Rotary's Peace Corps connection
Top: President John F. Kennedy, accompanied by wife Jacqueline, addressed New Hampshire Rotarians in 1960. In 1961, the honorary Rotarian signed an executive order launching the Peace Corps. Bottom: John Strain's home in Malawi in 1967.
As an honorary Rotarian, U.S. President John F. Kennedy knew a thing or two about Service Above Self. No wonder the spirit of Rotary’s motto is also embodied by the Peace Corps, which Kennedy established in 1961.
But the Peace Corps and Rotary International are more than that. Together, these organizations advocate service beyond U.S. borders – a common thread that’s prompted many global-minded folks to devote years of their lives to both groups. Shake hands with a former Peace Corps volunteer, and there’s a good chance you’ve just met a Rotarian too.
That’s because the desire to work around the world – and connect with other people – doesn’t abruptly end when Peace Corps volunteers pack their bags and return to the states. For many, Rotary offers an opportunity to continue what they started. For some, that’s happened literally, as they launch service programs to aid the villages where they once volunteered. Here are the stories of four Rotarians who did just that, as their Peace Corps experiences moved them, haunted them, and called them back.
A Honduras hospital finds hope
“The toughest job you’ll ever love.” That message resonated with Kathy Tschiegg in 1979, as she watched a Peace Corps public service announcement. One month later, she arrived in Honduras for an experience the tag line could only hint at.
The Peace Corps placed Tschiegg, then a 23-year-old nurse, at a hospital in the remote village of Santa Rosa de Copán. It wasn’t her first choice. Dogs ran freely through the central courtyard of the open building, which was so cold in October that nurses had trouble locating veins for IVs. In the hallways, the smell of infections lingered.
Toughest job? Yes. As for love – maybe not at first sight. During her initial visit, Tschiegg wrote in her journal: “This is a God-forsaken place.” During the next two years, she became familiar with death. Local crops failed in 1981, leading to rampant malnutrition; in one month alone, she saw 31 children die. After leaving Honduras, “I was angry,” says Tschiegg.
In 1989, she returned to the village, saw conditions were worse, and began to lay the groundwork for a nonprofit that could help. Tschiegg went back to school and earned a business degree while working in the emergency room at an Ohio hospital. By 1993, she had incorporated Central American Medical Outreach (CAMO), which provides medical supplies and training to the hospital in Santa Rosa de Copán. “I started this out of a duffel bag in my living room,” she says. Not bad for an organization that was donating US$2 million in supplies by 1998.
In 1997, she joined the Rotary Club of Orrville, Ohio. During the past decade, Tschiegg has been honored with two Paul Harris Fellow recognitions. She notes that local Rotary clubs have provided donations for CAMO and helped with Rotary Foundation Matching Grants – those funds have helped purchase a surgical eye microscope and rid the hospital’s day care of mold and mildew, for instance. But Rotary’s support isn’t just financial. “I’m in Honduras for six months and [in Ohio] for six months. My life is so fragmented,” she says. “Rotary helps me feel more attached to the community. They care about me, they care about CAMO.” She notes that most of her Honduras friends involved with CAMO are also Rotarians.
Fifteen years ago, the hospital’s equipment amounted to two OR tables, an anesthesia machine, and an X-ray unit. Thanks to Rotary and CAMO, it now has incubators, suction machines, heart monitors, ultrasound machines, and a prosthetics lab, as well as dedicated training from some of the top U.S. medical experts. Tschiegg estimates that the hospital’s ventilators alone save one life every two days. Overall, the services provided affect 93,000 people each year, she says.
“It has shaped my life,” says Tschiegg. “I am totally engrossed in helping this community.”
Malawi, one child at a time
As a boy growing up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, John Strain was enthralled by photos of Africa in his parents’ National Geographic magazines. That interest didn’t wane in college, where he majored in political science with an emphasis in African development. In 1967, his Africa experience finally moved beyond magazines and books when he volunteered in Malawi. “The goal of the Peace Corps is to take what you know and give it, then learn while you’re there – and when you come back, share it,” says Strain. “It just seemed to appeal to me.”
After spending the first night in his house – a 7-foot-by-10-foot structure – he turned on the radio and heard “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys. “Being a surfer rat, I just said, man, am I home.”
Little else in the community resembled his American childhood Strain worked in a child welfare clinic, where families would sometimes walk 10 hours so their children could receive drops of polio vaccine. His village was 40 miles from the nearest paved road.
“I took the view of looking at one child at a time,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t cure world hunger.” But he could combat malnutrition in the community. Strain and fellow volunteers did just that when they found a palatable way to incorporate protein-rich peanut flour into children’s diets.
Residents said that after Strain had been in Malawi 10 months, they heard , through the un-insulated walls of their huts, that he was talking in his sleep – in the local language. His deep immersion in the local community made his departure heart-breaking; the senior wife of the village chief called him mwana wanga (“my child”).
“Malawi and I were made for each other,” says Strain. “The problem is it’s very poor, and now very infected with HIV – there are tons of orphans because the whole middle swath of the country’s adult population has been taken out by AIDS.”
That led to his involvement with the Malawi Children’s Village – involvement that stemmed from his membership in the Rotary Club of Grosse Ile, Mich. More than a decade after leaving Africa, Strain received a call from Bill Schmidt, a Rotarian in Kansas City, Kansas, who had volunteered with Strain in Malawi. Schmidt was on the board of the Malawi Children’s Village, a nonprofit organization that hosts about 2,000 children from 37 -villages surrounding the one Strain lived in, and wanted to know if Strain’s club wanted to contribute funds to upgrade the restroom facilities throughout the village. The Grosse Ile club contributed more than $20,000, and Strain handled the paperwork for Matching Grants.
The Rotary Club of Limbe, Malawi, served as administrators for the project. It’s all part of Rotary’s integral role in Malawi Children’s Village. It was co-founded by a Rotarian, Dr. Kevin Denny, who has received the Peace Corps’ Sargent Shriver Award.
The common bond fostered by meaningful projects has led to lasting relationships, says Strain. “I have lifelong friends from the first day of joining the Peace Corps, and from joining Rotary. Those friendships are very special to me.”
And the bonds that tie him to Malawi? They’re still strong, as evidenced by AFriendofMalawi.com, the Internet site he’s maintained for 10 years. Strain cites a Swahili adage: Once you have drunk the waters of Africa, you will return to drink again. “And it’s true,” he says. “I’ve got to go back and find my well.”
A fishing village in Peru
Fresh out of law school in 1966, Alan Coyne arrived in San Jose, Peru, with high hopes for making positive changes around town. But a local tragedy taught him that good intentions are no match for long-standing traditions.
A fisherman, dragged underwater by a net, was pulled ashore, his lungs filled with water. Residents gathered around him and prayed, but no one performed CPR – they didn’t know how – and the fisherman died. Determined to avert another senseless death, Coyne recruited a local doctor and nurse to provide CPR training. He walked around knocking on doors, inviting all of the village’s 3,000 residents. “Vamos esta,” they said. We’ll be there.
On the day of training, only one adult showed up, and that was Coyne’s best friend. The good news: “Every kid in town was there, from 3 years old to 20 years old,” says Coyne. “It hit me that this is a traditional society where they have lived one way for literally hundreds of years, maybe thousands, and they don’t understand change. … I realized that the only people with open minds that I was going to influence in any way for good were the kids.”
That moment redefined Coyne’s Peace Corps experience. He had kids in his house every day, reading books in Spanish, listening to broadcasts from around the world on his short-wave radio. He bought a Monopoly game in Spanish (“I decided I was going to teach kids how to buy and sell real estate.”) With the older children, he engaged in political discussions.
It’s not that Coyne neglected the adults. He helped the fishermen in San Jose establish a credit union; by the time he left, their cooperative had saved more than $10,000. But the adults didn’t have the same capacity for change, for new ideas and a better future. “I absolutely wanted to return,” says Coyne. “I had a lot of unfinished business.”
The country’s political unrest prevented him from returning until December 2005. In the meantime, Coyne became an active Rotarian after joining the Rotary Club of Hilton Head, S.C., in 1981. He served as club president, and ran the Rotary Youth Exchange program for several years, after his oldest son, Andy, spent time in Madrid as part of the program. “I thought it was so important to bring other people here, or send people to other countries, so the youth can learn to live in other cultures and make friends around the world.”
When Coyne finally visited Peru for two weeks in 2005, he brought Andy. He saw some progress in San Jose – now the town had running water, electricity, paved streets. But it still lacked much needed resources for the local high school.
Coyne wondered how he could help. Then he saw the signs – literally. “As we traveled around Peru, there were Rotary project signs in all kinds of places. That really surprised me.”
He returned to Hilton Head and quickly gained support from the club, which raised more than $8,000 for equipment in the San Jose school. The Rotary Club of Chiclayo Norte, Peru, was able to obtain reasonable prices on books, computers, and more, says Coyne. “In all the years between ’68 and when I went back, I had a sense of guilt,” he says. “I was living a prosperous life here, and I knew these people were not doing well. … I always wanted to do something, and education is a crying need.”
A mini Peace Corps in Jamaica
When Dick Pyle volunteered in Lucea, Jamaica, from 1966 to 1968, his primary Peace Corps responsibility was to establish a school counseling and guidance program. He also helped launch a chamber of commerce, with the support of his neighbor and friend Arthur Wint (the first person in Jamaica to win an Olympic gold medal). Several years later, that group evolved into the Rotary Club of Lucea. It’s just one example of how Pyle’s Peace Corps experience has intertwined with Rotary.
In the late ’70s, Pyle began working at Alma College in Michigan and joined a local Rotary club. “I was very impressed with the people in Rotary,” he says. “They were leaders in the community, and they had a world perspective. I connected with that.”
He wanted his college students to connect with it too – and he did just that, with the help of the Rotary Club of Lucea, Jamaica, and Rotary. “I gave [the students] what I call a mini Peace Corps experience.” Each year, Alma students spent three weeks in Lucea doing service projects. “Every Rotary club, when it starts off, needs a supporting element,” says Pyle. “This was one of those supporting elements to help [the Lucea club, chartered in 1974] get established.”
When Pyle left Michigan in 1983 and began working at The University of Texas at Austin, the Lucea service program followed. Students at that university participated for about eight years. “The students worked as teachers’ aides, and that was important,” he says. “The teachers love having them because there were 80 to 100 students in a single classroom.” The Rotary Club of Northwest Austin helped by providing funds for the program, and some members traveled to Lucea with the students.
When Pyle left the University of Texas in 1990, no one took on the program. But through a chance encounter, it was adopted by Hollins University in Virginia. “My oldest child was starting school there, and I met the assistant dean of students and told her about what I’d been doing in Austin.” The assistant dean embraced the program and started taking students to Jamaica twice a year to participate in service programs overseen by the Lucea Rotary club. This May, the university marked its 20th anniversary for the Lucea student-faculty service program.
Pyle never imagined that his project would have such longevity. “I just enjoyed doing it,” he says. “When you’re young, life is just beginning to unfold, and you meet people who reach out and embrace you. You know how limited their resources are. It touches you to realize that you can help in some small way.” He is currently a special services officer in the Peace Corps and a member of the Rotary Club of Washinton, D.C., USA.