Peace Corps Week is Feb. 27 to March 5, 2022, and it is a chance to celebrate the history of the international service network of volunteers, community members, host country partners, and staff who are driven by the agency’s mission of world peace and friendship.
Some members of Team DHEC who volunteered with the Peace Corps now use what they learned serving abroad to help the residents of South Carolina as a leader and consultant in disease control; a leader in breastfeeding and nutrition; a leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion; and Chief of Staff.
Dr. Jerry Gibson, MD, MPH, is currently a medical consultant for the Division for Acute Disease Epidemiology, and he previously served as the Director for the Bureau of Disease Control from 1994 to 2012.
He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nyasaland in East Africa, which became Malawi, from 1963 to early 1966. He served as a secondary school teacher in Karonga and then Nkhota-Kota.
“Back then we were expected to do other projects as well, and I worked in smallpox control and then in TB control with other Volunteers,” Jerry said. “My experience in Malawi was valuable in many ways in learning to connect and work with people from very different backgrounds from myself.”
He recalls taking a Land Rover, then a bicycle, and finally walking to reach remote villages with the smallpox control team.
After Jerry left DHEC in 2012, he went to work with the CDC until retiring from that agency in 2017. While with the CDC, he was an HIV President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Clinical Advisor and then the Resident Advisor for the Tanzania Field Epidemiology and Lab Training Program.
“It was a wonderful experience working closely with the Tanzanians,” Jerry said.
He also did six weeks in in Sierra Leone as a district surveillance team advisor at the height of the Ebola epidemic.
Dr. Ellen Babb, PhD, MPH, RD, LD, CLC, is the SC WIC State Breastfeeding Coordinator, and she has been with DHEC for 18 years. She served in the Peace Corps from 1977 to 1979 in Ho, Ghana, which is in West Africa.
“I was inspired by my seventh-grade geography teacher who used to show us slides from her Peace Corps experience in class,” she said. “As a Christian, I wanted to serve people where there was a significant need, at a grass roots level, and thought it would be fascinating to serve in another part of the world.”
She served as a secondary school teacher of chemistry, general science, and French during a time when there was a severe shortage of basic supplies. While people could get some food items from their own local market, gardens, fruit trees, and fishing, it did not lead to healthy eating. Ellen saw the consequences of the lack of knowledge as well as available goods.
“I saw that people ate mostly starchy items and were not aware of the need for more balance in their diets, even when they could get those other food items,” she said. “I also saw young children with the large bellies of Kwashiorkor (protein malnutrition where one gets adequate calories but inadequate protein). All this gave me a special interest in public health, and the need for preventive nutrition interventions and education.”
Also during the time she served, formula was becoming more marketed. Economically-disadvantaged mothers could not afford it and would buy smaller amounts to dilute, often with impure water.
“However, in Ghana where I lived and worked, all the women breastfed their babies, and they did it in public,” Ellen said. “No one seemed to think twice about women breastfeeding openly; it was considered nourishing, and the natural, loving thing for a mother to do.”
Ellen was also able to travel to neighboring African countries and learn about even more cultures and lifestyles.
“Being in the Peace Corps helped me develop cultural awareness, cultural humility, and an understanding of people from backgrounds that are very different from my own,” she said. “There is a reason they call the Peace Corps ‘the hardest job you’ll ever love.’ It was a great, eye-opening experience.”
Dr. Jennifer Almeda, PhD, is the Public Health Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Director. She joined DHEC in November 2020.
She served in Mali, West Africa, from 2002 to 2005. Jennifer was able to extend her Peace Corps experience a year for a special project.
“I come from a family and ancestors that have always volunteered to help others; an immigrant background from a developing country; lived around the world; served at the United Nations headquarters; and have a background in international relations,” Jennifer said. “Being aware of disparities in the world and the privileges I have, I wanted to help to empower others.”
Her first two years she was assigned to a rural county seat in the central east of Mali, Kimparana, San, Segu region where she assisted and instructed three women’s savings groups in finance savings and credit; created, organized, and successfully completed six world maps and training to 2,000 pupils about water sanitation, health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, geography and the value of saving money; and trained incoming volunteers in specific problems and methods of instructing pre-literate women in organizing savings and loans groups.
During Jennifer’s final year, she was assigned to an area north of the country Gao where she collaborated with a local non-governmental organization to ensure responsible and effective implementation of the US Ambassador’s Girls Scholarship Program in the northern regions of Mali. She conducted site visits to all elementary schools within a 20-mile radius of Gao to inform students and parents of the benefits of promoting elementary education for girls and to verify the girl’s participation in the project.
What she witnessed while serving in the Peace Corps provided Jennifer with an intimate understanding of the impacts on lives and communities living in conditions without running water and electricity, rural areas without healthcare access, sanitation challenges, and desertification.
“Peace Corps used to have a slogan, ‘It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,’” and I believe that it is most apropos,” Jennifer said. “It is an experience that irrevocably changes you for the better.”
Karla Buru, DrPH(c), MPH, MSW, is DHEC’s Chief of Staff, and she returned to the agency in October of 2021. She previously worked at DHEC from 2015 to 2019.
She was assigned to Petrosani, Romania, to work with three non-governmental organizations from 2007 to 2009.
“I chose Peace Corps because of its emphasis on working alongside community partners and living within the community that you serve for a longer amount of time,” Karla said. “During my service, I did everything from leading children’s programs to helping with health screenings to teaching community English classes to coordinating international volunteers.”
Her time with the Peace Corps taught Karla the importance of local voices.
“You don’t really know what people want or need to solve an issue until you ask and are willing to listen to those who are most impacted,” Karla said. “This is an important aspect of serving our external and internal DHEC customers. It also taught me to get creative with the resources that are available.”