Peace Corps volunteers cherish experience

DETROIT - "Peace Corps service is a life-defining leadership experience," said Allison Price, communications director of the Peace Corps. "That's true no matter where volunteers serve in the world."

The biggest difference between now and 1960, when then-Sen. John F. Kennedy planted the seeds for the Corps 50 years ago this month on the steps of the Michigan Union, is the advancement in communications technology.

Now, Peace Corps volunteers in most parts of the world can stay in touch with home by e-mail or cell phone, Price said.

Volunteers work to improve conditions in three primary areas: education, poverty and health. Here are the stories of two Michiganders who have done just that:

Kate Guzman of Taylor, Mich., knew she wanted to work in health care, but she wasn't sure about what she wanted to do, specifically, until after she served in the Peace Corps in Malawi from 2001 to 2003.

Guzman, 31, lived in a rural village next door to a nurse midwife.

The midwife befriended Guzman after she learned Guzman had taken pre med classes. When the midwife got word a baby was ready to be delivered, she knocked on Guzman's door and together they rushed to the open air health hut to bring babies into the world.

"A community of women surrounds the mother - her mother, sisters, aunties - to help and encourage her," Guzman said. "No men are allowed. The woman giving birth doesn't scream. She doesn't make any noise. Malawian women are stoic. And when the baby is born all the women start singing and dancing. It's an amazing thing to see.

"To be allowed into that private female experience was a gift."

Guzman, who grew up in Chesterfield Township, left Malawi knowing she wanted to be a nurse and work in public health.

"My first job after earning a nursing degree was in ICU, but my passion is in public health. I want to try to prevent problems before they happen rather than put Band-Aids on injuries," said Guzman, who is the clinic director at the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Helping deliver babies was a side gig. Guzman's main role was helping to set up a mill for grinding corn to feed AIDS orphans, and helping people earn money selling guinea fowls and their eggs.

Overseas service isn't for everyone, Guzman said.

She recalls a time where she ate off a pumpkin for several days because the rain had brought everything to a standstill, making the dirt roads impassable. "I ate pumpkin curry, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin soup, pumpkin patties, I even ate pumpkin leaves," she recalled.

Still she has no regrets "It still feels like I had a 2 1/2-year dream."

John Greisberger directs the Inter-national Service Center at the University of Michigan where, among other things, he advises students who want to study, work or volunteer in other countries.

It's a field the Rochester, N.Y., native, didn't know existed when he received a bachelor's in biology from the University of Toronto in 1972.

Fresh out of college and newly married, he and his wife began their life together by serving in the Peace Corps. He and his wife, Peggy, served in Afghanistan from 1973 to 1975.

"We were drawn by this incredible sense of duty, and, I suppose, a sense of adventure and a sense that this would be an incredible learning experience," Greisberger said.

They taught English as a second language. John taught seventh- and ninth-grade boys in classes of up to 55 students six days a week. They didn't formally teach adults, but found themselves helping to teach English to Afghan English teachers also.

"It's a wonderful confidence builder," he said. "It demonstrates that you're capable of getting out of your comfort zone and not only surviving, but doing something productive. It gives you a sense that you can accomplish almost anything once you put your mind to it, which is especially powerful as you enter the job market."

John Greisberger continued to teach English as a second language to adults and children after returning to the U.S. And more education and experience eventually put him at the helm of the International Office at the University of Michigan.

"I can't imagine doing something more fulfilling or rewarding, and it was my Peace Corps mission that set me on the path," he said.

Allison O'Donnell said she believes she learned a lot about herself and her place in the world as she taught in Honduras from 2007 to 2009.

"Living and working in another country really gave me a global perspective of who I am and where I fit in the world," she said. "It breaks you out of thinking that America, they way we live, is the only way to live or the right way to live.

"America has some really great things about it, but other cultures have some great things too."

The experience helped her developed traits she believes will help her the rest of her life: adaptability, patience, open-mindedness and self-motivation.

"In America, in most cases, we have good roads. At least you can drive them most of the time," she said. "In Honduras, if it rains hard or often, you can't drive to where you need to go. You have to learn to be more adaptable and laid-back and easygoing."

One of her jobs was to educate men about HIV-AIDS prevention. When they didn't come to the meetings she set up, O'Donnell went to them.

She met them at taxi cab stands while they waited to pick up passengers. She talked to men in prison and trained some of them to talk to other men.

She also helped with water purification projects. She taught people about the benefits of pure water and helped devise a system to get water filtration systems into homes.

The Peace Corps experience cemented the West Bloomfield, Mich., native's plans to go into health care management.

"Health affects all aspects of life," said O'Donnell, 26, a yoga instructor who is working on her master's in public health management and policy at the University of Michigan. "Without it it's hard to live a fulfilled life, and I want to help others live a healthy life."

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