Maui woman embarking on Peace Corps mission

Melissa Tanji

Wailuku resident and Seabury Hall graduate Renae “Bella” Lallo stands at El Cajas National Park in Ecuador. The 21-year-old is no stranger to visiting foreign countries and will soon embark on her Peace Corps mission in Panama later this month, making her among the first Peace Corps volunteers heading out for overseas service since the agency pulled many of its volunteers from the field at the start of the pandemic. While in college she stayed with a host family in Ecuador. — Photos courtesy Renae “Bella” Lallo

For a 21-year-old, Wailuku resident Renae “Bella” Lallo has already seen more places than most would in a lifetime, traveling to Zambia and Iraq for medical

missions, living with a host family in Ecuador and vacationing in countries such as Spain and Germany, to name a few.And, later this month, she will soon embark on another quest, perhaps more challenging than the others, as she will serve a mission of just over two years with the Peace Corps in Panama in areas with limited electricity and water.

“I’m definitely very excited to go,”Lallo said via phone Tuesday on Maui.

For the 2019 Seabury Hall alum, who graduated this year with bachelor’s degrees in neuroscience and Spanish from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., service to others has always been part “a big part”of her life.

“I’m very excited to start a new chapter of my life and let that (service) be one of my main objectives and something I work toward,”Lallo said.

But, she added: “I’m definitely very nervous. I’ve never been to Panama before so, this will definitely be a new experience for me. Obviously living outside the U.S. for two years, I grew up here, so that will be something new. A little bit nervous for that and the challenges I will face, but it also puts me at ease knowing how well the Peace Corps prepares their volunteers.”

Lallo is among the first Peace Corps volunteers to return to overseas service since the agency’s “unprecedented global evacuation in March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a news release from the Peace Corps said.

The Peace Corps suspended global operations and evacuated nearly 7,000 volunteers from more than 60 countries at the onset of the pandemic.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. It is an international service network of volunteers, community members, host country partners and staff who are driven by the agency’s mission of world peace and friendship. Since its inception, more than 240,000 Americans have served in 142 countries worldwide.

The volunteer cohorts being sent out again are made up of both first-time volunteers and volunteers who were evacuated in early 2020, the news release said.

Upon finishing a three-month training, volunteers will collaborate with their host communities on locally prioritized projects in one of the Peace Corps’ six sectors, along with engaging in COVID-19 response and recovery work.

Lallo said she will be addressing youth health in Panama.

She said some of the objectives in youth health are the prevention of HIV, lowering rates of HIV, increasing graduation rates and different objectives for promoting the general health of the youth there.

The idea of going into the Peace Corps only materialized as Lallo spoke to an adviser about her post-graduation plans.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what the Peace Corps was until last year,”she said.

She then did more research on the program and was committed when she learned more, noting she could also use her Spanish-speaking ability in her volunteer work.

What will also help is her prior mission work. As a high schooler, she went to Zambia and Iraq with the “For Hearts and Souls”organization, whose mission includes finding and assisting children with congenital heart defects.

Because Lallo had no medical training at the time, her role was speaking to the families, relating to them and making the families comfortable before their children were evaluated at appointments.

Her sister accompanied her to Zambia but Lallo went without her family to Iraq.

In college she also lived with a host family for four weeks in Ecuador.

Lallo also worked in the emergency room at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis while in college. She was a scribe, which is like a personal assistant to the physician. She took notes and followed the doctor all over the ER, where she got to witness firsthand what the job entailed.

Lallo is considering becoming a neurologist or neurosurgeon but is not yet sure what she will do with her degree. In the meantime, she will be studying for the Medical College Admission Test, also know as the MCAT, while in Panama.

While Lallo acknowledges she will be busy, she will still miss parts of home like she did in Tennessee, such as her poke bowls and sashimi.

“I’m definitely going to miss just having access to a kitchen and any food that I want at the grocery store,”Lallo said.

Lallo said she could be sent to one of two regions, including Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the northwest coast of Panama, or Chiriqui, a province in western Panama.

She will take photos of her family with her and the knowledge she gained from growing up on Maui.

“I really think the biggest value that has been instilled in me from growing up here, is the value on the keiki and the kupuna and the community, and taking care and coming together as a community,”she said. “I hope that I can take some of those values to Panama and use what I learned here in taking care of the community and use it there to better serve.”

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