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RPCV Christopher S. "Topher" Hamblett returns to help in Sierra Leone
RPCV Christopher S. "Topher" Hamblett returns to help in Sierra Leone
He helped Save the Bay, now it's West Africa
After returning to Sierre Leone, where he served in the Peace Corps in the mid-'80s, Topher Hamblett knew he had to act, so he's formed a foundation to help the war-ravaged country.
01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, July 11, 2004
BY EDWARD FITZPATRICK
Journal Staff Writer
Christopher S. "Topher" Hamblett, who has become known as a calm but insistent voice for the environment, is leaving Save the Bay after 15 years to start a Rhode Island-based foundation dedicated to helping the people of West Africa.
Hamblett, 43, of Barrington, joined the Peace Corps soon after college, serving in Sierra Leone from 1985-87. After he left, the country was devastated by a decade-long civil war that killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million people.
Hamblett returned to Sierra Leone in December 2002, seeing the damage done, hearing of the horrors. He made his way back to the tiny village that had been his home, reconnecting with friends and seeing water wells still in use that he'd worked on. He left, sensing he could make a difference there again.
"I've always wanted to do something meaningful with my life," Hamblett said. "It's just the way I was brought up."
State officials and coworkers say Hamblett has made a difference as director of advocacy for Save the Bay. He is the lead lobbyist and one of the main public faces for the state's largest environmental group. And this year is considered the best legislative session for environmental issues in more than a decade.
"I'm glad he's leaving on such a high note," said Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee. "This year will go down in history as a great year for the environment."
For example, the General Assembly agreed to transfer $250,000 per year from an oil spill response fund into coastal habitat projects, such as restoring salt marshes and eelgrass beds. It is a proposal that Hamblett has been pushing over the past eight years.
"He'd be up at the State House, waiting for the last hearing of the last night of the session, and we lost every year," recalled John B. Torgan of Save the Bay. "He was kind of like Charlie Brown with Lucy and the football."
Hamblett, whose last day was July 1, said, "I'm leaving with peace of mind about what we accomplished and what I'm going to do."
Robert Ballou, chief of staff for the state Department of Environmental Management, said Hamblett will be missed. "He's been a strong voice in moving forward a lot of environmental issues," he said.
In other states, environmental agencies tend to clash with environmental advocacy groups, Ballou said. "But here in Rhode Island we seem to have an effective working relationship," he said.
Ballou said he hasn't always agreed with Hamblett, but he has always trusted him. "You can count on Topher to understand the differences and say, 'Let's work this out,' " Ballou said. "Topher has the distinction of being the quiet, thoughtful, behind-the-scenes guy who is the linchpin for the bulk of their major policy work."
Sosnowski said she considered Hamblett more than a State House lobbyist. "He's an honest source of information," she said. "We have a lot of lobbyists up there, a lot of attorneys who are hired, but some, like Topher, are there out of genuine concerns."
Torgan said, "He has a rare strength to his gentleness and diplomacy."
Former state Rep. Vincent J. Mesolella Jr., who is chairman of the Narragansett Bay Commission, said he has "a high degree of respect" for Hamblett although Save the Bay and Hamblett fought to kill the commission's plans for a sludge incinerator at Fields Point in 1994.
"I've always defended my positions with zeal, but we never had a personal cross word," Mesolella said. "He conducted himself as a gentleman."
Mesolella said he also respects Hamblett's plans. "God bless him," he said. "I wish him all the best."
BORN IN 1960 and raised in Barrington, Hamblett is the son of Stephen Hamblett, publisher of The Providence Journal from 1987 to 1999, and the late Julie Ferguson Hamblett.
"My mother instilled a strong ethic of public service in me," Hamblett said. For example, she was a founding member of Tap-In, a local group that helped people in need. Also, Hamblett recalled that at age 10 he helped clean up the Blackstone River, which was clogged with tires, cars and even shacks.
"My father instilled a sense of optimism and hope in me," Hamblett said. "And that does help to make life decisions like applying for the Peace Corps."
In 1983, Hamblett graduated from Connecticut College, a small liberal arts school in New London, Conn., and in 1984 he applied for the Peace Corps. After training, he headed to Sierra Leone, an impoverished West African country about the size of South Carolina.
At the time, the country's infant mortality rate was between 25 percent and 30 percent, Hamblett said. "Kids were dying of malnutrition and dehydration from diarrhea -- things that were preventable," he said. He was to work on a United Nations-sponsored public health project, building water wells and latrines and conducting public health workshops.
But three weeks after arriving in Sierra Leone, Hamblett had to leave. His mother had been in remission from cancer, but she took a turn for the worse and two days after he returned home, she died. He stayed home about a month before his father told him it was time to get back to his Peace Corps work.
So Hamblett returned to a mud-brick house in Kpandebu, a village of about 250 people near the border with Liberia and Guinea. Torrential rains pounded the corrugated tin roof half of the year and tropical sun baked it the other half.
The village chief, al Haji Siaka Kamara, treated him like a son and gave him an African name: Bockarie Kamara. Hamblett settled into the rhythm of a life centered on the harvesting of crops such as rice and coffee.
Two years later, Hamblett was back in Barrington, readjusting to life in the United States. "Everything is bigger and faster and more in the United States," he said.
After some soul searching, Hamblett began volunteering at Save the Bay, and in 1989 the organization hired him to work on environmental issues in southeastern Massachusetts and the Blackstone Valley.
As Save the Bay's director of advocacy, he worked to end gridlock over Narragansett Bay dredging policy, and he battled former Gov. Lincoln C. Almond's plans for a deep-water cargo container port at the state-owned Quonset Point-Davisville industrial park.
Hamblett cited the container port among his greatest frustrations, saying, "The proposal being pursued by Governor Almond was completely unrealistic. But the political energy that he threw at that forced us to spend more time on that than we would have liked."
Hamblett said he's been thinking of moving on for awhile. "I'm probably a bit of a restless soul," he said, "and over the last couple of years I've been antsy to do something new." But he didn't know what that new thing might be until he went back to Sierra Leone in December 2002.
HAMBLETT, who is married and has two daughters, wrote in a staff biography that his interests include "his family, music, sports, spending time on Block Island and the Bay (including fishing) and hoping that the Red Sox will win it all some day." He's seen about 100 Grateful Dead shows and about 200 Boston Red Sox games.
But the trip to Sierra Leone rekindled another passion. "I just fell in love with the country again," he said. "That turned out to be a profound experience."
With help from the group Search for Common Ground, Hamblett was able to make it back to Kpandebu for a one-hour visit. People embraced him, saying: "Bockarie, you are here." They took him around, showing him the damage done by the Revolutionary United Front.
While touted as Sierra Leone's savior, the RUF turned out to be an army of child soldiers, controlled by then-Liberian President Charles Taylor, bent on controlling the country's diamond mines, Hamblett said. In the city of Bo, he reconnected with a friend whose experience reflected the horrors of those times: her husband had been gunned down by the RUF, both her parents had been slaughtered and thrown in a mass grave, and she and her daughter had spent nine years in a refugee camp in Guinea.
Hamblett saw that water wells he'd worked on were still in use. "That was very inspiring," he said. While he'd gone to Sierra Leone simply "to reconnect with it," he left knowing he'd be back again soon.
"I saw the glow he had when he returned form that trip," Torgan said. "He got a sense of how much he was needed and could contribute."
BACK IN BARRINGTON, Hamblett helped raise $15,000 so that Search for Common Ground could build a radio station near the town of Kailahun, five miles from Kpandebu. The station aims to foster peace and spread information about getting jobs, avoiding HIV and reintegrating combatants.
Then last year Hamblett helped collect food, clothing and financing as Rhode Islanders provided emergency aid to people displaced by civil war in Liberia. And he began looking for a way to do more. He thought of joining a big international organization but realized he was most interested in helping Sierra Leone and Liberia recover from their years of conflict.
So he decided to start the foundation. It doesn't have a name yet, but he'll run it out of his house, making occasional trips to West Africa. He is tapping his savings to run the foundation for the first year and plans to raise money from individuals and foundations.
The time is right, Hamblett said in an e-mail sent to those he's worked with over the years. "There is a substantial West African population in the eastern U.S., including about 10,000 Liberians here in R.I.," he wrote. "Interest in African issues is growing."
"And, given the state of the world, I think it's vitally important that the U.S. put its best foot forward," Hamblett wrote. "Individual, citizen initiative and involvement is essential. I hope to make that happen in a meaningful way."