Israel Collier (Moldova 2014-16) never saw herself on the other side of the world in Moldova, advocating for the ethnic Roma population and speaking Romanian, Moldova’s official language, but she always envisioned a life of service.
Growing up across from Beaumont High School in north St. Louis, Collier inherited a sense of empathy for others from her dad, who was a mentor to many fatherless children in the neighborhood. “We shared our father with them,” Collier says. “That was foundational for me.”
It was in that spirit of service that Collier enrolled at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, earning her BS in biology with a minor in chemistry. While at UMSL, Collier worked as a mentor for multicultural students, volunteered at clothing drives and tutored in French and biology.
“I had every intention to become a physician,” Collier says. But while she was in medical school studying osteopathic medicine, a fateful mission trip to Guatemala in 2011 changed the course of her life.
“I remember the way the children would gather around to share my sack lunch,” Collier says, describing the eagerness in children’s faces as they peeped expectantly into her simple brown bag. “I knew then that poverty injustice was real.”
The next year, Collier went to Nicaragua on another mission trip, visiting a jail with inmates packed so tightly they were nearly on top of each other. The year after that, she traveled with Habitat for Humanity building homes in Colombia. Collier ultimately left med school and applied to the Peace Corps in 2014, prepared to go wherever she was needed.
“When I got the application, I said, ‘just send me anywhere,’” Collier laughs. “When it said Moldova, I had to break out the map.”
When she arrived in Moldova, there was naturally culture shock, but Collier grew into the country.
“At first I felt like I was from the moon,” Collier says, recounting her interactions with locals, some approaching and touching her face.
But by the end of her 8-year stay – in part cut short by the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine – Collier was fluent in Romanian, navigating the political landscape and advocating for legislation on behalf of Roma minorities in Moldova.
While in Moldova, Collier started the nonprofit ACOPERI, an acronym for Assistance, Cooperation, Opportunities, Protection and Equality for Roma and Immigrants, but also a verb that means “to cover.” ACOPERI now advocates for Roma fleeing Ukraine, and the organization provides direct services for the displaced such as assistance with asylum paperwork, connections with legal resources and direct hospital bill coverage.
“It’s essential to not only give back,” Collier says, “but to work alongside, to build together.”
In the near term, Collier is staying busy while back in St. Louis, growing ACOPERI, writing a book about her experiences in Moldova and applying to law schools as she continues to advocate against injustice anywhere.
Collier wants people to know that anyone, no matter their background, can help those in need.
“People may not know, but nowadays you can advocate digitally,” Collier says. “You can write letters, run social media accounts, educate and communicate online.”