December 25, 2003 - Whitman College alumni : Peace Corps volunteers Mark and Kelly Riggle Hower Tackle Infant Mortality in Sierra Leone

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sierra Leone: Peace Corps Sierra Leone : The Peace Corps in Sierra Leone: December 25, 2003 - Whitman College alumni : Peace Corps volunteers Mark and Kelly Riggle Hower Tackle Infant Mortality in Sierra Leone

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Peace Corps volunteers Mark and Kelly Riggle Hower Tackle Infant Mortality in Sierra Leone

Peace Corps volunteers Mark and Kelly Riggle Hower Tackle Infant Mortality in Sierra Leone

Whitman Peace Corps Volunteers Tackle Infant Mortality
For Peace Corps volunteers Mark and Kelly Riggle Hower, the challenge was huge and the stakes were high. It was May, 1983, when the couple arrived in a remote section of Sierra Leone, where contaminated water supplies were contributing heavily to the world's highest infant mortality rate. Nearly half of the tiny West African nation's children were dying before the age of five.

"The people there did not have any sense of cause and effect as to why there was so much sickness," remembers Mark Hower. He and his wife, a pair of 1982 Whitman graduates, were handed the job of changing all of that.

As the construction coordinator of the United Nations-sponsored project, Mark supervised 20 Sierra Leone volunteers in the drilling of more than 40 wells. As the health education coordinator, Kelly organized some two dozen village health committees. Her primary job was to help the committees and villagers understand the connection between clean water and good health.

Even though the Howers accomplished much during their two-year stay, some questions lingered as they prepared to leave. Would villagers properly maintain their new wells? Did they truly understand and appreciate their ability to control their own health? And, more importantly, would the infant mortality rate come down?

"Judging the impact you've had on another culture is always hard to quantify," said Mark. Making such judgments becomes more difficult, he adds, when attempting to compare statistical data generated in a developing nation by different groups at different times.

"But when Kelly and I went back to Sierra Leone for a visit two years later, we could see we had made a definite impact on our particular area," notes Mark. "Many of the friends we made earlier had since had children and none of them had died. Before the wells were constructed, when people were still drinking out of the river or wherever, the expectation was that about half of those children would not have made it."

Approximately 150 Whitman alumni have served in the Peace Corps since President Kennedy started the program in 1961. Hower speaks for many of those volunteers when he calls his time in the Peace Corps a "watershed experience. . .a wonderful experience that will always help define my life."

Serving overseas "gave me a greater sense of how the United States and its lifestyle fit into the rest of the world," said Hower. "You learn first-hand that the opportunities here, the material goods and the lifestyle, are the exception rather than the rule. I don't know that most people in this country truly realize and understand that."

Hower credits the Sierra Leone people with having a "much better sense of family ties and the importance of individuals within the family. For them, material goods are not what life is all about. They place a real value in what they do each day with other people."

Hower's ties with the Peace Corps began well before he came to Whitman. As a young child he traveled to Brazil and Guyana where his father worked as a Peace Corps administrator. His parents currently serve as Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador, and a cousin, Peter Hower, '85, was among volunteers recently forced to leave Liberia because of its civil war.

Mark Hower returned to Peace Corps service two years ago to work in its Seattle recruiting office. His duties include traveling to Northwest colleges and universities to meet with interested students and take applications. Whitman is a regular recruiting stop because it "routinely outperforms other schools its size in terms of the number of Peace Corps volunteers it produces. Given its size, we get many more volunteers from Whitman than we should."

Meg Robsahm, director of Career Center, attributes Whitman's high percentage of Peace Corps volunteers to two factors. Whitman attracts many students who care about social issues, and the academic rigors of its curriculum prepares them to "both survive and excel in very challenging situations. The Peace Corps is a wonderful opportunity for graduates to become involved in international development and other global issues."

Robsahm traveled to Washington D.C. earlier this year to attend a conference on the Peace Corps' academic collaborative programs. Usha Vatsia, a 1983 Whitman alumnus who has a masters degree in public and international affairs, organized the conference as part of her work as University Programs Coordinator for the Peace Corps. Whitman's long association with the Peace Corps began during the agency's first year. Bruce Campbell, '59, was one of the first (possibly the first) Whitman graduates to join. Rather than sign his first high school teaching contract, Campbell began his Peace Corps training in July, 1961, and left that fall to teach elementary science and English in the Philippines.

"It was one of the best things that ever happened to me," said Campbell. "I certainly learned much more than I could possibly have given. I've always cherished that experience."

Learning to work within the social and political complexities of a different culture was fascinating, said Campbell. "You need to be a listener and a learner and not a changer. You've got to remember people have developed cultural patterns that work for them, and those patterns need to be included in anything you try to do."

Campbell's respect for other cultures proved invaluable when he returned to the United States. He spent two years as an adult education specialist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Ft. Hall, Idaho, and later developed a comprehensive health service at the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon, serving as its director for 20 years.

When Campbell made a return visit to the Philippines a few years ago, many friends were there to welcome him back. "There was not a lot said about the contributions I had made to their educational system," he said. "What they remembered is that I had been sensitive to their way of life, and that I had cared enough to come back."

To some, in 1961, a part of the "American Dream" included a pursuit of understanding of the world's citizens. There was a sense of the maturing of human emotion that nurtured a respect for difference and thus a sense of understanding that could transcend thinking alike, looking alike, acting alike, and worshipping alike. There was the spirit that the world could tolerate difference, if it understood difference, and it could understand difference through cultural respect, sensitivity, and the sharing of not only technical skills, and resources, but also the sharing of human emotion. The Peace Corps provided a means, and symbolized a nation, which was concerned with this philosophy and these ideals.

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Story Source: Whitman College alumni

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Serra Leone; Infant Mortality



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