I felt a special connection with her, given my work in Haiti, and was happy to facilitate a local but global transition.
I came back to teaching and research, transitioning from a focus on HIV to how we address the social determinants of health that underlie HIV and other conditions, especially within the healthcare setting. Healthcare has finally come to realize that how people live really influences their health: income, employment, whether they have food and shelter. The evidence is established that those things have more of an impact on health than healthcare. But in terms of healthcare’s response, we are kind of throwing stuff at the wall, hoping it will stick. The way we ask questions and the interventions we take are not really evidence-based or informed from a patient perspective. I’m trying to develop the evidence around how we assess the needs and address them, with the patient perspective at the heart. My experience at LBTC influenced my commitment to this work, and the Peace Corps provided the spark that allowed me to believe I was even a little bit capable of taking it all on.
Marik Moen is an assistant professor of family and community health at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. Read more: bit.ly/triage-respite
National Peace Corps Association Operations posted an articleBringing the Private Sector and the Peace Corps Community Together see more
NPCA, in partnership with Northeastern University's Cultural Agility Leadership Lab (CALL), has created new opportunities for returned Peace Corps volunteers, while bringing private sector expertise to strengthen the capacity of local humanitarian development organizations in Thailand and other countries. The partnership matches RPCVs with skills-based corporate volunteers from Cigna, a global health service company, to deliver technical assistance to local NGOs, while also enhancing the cultural agility of the corporate volunteers.
For the past three years, Cigna has sent its rising leaders to Indonesia and Thailand through CALL to learn from and understand more on the health care needs of the Indonesian and Thai people. Cigna and CALL interact with health care at many levels including the villages, government, and private hospitals, as well as healthcare NGOs throughout the country. This year, the ITLP program worked in Chiang Mai with various NGOs under the umbrella of the Raks Thai Foundation, focusing on health populations including HIV/AIDS, drug-user groups, refugee and migratory groups, and youth development groups.
Joel Saldana (RPCV Thailand 2012-2014), a second year RPCV participant in the program, shared his thoughts. "It's been a great opportunity to work with Americans from the corporate world who are trying to learn about Thai people. It's most fulfilling to have the 'aha' moments when you have that meaningful exchange through food, smiles, or a simple greeting," Joel is one of three RPCVs who accompanied nine Cigna skills-based volunteers on their short-term assignments in Thailand. RPCVs serve as cultural coaches and also provide technical guidance and support to the work undertaken.
Joel observed that "Cigna is putting their money where their commitments are—in developing a workforce that is ready to take on global challenges, is culturally agile, and is attempting to understand a little part of the world." Cigna participants work with their assigned NGOs to help scale their success in program management, operations, or project solutions. In a very short time frame, they learn how to work with Thai people, understand the organizations needs, and assist with their challenges.
NPCA envisions expanding the program to eventually field over 100 corporate volunteers in multiple countries, particularly linking them to NGOs where PCVs or RPCVs are involved. Forthcoming projects will field RPCVs and corporate volunteers from Johnson & Johnson on short-term assignments in Peru, Mexico and Guatemala.
For more information, please contact our International Programs division: CALLCoordinator@PeaceCorpsConnect.org.
Jonathan Pearson posted an articleStrengthening NPCA support networks will be on the agenda at Peace Corps Connect. see more
We’re used to reading or watching news stories about members of the Peace Corps community. But the article that appeared in March, 2015 in the Boston Globe was not one of continued service, going back to one’s Peace Corps country. The feature story – Boston’s Homeless Rely on Each Other to Survive Record Winter – included an interview with Shawn Grady, a Mali Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who had fallen on hard times and found himself living in community shelters during one of the region’s severest winters on record.
The story was noticed by members of the Boston Area RPCVs (BARPCV), whose leadership reached out to connect with Shawn. Group leaders who met initially with Shawn described him as a kind, positive individual, who had struggled with readjusting back home. Part of that was due to a serious head injury he sustained during a motorcycle accident during Peace Corps service, which contributed to his present-day challenges.
The story was also picked up by the group Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers, which along with the Boston group reached out to provide support and guidance to Shawn in his efforts to apply for assistance at both the national and state level.
And, it attracted the attention of the NPCA, whose President, Glenn Blumhorst, met with Shawn this past April during a visit with members of the Boston Peace Corps community.
"It was a real pleasure to spend an afternoon meeting Shawn, learning about his Peace Corps experience and gaining more perspective into how the Peace Corps community might be able to provide assistance to him and others in similar predicaments."
There have been some steps forward for Shawn. A caseworker from the homeless shelter who was working with Shawn helped him secure disability funding through the state of Massachusetts and also helped him find an apartment. BARPCV provided Shawn with a grant to cover the security deposit. Along with the grant, “BARPCV lent him our support in the form of friendship and encouragement,” said Christina Donnelly, who is among those members of the group who get together with Shawn from time to time. “With our assistance, Shawn was able to make a smooth transition from shelter back to living in his own place.”
NPCA has invited Shawn to be with us at Peace Corps Connect, and participate in a Friday afternoon session devoted to building a stronger support network for members of our community facing difficult times, from homelessness, to health care and beyond.
“RPCVs in need can be found across the country,” said Blumhorst. “While there are already some great individual examples of RPCVs reaching out to assist a fellow alumni in need, we want to strengthen and expand this network so we can be more pro-active in our community response. We look forward to our Peace Corps Connect session serving as the next step in that development.”