Peace Corps Week a time of reflection

Sally Foster, kneeling, works as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s in one of the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Foster was a health and community development worker. (Submitted photo / February 19, 2013)

Sally Foster worked in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a health educator in the early 1960s.

Mike McQuestion was stationed in the Philippines in the mid-1970s, trying to teach basic preventive medicine to mountain villagers.

Chris Carneal was a school health volunteer in the HIV and AIDS-prone Central African Republic in the early 1990s.

The three Roland Park residents and former Peace Corps volunteers are looking back with a sense of accomplishment on the eve of Peace Corps Week, Feb. 24-March 2, which marks the 52nd year of an agency that has shaped the lives of an estimated 250,000 volunteers.

"Like" explorebaltimorecounty's Facebook page

Foster, 75, worked in health education and community development in the favelas, or slums, of Rio from 1963 to 1965. The Peace Corps didn't exist yet when the drama major graduated from Bennington College in Vermont in 1959.

Foster worked for the old Baltimore News-American newspaper for about two years, and when President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, she signed up. She was one of about five volunteers assigned to be a liaison between a local health post and residents, making sure they took their prescribed medications for tuberculosis and other illnesses. She had to look up many hillside residents not by their similar addresses or names, but by their nicknames. She also wangled a projector and free films and showed them on Saturday nights on a screen made of bed sheets.

The volunteers also gave vaccinations against typhoid and other diseases, practicing on themselves first.

She and another volunteer shared a house that someone built for them on a rock in the middle of a hillside. At night, "You could look down on the lights of the city. It was just magical and special."

She is especially proud that she helped residents to form their own community association.

"We even had an election," she said. "Do you know, I think that thing still exists."

After her Peace Corps volunteer service, Foster worked at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington and wrote freelance stories about the agency. She later served as an information specialist for a federal "War on Rats" program. Since then, she has been mostly a freelance writer and photographer and has written four children's books published by Penguin Books. She has also given slide show presentations about Brazil at area schools.

Foster said she has been back to Rio de Janeiro eight times and has stayed in constant contact with many of her friends and fellow volunteers. She is going to the Midwest next month for a reunion.

"I have friends, but not so many as I have in the Peace Corps," she said.

McQuestion, 61, is a demographer and director of Sustainable Immunization Financing for the George Washington University-affiliated Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. The program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, helps Asian and African countries pay for child immunizations.

"The job I have now all started in the Peace Corps," he said.

In 1974, McQuestion, a biology major at the University of Notre Dame, signed up for the Peace Corps

His commitment was for two years, but he stayed for three, most of it in the town of Jamindan in Capiz Province. He was assigned to a rural health unit with a nurse, a midwife and a food sanitarian. A doctor came twice a week. The roads were unpaved.

Visiting the town's 28 outlying villages, he started a program to teach villagers basic ways to prevent catching various illnesses, such as filtering drinking water. He also immunized children and arranged for training at a provincial hospital for a group of villagers to learn how to treat infections and assist in childbirth. But hospital workers treated the villagers as inferior and he found members of the group cowering and weeping in a hospital storeroom.

McQuestion said he has followed the progress of his old town through Facebook and has been back to the Phillippines three times, most recently in October 2012. All of the roads were paved and in a major surprise to him, the health program he started had become nationalized to the point that participants, although unpaid, now receive benefits such as family health and dental care, and are eligible for small bank loans.

"What started out as villagers cowering in a storeroom is now mainstream," he said. "It made my day. It made my life."