Where are they now?
A mission to help the world go green
Kristin Wegner Guilfoyle
- Peace Corps, Dominican Republic, 2004-07
- Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, 2010-11
- PhD in public affairs, University of Colorado Denver, 2022
In 2005, midway through a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps, Kristin Wegner Guilfoyle returned home to Illinois to attend a friend's wedding. That's when fate came striding down the aisle.
At the reception, Wegner Guilfoyle was seated at a table with a judge who was a member of the Rotary Club of Joliet. Wegner Guilfoyle told the judge about her work with biosand water filters in the Dominican Republic. The next week, at the judge's invitation, she spoke to the Joliet club — and, after she returned to her Peace Corps posting, club members provided her with financial and practical support, as well as some invaluable guidance about the direction of her life.
"It was completely serendipitous," says Wegner Guilfoyle, looking back at the chance seating arrangements at the wedding. "To be honest, I didn't know where I fit in when I started with the Peace Corps. Rotary helped me see how to use some of my different skills in applicable ways to make a difference."
Eighteen years after that fortunate encounter at her friend's wedding, and with the knowledge gained from her Peace Corps experience, a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship, and her own Rotary service, Wegner Guilfoyle has a clearly defined mission: to help the world go green. That impulse was there from the beginning.
"Part of my childhood was learning about the environment," she says. "We always did stuff outdoors, and I would go to environmental education camp. And I remember writing a letter to the local newspaper about pollution." At Purdue University, she began pursuing a degree in civil engineering, but the classes she took, and the emotional impact of the 9/11 attacks, changed her course. "The more I studied and learned," she says, "the more I wanted to work on peace and sustainability and create a positive change in the world."
After graduation, Wegner Guilfoyle joined the Peace Corps for the two-year assignment in the Dominican Republic. She extended her stay for a third year after the Joliet club arranged for more than $11,000 in funding for the biosand filters project. What's more, two members who were civil engineers — Harold Hamilton and Dan Malinowski, still members all these years later — visited Wegner Guilfoyle in the Dominican Republic, providing technical expertise about water filtration and sustainability.
As she worked alongside her mentors, Wegner Guilfoyle guided members of a youth group called Brigada Verde: the green brigade. She taught several high school students how to use the water filters, and they deployed across the country to train other students and adults. In addition to collaborating with rural and urban communities on water, sanitation, and education projects, that opportunity to offer lessons in "leadership development" remains one of her proudest Peace Corps achievements.
Having a better sense of her career path, Wegner Guilfoyle made her next stop Boulder, Colorado, where she earned a master's degree in environmental leadership at Naropa University. While interviewing Peace Corps volunteers for her thesis on the impact of storytelling, she connected with Steve Werner, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a member of the Rotary Club of Denver Southeast. She began speaking at Rotary clubs, which led to the Rotary Club of Boulder Flatirons sponsoring her for an Ambassadorial Scholarship.
In the Peace Corps, Wegner Guilfoyle had read Gaviotas, Alan Weisman's account of a village in a desolate region of Colombia that used modern technologies to establish itself as a thriving and sustainable community. Inspired by the book, Wegner Guilfoyle chose to continue her environmental studies in Colombia at Universidad de los Andes and the Sasana institute.
Through a student at Sasana, Wegner Guilfoyle made another opportune acquaintance, a Microsoft employee who was leading a technology project with an Indigenous group in Colombia. From that connection grew an endeavor that would engage her for nearly a decade. Backed by funds from multiple Rotary clubs, District 5450 (northern Colorado), and The Rotary Foundation, Wegner Guilfoyle managed a project that provided solar panels and vaccines, rebuilt a school, and launched an organic coffee cooperative, Amas la Sierra, in Sogrome, a remote village in the Santa Marta Mountains of northern Colombia.
Wegner Guilfoyle accomplished all this while she held a full-time job with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, participated in community projects with the Boulder Flatirons club (which she joined in 2013), and began her pursuit of a PhD at the University of Colorado Denver. Her dissertation focused on efforts by four U.S. cities to mitigate climate change, a topic inspired by her work among the Arhuaco people in Sogrome, where men wear white hats to symbolize their reverence for the ice-capped mountains that surround them.
"Seeing the impacts of climate change on [the Arhuaco] — they're losing access to the water reserves in the ice — and knowing that I live in a country that's contributing to that, I focused my dissertation on the U.S., because we've got a lot of work to do," says Wegner Guilfoyle. "I wanted to look at what I can do in the place that I live."
Having joined the quest for clean energy at her new job — at the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, which is based at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory — and with two young children, Wegner Guilfoyle has, for the time being, stepped away from the Boulder Flatirons club. But seemingly the impulse to mentor can be one of the traits of a good mother.
"Having kids reinforced my commitment to working in sustainability," she says. "I want to continue to model environmental leadership for them and show them ways to collaborate and innovate. People say, 'Kids are the future and they have to figure it out.' But I think we have to demonstrate leadership to them by finding ways to solve things so their future challenges aren't as overwhelming."
This story originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.