LAHS 2013 graduate and Peace Corps volunteer Kristin Christensen said her bike was her main means of transportation during her service in Madagascar. The Peace Corp does not allow volunteer to drive or ride motorcycles. Courtesy photo
Peace Corps volunteer Kristin Christensen, left, with her friend and head nurse at the clinic. Courtesy photo
By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
Los Alamos native and 2013 Los Alamos High School graduate Kristin Christensen has a passion for public health and recently exercised that passion half-way around the world.
For one year, Christensen served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small rural village in Madagascar, an island country on the eastern side of Africa.
Typically, Peace Corps volunteers serve 27 months but the pandemic interrupted Christensen’s service. She left for Madagascar April 2019 and was there until mid-March 2020.
It was not just Christensen who was sent home early. She said all volunteers – totaling more than 7,000 – were sent home and all volunteer operations ceased in the countries that host the Peace Corps.
Her time may have been cut short, but it had a huge impact, Christensen said. She explained that she worked as a Community Health Advisor. She joined about 50 other Peace Corps volunteers who arrived in Madagascar at the same time; 25 of those volunteers also were health advisors.
As a health advisor, Christensen said she focused mostly on health education and partnered with the local health clinic. She said she worked alongside the clinic’s head nurse, who, Christensen said, was already doing amazing health education work.
“We would lead short, educational presentations and talks to big groups of women who would come for pre-natal checkups or bring their children for vaccinations,” she said.
Christensen said during these informational talks, they would discuss topics such as malaria, sanitation, nutrition, disease prevention and vaccinations.
COVID-19 also made an appearance in her work. During this time, the pandemic was still in its early stages and Christensen said initially they didn’t have any information about it, she said. Suddenly, people would be asking about the virus. Just before she left it became routine to answer questions about the virus and how to prevent it.
Leaving Madagascar happened rapidly. In the span of one week, the Peace Corps evacuated her and she was back in the U.S. She had to quarantine for two weeks, which she said helped with the transition of returning to American life.
In addition to her main duties, Christensen said there were opportunities to pursue secondary projects. Some projects included funding the construction of wells, education at schools and connecting community leaders with resources for whatever they wanted to do.
“One of my favorites was a sexual and reproductive health program that I started with my counterpart at two of the local schools,” she said.
After talking to teachers and doctors, Christensen explained, she found out that there were a lot of teen pregnancies, which caused many young parents to drop out of school. This decision, she said, can completely alter these young people’s lives.
Another fun project was teaching about malaria and how to prevent it through songs and stories.
A few other secondary projects focused on helping provide people with access to clean water and networking with other organizations skilled in running evidence-based programs.
“There is a lot that goes into being a community health advisor,” Christensen said.
Public health is work that Christensen is well equipped for; she has a master’s degree in public health that focuses on global health and community health promotion from the Colorado School of Public Health in Denver.
“That kind of leads into why I was interested in Peace Corps – to really build my foundation as a public health official … while also just building on that hands-on, grassroots effort … really seeing how crucial it is to work alongside the people you want to work with,” she said. “It really solidifies my belief that it is important to be respectful, culturally competent and just be a good partner.”
Christensen said she did things a little out order. Typically, she said, Peace Corps volunteers sign up for service after earning their bachelor’s degree and before going on to graduate schools or entering the workforce. She said she got her undergraduate and graduate degrees and was looking at jobs but didn’t feel she had the needed experience. Plus, Christensen said she wanted to work on the global level.
Christensen said while exploring the Peace Corps, she was attracted to the position in Madagascar because it was the kind of projects she is interested in, with a dash of adventure.
She said she concluded, “OK, that sounds intriguing enough for me to apply!”
Madagascar did, in fact, offer adventure. Just getting to the village from the country’s capital was action-packed.
She said it was a two-day trip. Christensen would travel by bus, spend the night in a city and then hitch a ride on a Toyota truck that would get to a river, drive up onto welded-together canoes and a boatman would push the truck across the river. Then, she would walk 30 minutes to her house.
Christensen said the village she worked in had a population of 20,000 people. She said there was a “city-center” and then smaller off-shoot communities.
There was no electricity or running water. Her home was powered by solar power and she got her water from a well she shared with her neighbors. Everyday Christensen said she would walk to the well to collect the water she needed for the day for cooking, flushing the toilet, taking a shower, etc.
She said connecting to family and friends was done through Facebook, which she would access by standing on concrete block outside her house.
“It’s definitely a different way of life,” Christensen said. “But if you get used to it and accept it as your new reality, you can make anything work.”
Now, Facebook connects her to friends and colleagues back in Madagascar.
“I miss it,” Christensen said. “I love the people I was with and the work we were doing.”
Being a Peace Corps volunteer, she said, further opened her eyes not just to different cultures but how the U.S. conducts itself overseas.
She said she has traveled a lot and participated in other projects “on the ground” but her experience in the Peace Corps solidified her belief that the U.S. needs to be better with its international relations. She has seen the effects of colonization, as well as patronizing and disrespectful programs from Americans in foreign countries. She also has seen what residents in their own countries can do. The Peace Corps allows its volunteers to work with these residents and assist where they can; listening and learning, not bossing and directing, she said.
“The Peace Corps really showed me that I want to shift my career focus away from always being involved in the group working in the international field … to really helping Americans be better partners in the field,” Christensen said.
Many have good intentions, she said, but regardless of intentions, they can do a lot of damage thinking they alone can “save” people and neglect to take the time to listen to the locals on how best to help.
One challenge to being a Peace Corps volunteer is the language barrier, Christensen said. Peace Corps volunteers do get language and cultural training but once they get to their assignment sometimes the volunteers need to relearn everything all over again. Also, volunteers need to understand all the steps and possible roadblocks to getting projects off the ground. Even logistical things like getting out of the village can be a challenge as well as getting the resources to be healthy and safe.
There is much to learn and understand but being a Peace Corps volunteer can be rewarding, she said.
“I think no matter where you are you learn so much about the history, culture … and it is just absolutely incredible to be welcomed as a guest into the community … so just getting to know a community in such a different part of world … it is just really cool; it really takes you out of your American mindset and you see how incredible and diverse the world is,” Christensen said.
Plus, Christensen said she is proud to say she can now crack open a coconut, scrape it and cook it.
Overall, the cultural exchanges can really push a volunteer to the limits of who they are and what kind of person they can be, she said.
Some advice she would give to potential Peace Corps volunteers is to encourage them to really evaluate whether their motivations and goals are correct. If a Peace Corps candidate goes in with the attitude that they are the best and they are going to fix everything – frankly, they need to get off their high horse, Christensen said.
To be successful, volunteers need to commit, seek humility, be honest about why they are doing this and prepare for the lows of the experience as well as the highs, she said.
“If you decide that you are a good fit for the Peace Corps and the Peace Corps is a good fit for you … really do some research on the culture. If you need to brush up your skills so you’re better equipped to help, do so,” Christensen said. “(Look into) what kind of things you should bring with you and what you should not … ask a lot of questions and learn a lot before you go … it will be tough and there will be things you definitely won’t expect, but you will be in a much better spot to be a Peace Corps volunteer by educating yourself beforehand. Always check in with your fellow Peace Corps volunteers … and keeping in contact with friends and family always helps. Just be honest with yourself and be willing to make adjustments when needed.”
Since her service time was cut short, Christensen said the Peace Corps is offering her and her fellow evacuees the opportunity to reinstate. She would need to reapply, but she also would have the chance to choose a new country to serve in. The Peace Corps could resume some operations in October or next Spring but that isn’t confirmed.
Regardless, Christensen said she doesn’t plan to reapply. There are too many unknowns right now and she pointed out that she would have to start from scratch again, adding however that she might change her mind.
Kristin Christensen’s counterpart makes a clarification during one of the reproductive health sessions at the high school. Courtesy photo
Mothers and children wait for a head nurse and Kristin Christensen to lead an educational session. Courtesy photo