Schaumburg Peace Corps volunteer makes a difference in Morocco
For years, women in a small Moroccan community dreamed of having a center of their own, where they might learn to read, get health services and even master a trade.
It took Schaumburg's Erin Atwell, who arrived last summer as a Peace Corps volunteer, to identify the need and ultimately secure multilateral support to make it go forward.
The Peace Corps says Atwell is one of 7,876 volunteers this year serving in 76 countries. The agency is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary of promoting peace and friendship around the world.
"Every day, volunteers undertake vital development projects with their host communities, often with little or no monetary assistance, but through sheer ingenuity," said Corps spokeswoman Allison Price. "However, there are times when projects require additional financial support, and Erin has established a project that has allowed her to share her commitment to her community, with her family and friends back home."
Atwell's background at Schaumburg High School showed she had plenty of energy, participating in band and dance team. But it was her time at Chicago's Loyola University, during which she spent a service-learning semester in Chile, that she developed a passion for volunteering.
It turned out, working in the health sector of Talbrjte, a small village in mountainous south central Morocco, she needed both.
"When I arrived, I did a needs assessment survey with the women in my community," Atwell said in a letter to friends, family and parishioners at Schaumburg's Church of the Holy Spirit. "The 30 women I interviewed overwhelmingly expressed a desire to have a women's community center."
She explained that none of the women and few of the girls had been allowed to attend school. So the Women's Center will include a literacy classroom, staffed by the local schoolteacher, where women can learn to read and write in a safe environment.
The women also expressed a strong desire to learn a handicraft to enable them to earn an income, so, with the government's support and contribution of materials, the women will be able to learn skills such as embroidery and weaving.
But Atwell wanted to put her own stamp on the new center.
"As a health volunteer, I am acutely aware of the health situation in the community," she says. "Because there is no transportation available to the local health clinic, many women are unable to take their children (or themselves) to the doctor for vaccinations and illnesses."
So Atwell appealed to the Moroccan Ministry of Health, which agreed to donate the equipment and staff for a health room in the center.
She also convinced the local governmental authority to contribute the land as well as the monthly upkeep of the center. In all, it took six months to obtain support from local and national authorities.
Their combined support added up to 43 percent of the center's total budget, leaving Atwell left with one last hurdle: fundraising.
The Peace Corps allows individuals or groups to donate funds to specific projects, creating true partnerships with the communities it serves.
Atwell was first faced with raising more than $16,000, but already she's collected nearly half of that, between initial contributions from family and friends and donations from members of her church.
She figures she has a little more than $9,000 left, but she's not deterred. In fact, the women she serves, including the 14 girls who've been working with her to implement the plan, keep her upbeat.
"Each week, when I meet with them to update them on the funding progress, they are continually amazed by the generosity of Americans," she says. "They have trouble believing that strangers in America want them to have access to health care and literacy. Overall, the girls are patient and understand that it takes time, but there is a buzz of excitement in the community."
To make a donation through the Peace Corps' Partnership Program, go to peacecorps.gov, click on "Donate Now" and search by Atwell's name.
Checks can also be made payable to Peace Corps Partnership Program - include on Project No. 378-110 - and mailed to Paul D. Coverdell, Peace Corps Headquarters, Office of Private Sector Initiatives, 1111 20th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20526.