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For my entire career at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency I have focused on storm water management needs, ostensibly for municipalities and local communities: how to harvest rainwater and how to use technology to protect water resources. But instead of working on this smaller scale, I found myself working primarily on a national scale.
Finally, I decided it was time for a big change that focused on small communities.
As I pursued opportunities at EPA to work more directly with local communities, I found I loved that type of work whenever I got a chance to do it. I learned of the Peace Corps Response program and its projects on water resources management and engineering a couple summers ago. The EPA and Peace Corps had an agreement that supported EPA employees working as Peace Corps Response Volunteers so I applied for a rainwater harvesting engineering position in Puebla Mexico. It was exactly what I was looking for and the length of the project was similar to temporary reassignments at EPA. Plus, I could bring my Response Volunteer ground implementation experiences back to EPA.
We are community health empowerment facilitators implementing goals laid out in the Community Health Empowerment Project strategic framework.
We are not clinicians, but we are here to do capacity building and behavior change among the clinicians, the local health volunteers, and the villagers. (A communications plan to complement the strategic plan would go far in aiding this mission, and I’ve already expressed the value of having one. We’ll see if this develops during the next two years.)
So now that I got those buzzwords in (strategic framework, capacity building, behavior change), let me break it down for you. Fiji’s Ministry of Health is doing what it can to reverse what is essentially a non-communicable disease (NCD) “crisis” in this country of nearly 900,000. With one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world:
One in three Fijians has diabetes
An amputation occurs every 12.6 hours in Fiji
Only 16 percent of Fijians live past 55 years old
Of course treating the NCDs is critical, but the ministry recognizes that educating the public about their behaviors will go along way in improving these deadly statistics.
That’s where we come in. We are working with the ministry to educate Fijians about what they can do to avoid NCDs: physical activity, healthy food choices, go to the doctor early instead of ignoring symptoms. We are working to build their capacity so that they have the knowledge to live healthy lives, and to teach their children about living healthy, long after we leave Fiji.
Will and I are in a unique situation with an open field of development opportunities because we’re in a remote region that hasn’t had Peace Corps volunteers since the 70s, and those were education volunteers. We’re at the subdivisional level, which operates a hospital, a health center, a health inspector’s office, a dentist’s office, a maternal child health clinic, and multiple nursing stations throughout six islands. We have the opportunity to educate Fijians about:
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Sanitation and hygiene
So far we’ve given health talks to villagers and trained health workers about practices for women’s self-care and diabetes and hypertension prevention. Our subdivision is in the process of developing its business plan for the upcoming year, so things are a bit slow now. This gives us an opportunity to get to know our community and establish a relationship with the villagers, so they feel comfortable with us and trust us as we move forward together during these next two years.
RPCVs Sean and McKinze Cook (Georgia 2010-2012) always wanted to start their own business, but had no idea what it would be — until they were noshing on some of their host community’s cuisine. “One day near the end of our service, while brainstorming what life after Peace Corps could look like, our host mother called us in for an afternoon snack of khachapuri. As she buttered and sliced the gooey, cheesy, delicious bread, we knew we had to find a way to introduce it to Americans.”
In early 2013 Sean and McKinze opened Kargi Gogo, a food cart in Portland, Ore., that serves authentic Georgian street food.