Monday, March 14, 2011

The Columbian

written by Tom Vogt
Columbian Staff Reporter

Former Peace Corps volunteer Don Messerschmidt recently joked that he went to Nepal in 1963, and “I finally came home a month ago.”

No, Peace Corps assignments are not lifetime commitments. But for some local participants, the links established during their two-year stint remain strong long after they’ve returned home.

And with the program now observing its 50th anniversary, returned volunteers say the Peace Corps still is as relevant as it was when they went overseas.

For Mike Waite and his wife, that was Liberia in the 1970s.

For Jackie Spurlock and her husband, it was Iran in the 1970s.

For Gary Burniske, it was Central America in the 1970s.

For Kara Lynn Rankin, it was Brazil in the 1960s.

And for 75-year-old Richard Rystrom, it was Ukraine in 2007.

Messerschmidt was in just the second team assigned to Nepal. Don Messerschmidt has written several books linked to Nepal, including: “Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas;” “Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel, Writer, Painter and Art Historian of Nepal;” and “Fr. Moran of Kathmandu.”

“I worked in a village that was a two-day walk from anything,” Messerschmidt said. “We were told it was the most remote site in Nepal.

“And maybe in the whole Peace Corps,” he added after a pause.

The team was chosen because Messerschmidt grew up in Alaska and his buddy had lived in northern Canada. Their assignment was rural development.

“We had virtually nothing to work with,” Messerschmidt said. “They thought we could use American ingenuity to work on trails and put a roof on a school.”

But while helping people improve their lives is a goal of the Peace Corps, it’s not the only one.

“The first goal is to provide some skills overseas,” said Waite, who did forestry work in Liberia. “No. 2, be an ambassador of the United States; and No. 3, bring the world back home.”

There is the dream, of course.

“Hot-blooded guys, gonna change the world,” Messerschmidt smiled.

The reality?

“You will never convert a village to modernity,” Messerschmidt said. “But the Peace Corps gives you an experience that is unique. You become part of the community, and that’s the key. If a guy makes a positive impact on one or two people, that’s a success.”

Like many returning volunteers, Messerschmidt said he got more than he gave.

“Of course. I got married out of it,” said Messerschmidt, whose wife, Kareen, was the sister of a Peace Corps colleague. “Our kids were raised in Nepal.”

Messerschmidt’s experiences in Nepal helped him get a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Oregon. He spun careers as a college professor, international development consultant and Himalayan trek leader around his experiences in Nepal.

“Nepal is spectacular, but the people - particularly in the villages - are more spectacular,” he said. “So generous, so fun to be around.”

Almost 30 years after Gary Burniske joined the Peace Corps, he’s doing similar work for another organization. Burniske is country director for Mercy Corps in Colombia.

It started with two back-to-back Peace Corps assignments in Central America. He worked from 1977-1979 as a forestry specialist in the highlands of Guatemala. From 1979-1981, he worked in watershed management in the Costa Rica National Park Service.

It was a way to help poor people in developing countries have a better life, Burniske said, while helping the environment. He also was looking for a chance to see the world and maybe even get a career boost.

“I would have a lot of responsibility early on,” he said, something “that was much harder to get breaking into the job market in the States.”

In an e-mail from Colombia, Burniske said that the “Peace Corps helped mold my character, beliefs and values for helping the world’s poor.”

It launched a 30-year career working in Asia, Latin America, the former Soviet Union and Africa.

Now, with Mercy Corps, “I am the country director managing millions of dollars and coordinating with high-level government ministries, donors, embassies and the UN agencies,” he said. However, “I still get out to the field with the people we are helping. That is very gratifying.”

Mike Waite has maintained ties with friends in Liberia ever since he and his wife went there in the 1970s. Mike returned to Liberia in 1997 as an election observer. He is a member of Friends of Liberia, a nonprofit that supports development in the African nation.

Mike worked as a forester and Mary Lynn, who died in 2001, was a health worker.

Waite said he still recalls stepping out of the plane.

“I remember my first breath. It was hot, humid and heavy,” he said. “My first real experience in the Third World: I needed to use the restroom, and there was no toilet paper in the international airport. I think I found some scraps of paper.”

The Peace Corps also was a husband-and-wife deal for Mike and Jackie Spurlock.

“We knew even before we were married we wanted to join the Peace Corps. It was one thing that drew us to each other,” said Jackie Spurlock, librarian at the Battle Ground Community Library. “I had majored in French, and so I asked for Northern Africa. We were offered Iran. I had to look on a map to see where it was.

“I taught English and Mike taught vocational ed,” she said. “The jobs were very challenging. We felt we didn’t accomplish as much educating as we did in mutual understanding.”

And that’s really the key to the program, she said.

“I am, more than ever, convinced that what the Peace Corps does - connect Americans and people in developing countries - is the primary, or even the only way, we are going to find peace in this world,” Spurlock said.

“We can visualize a face when we think of a country.”

Kara Lynn Rankin was looking to widen her horizons when she was among the earliest Peace Corps workers.

“I volunteered in 1963, before the first group had returned,” she said. “I’d had one year of college at Oklahoma State University, and at 18, I thought I knew a lot. I was a farm girl who’d never been beyond Oklahoma. But I was a 4-H person who knew how to cook and sew.”

The group was assigned to do electrical development work in rural areas, but “There was one electrical engineer among 13 volunteers,” Rankin said.

So she wound up doing 4-H-style youth development work.

“I asked who were the best seamstresses, who knew the most about cooking. There are always natural leaders, and I asked them to work with us,” she said. “It was a matter of sharing, and a delightful thing to see.”

Rystrom, meanwhile, is among the most recent volunteers, as well as one of the older ones. He worked in Ukraine from March 2007 until June 2009.

“I’m 75. My first year, I was the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. I’ve enjoyed living abroad and wanted to try it again,” Rystrom said. “And it was a real nice way to pay back for a whole lot of people who have helped me my whole life long.”

His role was in community development. In addition to a career as a linguistics professor, “I’d been a businessman for 30 years. I wrote training materials on being an entrepreneur, and spent time helping folks get businesses started,” he said.

Rystrom also worked for the deputy mayor of Kamyanets-Podilsky promoting tourism. The town boasts a magnificent fortress that dates back to the 13th century or so.

“It’s unknown outside Russia, Ukraine and Poland,” he said. “It’s a delightful fortress. They just didn’t have a lot of tourist development.”

But the work sometimes can be life-saving, said Messerschmidt, whose life has been linked to Nepal for almost five decades. Leave a permanent mark? Messerschmidt and his partner sure did.

“The last smallpox epidemic in Asia was in the winter of 1963-64,” Messerschmidt said. “We vaccinated 25,000 children in the next five months. We weren’t doctors, but we knew how to vaccinate.”

Typically, they’d vaccinate on the upper arm. But the Nepalese kids were so tightly bundled up in their winter clothes that Messerschmidt and his partner vaccinated them at the wrist.

Now when he meets Nepalese people of a certain age, “I’ll ask if they have a vaccination mark,” Messerschmidt said.

“If they show me a mark there,” he said, tapping his wrist area, “I’ll tell them I put it there.”