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Soldiers for world peace

Tuesday, November 6, 2001

For local graduates, the Peace Corps is alive and well - just like their hopes of changing the world.

Three years ago, Michelle Millard was sitting behind a large desk in downtown Kansas City as an editor at a successful publishing company, wondering if she would ever have the courage to pursue her goal to help the less fortunate of the world.

At the same time, Renee Couture was sitting behind a smaller desk in a Buena Vista University classroom, dreaming of using her future diploma as a key to unlocking the door of public service in other nations.

Neither woman has to worry about sitting behind any desks today, as the most recent of 26 Buena Vista University graduates to join the Peace Corps.

The former Storm Lakers Millard, 29, and Couture, 25, are volunteering in the countries of Gabon and Bolivia, respectively, and each are roughly halfway through their two-year initial commitments to improving the quality of life for the natives of those two nations.

While the two women may be stationed on two continents located halfway around the earth from one another, their goals are exactly the same, they say - they each want to make a difference with their own two hands.

* For Michelle Millard, her work in the African country of Gabon feels natural. Since her teen years, she had traveled before to assist people in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the midst of her career, she found the Peace Corps felt like the right thing to do with her life.

"She's always been real big into human rights and everything, and she had been to Guatemala and Cuba to visit hospitals before, so this was up her alley," her father, Richard, said. "It was really something she wanted to do."

An arts major at Buena Vista, Millard had been working in Kansas City for several years before deciding to put aside her editorial job and lend her leadership services to the Peace Corps.

Experienced in both the liberal arts and the Spanish language, Michelle had been expecting to be placed in a Spanish-speaking country where she would be able to teach English to the children of the region.

However, those plans were thrown for a loop when the Peace Corps decided to send her to Gabon, a French-speaking nation, and teach health, which was not her emphasis in college.

"She went into Peace Corps and health wasn't her par tee, but it happened to be where they put her," Richard said. "Another funny thing is that she is pretty fluent in Spanish and they ended up putting her in a French-speaking country. But, I think she likes it a lot. I think she likes the challenge of being in that situation."

Slightly smaller than Colorado, the country of Gabon borders the Atlantic Ocean at the Equator between the nations of Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo. Michelle's work with the Peace Corps is based in the town of Mouila, a bustling city of 37,000 people in the south central part of the country.

Mouila is the biggest metropolis in the region, but Richard said the town does not have many of the advancements which are commonplace in nations such as the United States or Great Britain.

"Mouila really is behind the times," Richard said. "They do have running water and electricity there, but there are no phone or e-mail systems in the town at all. Right now Michelle even washes all of her clothes in a small bucket, so I'd say that's pretty tough."

Richard said the lack of communication devices such as telephones or e-mail has been one of the biggest challenges for Michelle, as she must travel to a Peace Corps office in the Gabonese capital of Libreville to talk with Richard, her mom, Gayle, and her two sisters, Kristine and Katy, back home.

"The hardest thing for her is probably communication," Richard said. "Speaking French is pretty hard when you've already learned Spanish so well, and it's very hard to communicate with us back home too. Since there aren't very many phones, she has to go to Libreville on a certain date in order to even be able to talk with us on the phone. That's probably the hardest thing for her right now."

Michelle also quickly learned that the lack of technology in Mouila heavily contributed to the lack of knowledge about proper health care among its citizens, and it soon became apparent she would have to start teaching the residents many of the basic foundations of health education.

"What really surprised me when she went over there was that she said the kids in town didn't even know how to wash their hands," Richard said. "Michelle and others have to teach them everything about health, even how to wash hands in a bucket. They really are starting from the ground up as far as health education goes."

The biggest health topic is the widespread HIV/AIDS epidemic across the region, and Richard said the majority of Michelle's time is spent trying to educate people about the virus and the dangers of contracting it.

Nearly five percent of Gabon's 1.2 million people have HIV or AIDS, and there are 6,000 children under the age of 15 in the country who have lost either their mother or both parents to the disease.

The situation is the same in other surrounding countries. Over 25 million people in all of sub-Saharan Africa have either HIV or AIDS, accounting for two-thirds of the HIV/AIDS cases in the world, and 10 million children have been orphaned by the epidemic on the continent.

"The majority of the time they're just passing out condoms to people, because of the HIV and AIDS over there," Richard said. "She said people will even come to her door at night to request condoms from her, so at least she knows the word is getting out. That's the biggest thing she's trying to do. She wants to get the word out to people about the dangers of HIV and AIDS."

Michelle will be arriving back in the United States next August, and Richard said he and his family will have nothing but praise for their loved one who has helped make the lives of the people in equatorial Africa better.

"We are definitely proud of her," Richard said. "I don't think I could do what she's doing right now. We're all extremely proud of what she's doing over there."

* On the foothills of extreme southern Bolivia, Renee Couture is living a study abroad experience like none other.

Even though she is thousands of miles from her hometown of Spirit Lake, she is reminded of northwest Iowa every day, as rows of soybeans and corn dot the rolling landscape surrounding Renee's new home of Rosilla near the base of the towering Andes Mountains.

Her mother, Jan, who lives in Spirit Lake, said the Peace Corps was a natural fit for her daughter, who has been involved in public service around the country for a number of years.

"Renee's always loved traveling and helping people better themselves," Jan said. "Being in the Peace Corps has really been a great thing for her. I think she's gained a lot from the experience."

Renee, who graduated from Buena Vista University in 1999 with a double major in studio art and Spanish and a minor in women's studies, gained her initial experience in forestry and agriculture from two previous summers spent working in liberal arts camps in Maine and New York.

She was a counselor and director of ceramic departments at both camps, and she enjoyed the wilderness environs so much that she decided to pursue her love of the outdoors through the AmeriCorps service program following her college graduation.

As a member of AmeriCorps, Renee was trained to use a chain saw and become a certified forest fire fighter. She also worked with the Habitat for Humanity program during her AmeriCorps tenure, and helped to build and remodel homes in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Alabama.

She then went to the Coon Ridge Goat Farm in the small west-central New Mexico settlement of Pie Town for five months, where she learned how to make goat cheese and familiarize herself with the lifestyle of a humanitarian volunteer in a third-world country.

After her service was completed at the goat farm, she decided to join the Peace Corps, and Jan said her daughter's experience in the AmeriCorps was a key factor in her deciding to enroll in the 40-year-old Peace Corps.

"The AmeriCorps program is just wonderful," Jan said, "and Renee had a good time being a part of it. I think that positive experience with AmeriCorps played a big role in Renee's decision to join the Peace Corps, and I think it also gave Renee a sense of what her Peace Corps experience would be like."

Couture learned she would be assigned to the village of Rosilla, a small rural town in the southern Tarija province of Bolivia located less than 50 miles from the border with Argentina. Despite having a major in Spanish, she was required to take a three-month training session in the language designed to help her communicate with the people in Bolivia.

The intensity of the training period was unlike any she had ever experienced before in any of her Spanish classes in the United States, and Jan said Renee felt the sessions were the key to being able to adapt to the many nuances of the Spanish language in Bolivia more effectively and quickly.

"She said she can understand why students up here have a hard time becoming fluent in Spanish," Jan said. "She went through much more intense training to prepare her for going down to Bolivia. She had five to eight hours of intense Spanish a day in classes where Spanish was the only thing that could be spoken. They then had to take tests to make sure that their Spanish was fluent enough to be able to live in the country."

Following her training, Renee began her Peace Corps work in Rosilla in April of 2001, and immediately become involved in a variety of jobs in the village.

Her tasks have included working in one of the local health clinics translating for visiting doctors who come to the rural town from the United States, England and Germany, spending time teaching English to schoolchildren and helping local residents learn about greenhouses and how to use them to help improve the environment in the area.

Renee's mastery of the oral and written Spanish language has been key in gaining the trust of and developing relationships with the people in the region, as Jan said the education level of the women in the rural region is not as high as that in the United States or even the two major Bolivian capitals of La Paz and Sucre.

"It definitely makes it easier to communicate and do her job more effectively," Jan said, "especially being a female in a country like that, because the women there aren't as well educated. It makes a good impression for others to see that she can speak the language fluently and knows what she is talking about."

Jan said Renee has been able to report her experiences back to her father, Kenneth, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and her brother, David, a student at Wisconsin-Green Bay, as she has been able to access forms of technology such as e-mail and telephones on a fairly regular basis.

"It hasn't been that hard to communicate with her," Jan said. "She's been able to send e-mail to us whenever a teacher or Peace Corps person comes to town from Tarija with their laptop, and she's also been able to call back here on the phone occasionally too. It's very expensive to mail things to her because of the price of postage, but we've done that too."

Her family has sent elaborate books filled with different pictures of the United States down to Renee, enabling her to teach the Bolivians about the different land and geography of North America and learn basic English at the same time.

Jan said the residents of Rosilla have particularly been enthralled with the pictures of Iowa, as the terrains of both places are fairly similar to each other.

"The people there really identify with Iowa, because their main sources of agriculture and commerce are corn and soybeans, so they know what it is like to see nothing but dusty roads and fields of crops with some rolling hills," Jan said. "But, they don't quite fully understand yet that there are different regions in the U.S. and all of them look different. That's something Renee is trying to get them to understand."

Renee's scheduled tenure with the Peace Corps will expire in April of 2003, but Jan said she doesn't know if her daughter will return to the United States or continue traveling around the world and helping people better themselves.

"It's hard to say if she will reenlist when her two years are up," Jan said. "I know they have said readapting to the United States is one of the hardest parts about the Peace Corps, so she might try to go to another country after she is done. I really don't know what her plans are. All I know is that I am very, very proud of her."

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