20130910_185631Leah Small and Olivia Brown, two members of the 2009 RFH Graduating Class, are heading to Burkina Faso in West Africa to provide Health Care services as Peace Corps volunteers. (click to enlarge)

By Mary Ann Kampfe, RFHRHS Public Relations

Two members of the same Rumson-Fair Haven High School graduating class will be among 39 Peace Corps volunteers heading to Africa this October.

Olivia Brown and Leah Small, both 2009 graduates of RFH, will be providing health services counseling to mothers and their children in Burkina Faso. This small landlocked country, located in West Africa, is a rural region encompassing 105,900 miles.

“This was a welcome surprise and a complete coincidence,” said Brown. “We were recruited out of two different places.”

Brown attended the University of Kentucky, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Studies and minored in French. Small received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biopsychology from Tufts University in Massachusetts and, like Brown, applied for service in the Peace Corps during her senior year of college.

The two kept in touch though social media as they both underwent the rigorous application and interview process. Both were thrilled to be nominated for service, but  had to endure a waiting period before receiving their assignments.

Brown received her official invitation first, on May 17, and reached out to Small with the information that she would be providing health services in Burkina Faso.

“I did some research out of curiosity, and ended up thinking that it would be a really cool location,” said Small. “So I was really pleased when I received an email two weeks later informing me that Burkina Faso was my assignment as well.”

The journey begins on October 5, when they will travel to Philadelphia to meet with fellow members of their volunteer group and learn more about the region. Some, like Brown and Small, will be providing health services. Others will be assisting with education and community economic development.

The group will leave John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on October 6 aboard a 13-1/2 hour flight (with a stop in Brussels, Belgium) and will arrive in Burkina Faso on October 7.

Each of the volunteers will board with a Host Family during the initial three-month training period, which includes an “Adoption Ceremony” as well as training in health and safety.

The training period will also feature intensive study of the languages used in Burkina Faso. Their knowledge of French will come in handy for Brown and Small, as that is the official language of Burkina Faso.

The host families and the villagers served by the Peace Corps volunteers will most likely speak a different native tongue, however — there are over 68 different languages currently being used throughout the region.

“Leah and I will not only be speaking French but learning one or two additional languages,” Brown noted.

Upon the commencement of actual service, which spans a 24-month period, one volunteer will be placed in each village. Each volunteer will have his or her own hut with amenities that meet the Peace Corps requirements for health and safety.

“Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries served by the Peace Corps, due to its lack of natural resources,” said Small.”As a result we will have the least-modern living quarters.”

During their term of service, Brown and Small will each work in a clinic along with a head nurse, assistant nurse, and auxiliary midwife. They will educate local women about issues such as proper nutrition for maternal and child health, hygiene, and the prevention and treatment of diseases including malaria.

“Health Services is a really exciting part of the Peace Corps program, and it is where I feel I can do the most good,” said Small.

“Due to contamination issues, we won’t be providing direct care,” explained Brown. “But we will take an active role in educating young girls about the prevention of HIV/AIDS and about family planning, and we will be weighing babies to check for signs of malnutrition.”

While the Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to choose a specific location,  prospects are allowed to voice a preference during the interview process. Both Brown and Small had expressed a desire to volunteer in Africa, and still can’t believe their good fortune.

“Until I was medically cleared, I did not dare believe this was truly happening,” said Small.

“The Peace Corps does a good job of making you feel that maybe you won’t get selected, and up until I received my official nomination I was frankly concerned,” said Brown.

Both women heeded the same call to service, and they were both inspired by the volunteerism of others.

“I really started thinking about the Peace Corps the summer before my senior year, when I interned at Covenant House which is a nonprofit charity serving homeless youth,” said Brown. “I met someone who had volunteered in St. Lucia and he spoke highly of his experience.”

Brown also served as an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador at University of Kentucky and volunteered in the University Hospital’s NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). These activities furthered her interest in providing health care services through the Peace Corps.

“I was inspired by a friend who took time off from his studies at Tufts to do volunteer work in Africa,” said Small. “As a result I ended up traveling to Ecuador and working in an orphanage from May through June of last summer.”

In anticipation of their arrival in Burkina Faso, both Brown and Small have been following the web-based blogs of volunteers currently serving the rural region.

“There are a lot of ‘unknowns’ right now,” said Brown. “I am just excited to arrive there, meet my host family, and see for myself what the living conditions are like.”

“The only thing I am sure about is that I am going to learn, and that what I learn will change me in some way,” said Small. “It will be reassuring to see that the people of Burkina Faso are just like you and me, and that technology does not define people.”

Both Brown and Small plan to travel — both through Europe and also back home to the United States — and see their families during the 48 days of vacation that can be used at any time except during the first six or last three months of service.

Olivia is the daughter of Lee Clay and Gary Brown of Fair Haven. Leah is the daughter of Kelly and Michael Small of Rumson.

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by then-President John F. Kennedy to promote world peace and friendship. Currently there are 8,073 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees serving in 139 countries. 43 percent of the volunteers currently serve in Africa. To date, the total number of volunteers and trainees who have served with the Peace Corps stands at 210,000.