Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Giving Back

I was a science writer for much of my career before serving as a volunteer with Peace Corps Moldova. Several months ago, the magazine editor for the National Association of Science Writers asked me to contribute an article for a series on “Science Writers Giving Back.” She just published it and I’m sharing it here, hoping it may inspire some readers — both science writers and others — to apply to the Peace Corps themselves. As the article notes, for me this decision “changed my life [and] broadened my perspective about the world, about America and about myself.”

Here’s a PDF file of the magazine; the article is on page 8.

screen shot 2019-01-26 at 12.33.28 pmThanks to NASW’s Lynne Friedmann for inviting me to write this!

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America with New Eyes

“Mr David, what happened to the American Government?”

That’s what Victoria, one of the students in the English conversation class I taught while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, asked me on Facebook last week. “I see news everywhere,” she told me. (That’s Victoria making the V sign at our group’s farewell dinner.)

I know what she means and the news has worried me even more. After spending more than two years in a little-known part of the former Soviet Union where people are deeply cynical about politics and the rule of law, I’m unnerved by what I’ve encountered in my own country since returning home this past summer.

Champa and I were proud to represent the United States when we arrived in Moldova with our group in mid-2016. That was before we had a president who disdains international alliances, demonizes refugees and calls developing countries “shitholes.” It’s possible his description didn’t include Moldova, whose population is white, but it seems even worse to me if it didn’t. As an American, was I supposed to be proud that I was serving in a country where people are poor but at least are white?

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Michelle Obama championed the “Let Girls Learn” initiative that brought new opportunity to women and girls around the globe, encouraging more girls to go to school, start businesses and pursue careers. The initiative funded the Peace Corps grant through which our Ialoveni library was able to create a new family room, above, and programs for mothers and children. Just before we received the grant, though, we were told to no longer refer to the initiative as “let girls learn,” which was linked so closely to Michelle Obama.

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I came to love Moldova during my service there and have recently gotten involved with a partnership program between Moldova and my home state of North Carolina. (Rodney Maddox and Lora Sinigur, who help run the program with Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, are shown left.) I continue to admire the perseverance and grace of Moldovans in the face of hardship. Despite its rich agriculture, Moldova’s economy offers few economic opportunities. Many people have left the country to seek work elsewhere. Corruption is widespread. Reform efforts have been thwarted. 

The Moldovans I met are wonderful people who nonetheless have a dark view of life. In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner called Moldova the unhappiest country on Earth. 

The United States remains far wealthier but I fear we are heading in the same direction in terms of how we view our collective future. Since coming home, I’ve seen a level of cynicism that scares me. I don’t recall people ever feeling so anxious and frustrated about the possibility of change, even during the darkest days of the Vietnam War or the Watergate crisis. 

This is not the America I knew when I left. Seeing it with new eyes has made the contrast sharper for me.

img_0541The midterm election gave me hope that Americans will not surrender to despair, that they will fight to once again make our country the kind of place we can all extol when living and traveling abroad. This past Sunday, Champa and I served lunch at a local soup kitchen with our friend Celeste, right, who also served in the Peace Corps, in West Africa during the Vietnam War. She reminded me how challenging it was to be asked questions then about America. Eventually things got better. I’m hopeful they can again.    

I’m not speaking here for the Peace Corps, which is non-political and bipartisan. I also continue to hold the Moldovan people closely in my heart. It’s just that more than six months have passed since I completed my service and friends keep asking me what it’s felt like to come home.

My answer is that I don’t want us to become as hopeless and cynical as the people I met back in Moldova or, for that matter, in many other countries around the world where strongmen pursue their own interests, lies abound and darkness obscures light. I want us to trust each other again and embrace the optimism that is our birthright as Americans.

I want Victoria to keep watching because somehow my country is going to make things right.

Vaccinating for ‘Fake News’

Parents considering whether to vaccinate their children shouldn’t trust the medical establishment, which wants to take away their kids, their rights and maybe even their organs.

Health officials in Moldova and Romania are familiar with such nonsense. As they’ve struggled recently to contain outbreaks of measles, they’ve encountered assertions like these spread by a small but determined anti-vaccination movement. 

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Local journalists who report on the situation face a similar dilemma of countering this “fake news” with the reality that vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical advance in recent history and are extraordinarily safe. Vaccines save nearly three million lives annually worldwide and reduce healthcare costs by $16 for every dollar spent.

This past week, four months after I completed my Peace Corps service in Moldova, I returned to the region to participate in two workshops dealing with vaccines — one to help health professionals communicate more effectively about them, the second for journalists who cover vaccination efforts. The Sabin Vaccine Institute organized the two gatherings in Sinaia, Romania, home of the famous Peleș Castle, which I visited before the meetings.

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Drawing on my background as a science writer, I encouraged the health professionals at the first workshop to interact more with the news media and public, and to share their personal stories along with their expertise. Two other speakers and I then led them through mock interviews where they could practice answering questions and speaking without jargon to the public.

The second workshop provided reporters from the two countries with a quick course on how vaccines work, together with discussions about regional challenges to immunization, why some parents are skeptical and how the anti-vaccination movement fosters distrust. Moldova’s health minister, Aliona Servulenco, told the group “vaccines are the most controlled and inspected product compared to all of the other pharmaceuticals on the market.”

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“The public needs to evaluate risks based on facts rather than opinions,” agreed Oleg Benes, who helps coordinate immunization programs for the World Health Organization regional office in Copenhagen.

IMG_0252Ovidiu Covaciu, who manages a large Facebook group and produces materials that promote vaccination, was among several speakers who called on reporters to resist what he termed a “false balance” between actual facts and the false claims promoted by vaccination opponents. Mihai Craiu, a pediatrician who uses social media to communicate with the public, said he discusses vaccination regularly but not exclusively, preferring to mix it with other topics.

Freelance journalist Octavian Coman, who wrote an extensive article about the measles outbreaks, and Ioana Avadani, director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, spoke at both gatherings. IMG_0219Other speakers discussed topics ranging from the factors affecting “vaccine hesitancy” among parents to Moldova’s efforts to increase HPV vaccination. Reporters at the second meeting covered a wall with ideas during one session and broke into groups during another to develop media strategies for responding to a possible new outbreak of measles.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization, previously organized similar workshops for journalists in Latin America. One of the Romania event’s highlights for me was joining Amy Finan, the institute’s chief executive officer (left), and Tara Hayward, an institute vice president, for a dinner at a local restaurant that featured many of the foods I’ve been missing the past four months: sarmale, friptura, mamaliga, brinza and more.

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Kiplinger Article

Shortly before we left Moldova, the Peace Corps communications office in Washington, D.C. contacted us to ask whether we might assist a Kiplinger reporter writing an article about older Peace Corps Volunteers. Kim Lankford’s article recently appeared on the Kiplinger website. The version shown in the illustration above was published in the subscribers-only Kiplinger’s Retirement Report.

Goodbye for Now

We rang the COS bell on Tuesday, completing our service in Peace Corps Moldova.

We joined a large group of volunteers in our group who are among the first to officially complete their service. Champa and I depart on Wednesday for a short trip and will then head home to North Carolina. 

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This special moment also feels like the right time for me to take a pause from this blog.

IMG_3918Readers, I want to thank you so much for following along with Champa and me, regardless of how recently you discovered “Not Exactly Retired” or how regularly you’ve tuned in. IMG_3931I’ve posted 265 stories since we started our adventure three years ago, attracting readers from around the world. My blog posts and videos have been viewed more than 100,000 times. I’ve treasured the messages and comments I’ve received in response, especially from readers who said they were inspired to follow their own dreams.

This blog and my videos never interfered with my primary Peace Corps assignment at the Ialoveni library or the projects I’ve undertaken in Moldova. (As a former news office director, I work fast.) Indeed, they have helped me make sense of our time here while simultaneously promoting the Peace Corps goal of enhancing understanding between Americans and people in other countries.

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I’m not ending the blog, just taking a break while we reintegrate with American life and our family (above), which has been waiting for us to come home. I expect to return in the future with some new adventures and hope you will join me then. 

We’ve loved having you with us on our journey and hope you will pursue yours as well. Life is awaiting you, no matter how you choose to define your own “not exactly.” For now, I bid you a heartfelt la revedere.

The Long Farewell

So little time left, so many goodbyes.

The past two weeks have been a blur of ceremonies, dinners and get-togethers as we say farewell to our Moldovan and American friends before we depart on Wednesday.

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On Tuesday morning, Ialoveni’s mayor, Sergiu Armașu, joined my colleagues at the library to present Champa and me with certificates and gifts and to thank us on behalf of the city we’ve called home as Peace Corps Volunteers. He and library director Valentina Plamadeala were generous in their remarks, and I was especially moved when two boys from our robotics team (shown above) rose to speak as well. Even though it was shortly after 10 a.m. we toasted the moment with champagne and cake (yet another reason we’ll miss Moldova).

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I’ve already posted on Facebook the amazing portrait our host family gave us at a farewell dinner we held a few days earlier. In addition, our bunica, or grandmother, gave us a gorgeous handmade Moldovan carpet. During the past several days we’ve received other beautiful gifts as well, all of which we are bringing home to remind us of our time here.

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We met with the members of my English conversation class and their families for a farewell party at Casa della Pizza, Ialoveni’s popular pizza restaurant. Champa also met there with her language tutor and then with some of the English teachers from her school. It’s also where we had lunch yesterday with a Peace Corps friend and are meeting tomorrow with several others. After all, Casa della Pizza does serve the best pizza in Moldova.

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We sipped beers and ate mamaliga and friptura on the outdoor verandah of another local restaurant when we said goodbye to “Mr. Tim,” a former Peace Corps Volunteer who stayed in Ialoveni to teach English (shown above). He introduced us to it shortly after we arrived and we became friends. With members of Champa’s Peace Corps group, our farewell party was at The Uptown Cafe, a restaurant in the capital.

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We’ve also been saying goodbye over home-cooked meals, such as one we shared with the family of dna Liuba, the Peace Corps Moldova staff member whom I’ve assisted with communications projects, and the Nepali meal we served the family of dna Ana, the teacher who worked closely with Champa on their memorable project to create costumes for the school’s drama program.

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We’re still not done and, amid all of these celebrations, I’ve also been exchanging goodbye messages with my former Diamond Challenge students, promoting North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova and delivering two presentations to the newest members of Peace Corps Moldova’s “community and organizational development” group, who began their training a few weeks ago. Champa and I have been packing, too.

Each goodbye has been emotional and, collectively, they’ve been draining, not to mention fattening, but they have helped us absorb the reality that we’re leaving this place in which we’ve invested so much of ourselves over the past two years. We’ve taken to heart the advice we heard at our COS conference several weeks ago, to embrace this process of saying goodbye rather than letting our final moments drift away. We’re glad we listened.

Nonetheless, as soon as we get home, we’re going to the gym.