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Peace Corps Week a time of reflection for former volunteers

Three from Roland Park look back with pride on their time in developing countries

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

8:50 PM EST, February 19, 2013

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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.

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."

McQuestion has since worked for the World Health Organization and at Johns Hopkins University as a professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Peace Corps has shaped his world view.

"I always found that the poorest countries were the most interesting places to be," he said. "You're not just trying to save lives, you're building institutions."

Some of his Peace Corps training still comes out in his organizing of ciclovias that close southbound Roland Avenue to motorists on occasional weekend mornings so that people can ride bicycles, walk and skateboard. He is trying to expand ciclovias through Baltimore.

"Every Peace Corps volunteer becomes a community organizer," he said. "Otherwise nothing gets done."

Carneal, 45, graduated from American University in 1989 with a degree in international business.

"I realized I really enjoyed the international part of my studies, not the business (part) so much," she said.

Carneal, who minored in French, served in the Peace Corps from 1990-91 in the French-speaking Central Africa Republic. Her job was to help teachers make their health lessons more focused and interesting. But teachers constantly went on strike her first year, because the Ministry of Education fell behind in providing books and paying salaries.

"It was kind of frustrating," Carneal said. "Nobody got credit for school that year."

HIV and AIDS ran rampant.

"One teacher I knew actually died that (first) year," Carneal said. "It was a tough and challenging year."

Carneal's own health suffered. She came down with giardia, an parasitic infection of the small intestine, and scadies, a skin infestation caused by mites. She said she left the Peace Corps after 20 months due to illness. A month after she got home, she came down with malaria.

But Carneal said she wouldn't trade the experience and the self-confidence it gave her to be her own boss in unfamiliar surroundings and situations. She has since worked for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore and is now an education development officer in the Middle East bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development, known as USAID.

Carneal met her husband, Jack, at the wedding of a friend and former Peace Corps volunteer.

"The Peace Corps has created a lot of pathways in my life," she said.

But Carneal hasn't taken much notice of the upcoming Peace Corps Week, if only because for her, every week is like being in the Peace Corps.

"Every day, I go to work, I'm working with developing countries," she said.

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