AmeriCorps, AmeriPath, AmeriLife: An Interview from Serve Reflect Repeat

Betsy Laakso is one of 20+ authors for Serve Reflect Repeat, a collection of stories from AmeriCorps Alumni across the country.  Listen to learn more about how she has created a rewarding career working for the Red Cross.

Note: all the proceeds from the sale of Serve Reflect Repeat benefit the NGS movement.

The Adventures of a Public Health Associate for the CDC

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1My name is Alyssa Llamas and I am a Public Health Associate for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I am currently stationed at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW).

The Public Health Associate Program (PHAP) is a training program that provides young, public health professionals the opportunity to work at the frontlines of public health. Associates are stationed at a state, local, tribal, or territorial health department and assigned two focus areas (Chronic Disease, Environmental Health, Public Health Preparedness, Global Migration and Quarantine, Immunization, Injury Prevention, Maternal and Child Health, STD, TB, and/or HIV, Other Communicable Diseases).

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Allie Hughey, Baylor International Pediatric Aids Initiative

Me and an elephant

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1Name: Allie H.
University: UCSD
Major: Biochemistry and Cell Biology
Type of Work: Medical/Public Health
Region: Africa
Length of stay: 3-6 months

Tell us about the nonprofit/social business you work for:
I am working in the capital city of Swaziland, a tiny kingdom located inside of South Africa. Primarily, I work with the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative (BIPAI) as a research volunteer in the BCM Clinical Centre of Excellence pediatric HIV clinic in Mbabane. At the clinic I am engaged in a variety of small and large scale clinical research projects (mostly retrospective) directed towards supporting policy changes related to HIV care and treatment in Swaziland.

How did you find your position?
One of the Baylor AIDS Corps doctors is a close family friend. I contacted him when I decided to take a year off between undergrad and graduate school and he was more than happy for me to have me travel to Swaziland and help out at the clinic.

What’s your typical day like?
My work schedule varies greatly depending on the day because I am involved in a number of projects. Everyday brings a different set of responsiblities and tasks for me! I love it because my work is unpredictable, challenging and constantly changing. Some projects are long term while others have been short and intensive for a few weeks at a time. I typically work 6-8 hours a day and the three organizations are conveniently located on the same street in Mbabane so it’s easy for me to walk back and forth between them.

What kind of people do you work with?
I work with all kinds of individuals and I love it! At the clinic we have international doctors, local Swazi nurses, pharmacists, social workers etc, as well as volunteers of all ages from all over the world. I am on the younger side of the age spectrum here but the community is perpetually changing so the age make-up changes almost weekly. People from all backgrounds live and work in Mbabane such as health professionals, consultants, businessmen and women, journalists, etc.

Me and my Rwandan Family + Marta (the Spanish girl I live with also)

What are your living accommodations?
When I initially arrived I stayed with my family friends but quickly moved into a one bedroom apartment attached to a house owned by an amazing Rwandan woman. I have definitely become part of the family and eat breakfast and dinner with them each day and spend weekends at BBQs (or braais in SiSwati) with their family friends. My apartment is fully furnished with a full kitchen and bathroom and I have wireless internet access as well. There are very few if any “apartments” in Swaziland like there are in the US; all of my friends here live in houses or rent rooms from families.

What do you do in your free time?
Lots! I’m fairly certain that my social calendar in Africa is twice as busy as it ever was in the States. I am blessed to have a wonderful expatriate community here in Swaziland full of adventurous and brilliant individuals. Each week we play ultimate frisbee with a group of local Swazi teens and have weekly themed dinners (mexican food night is my favorite!). I have been taking portuguese lessons twice a week, running in the local game parks on the weekends and hiking all around Swaziland. We take weekend trips to the beaches in Mozambique and South Africa whenever we get the chance or travel further within southern Africa on long weekends. Swaziland also has ridiculous events such as the annual goat and rat races and Slojo half marathon which I have participated in. Never a dull moment in the Swaz!

Table Mountain, Robben Island

Allie and some of her girlfriends after running the half marathon

Share a favorite memory or story from your experience!
Daily life in Africa is an adventure in itself and its hard to choose just one experience. I’d say one of the most memorable, and quintessentially African, moments is when my friends and I ran into a hippo sleeping on the street corner as we were walking back from dinner!

What inspired you to do this kind of work? If you are taking a gap year, what motivated you to do that?
My gap year was motivated by the pursuit to discover my future career path. I knew I wanted to study public health in graduate school but I wanted to be certain that it was for me before dedicating two years of my life to a program. After my time in Africa I am 100% certain that this line of work is for me and the first-hand experience I have gained from working in a resource-limited setting is irreplaceable.

How are you financing your time?
I am financed by own personal savings and some contributions from my lovely family. I had a difficult time finding a paid internship or volunteer position that was exactly what I wanted. Although its tough to finance it all on my own, the freedom I have to create and shape my own experience abroad is pretty much priceless. I have made my experience into exactly what I wanted it to be.

What kind of special skills do you need to do your job?

Menzie, Mduduzi and I at the top of a mountain in Swaz (Menzie and Mduduzi are two of the Swazi teens I play frisbee with each week and love dearly)

Do you feel like you are making a positive, critical impact on the global community?
On a personal/individual level I am making an impact on the daily lives of the Swazi teens I work and play with. My friends and I provide them with a critical support system they are lacking at home in most cases. The work I am doing at the clinic and other NGOs definitely has the ability to have an impact at the national level by informing organizations and health care providers of better ways to direct care and resources to patients. Most of my projects are still works in progress but the eventual outcomes will be influential to patient care and treatment in Swaziland.

What have you learned about the nonprofit and social business world in your experience?
One of the most important things I have learned is that you must work within the system, whatever that system may be-social, political etc. I spent quite a bit of time going about my work as if I was still in America and found myself frustrated day to day. Eventually I realized that I needed to work within the bureaucratic systems in place, thereby saving myself from a bit of frustration and grief. To the same extent, it is equally important for organizations to work on capacity building within the communities they operate in to establish sustainable programs.Do you think you make a unique contribution to your organization as a young person? Is your perspective or approach different from others?

Do you think you make a unique contribution to your organization as a young person? Is your perspective or approach different from others?
Yes. I have found that many of the employees working with NGOs in Swaziland are quite young and I think the vibrant personalities and fresh ideas provided by our generation contribute positively to the programs that are designed and implemented here. The dynamic between the younger and older employees is very valuable because it combines new ideas with wisdom and experience.

How do you see this experience fitting into your long-term goals?
My time here has solidified my passion for global public health work. I have had opportunities to experience or observe many aspects of the field that I did not know existed previously and I am confident that having that knowledge will benefit my studies in the future. My main goal has not changed but I have a more focused objective for the future.

What’s next?
I will be volunteering in Sao Paulo, Brazil for 6 months beginning in January before starting graduate school next fall to pursue a Master in Public Health degree! After graduate school I plan to continue public health work abroad.

What is one thing you wish you knew before you came to your position?
The amount of communication skills it would require. A lot of my work involves communicating ideas clearly and succintly to other organizations and government programs. I have definitely developed my communication skills greatly over the past few months.

Do you have any advice for prospective gap-givers?
Taking a gap year is a wonderful way to figure out exactly what you want to do and provide you with a more focused perspective for future endeavors. I highly recommend taking some time off to give back to the world and learn; learn about yourself, your ambitions, the world, opportunities, other cultures, everything! All of your experiences will benefit you in the future.

Are you blogging about your work or travel? How can we stay in touch?
Blogging @

Would you be willing to take questions from potential Gappers?

Talene Ghazarian: World Vision, WRCA

Visiting a Peace Corps friend in northern Armenia for the weekend and making some good old-fashioned pizza

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1Name: Talene Ghazarian
School: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Type of Work: Medical/Public Health
Region: Eastern Europe
Length of stay: 1 Year+

Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
I worked predominantly for two organizations: World Vision in a more rural setting, and the Women’s Resource Center Armenia (WRCA) in the capital city, Yerevan. While working with World Vision’s area development program in the small town of Talin, I worked mostly with maternal support groups in the surrounding villages doing public health education about various topics (diabetes, nutrition, smoking etc). In addition I planned health education days at various summer camps for children. All my work was done in Armenian. At the Women’s Resource Center I chose to focus on women’s self-defense and sexual education. I taught the staff the basic methods taught in RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) course and left them some teaching material. I also co-taught a comprehensive sexual education class for young women. During my time in Armenia, a women was killed as a result of domestic violence. We became involved on various levels, including; getting legislation changed, organizing a march, helping the family and the orphaned child etc. I also helped do research and basic translations. The Women’s Resource Center was a very warm and welcoming environment to work in. Also many staff and volunteers speak English.

Playing a nutrition education game about food groups with summer camp kids in Talin. The kids loved it!

Share a favorite memory.
Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6th. I was a bit sad to be away from home for the holidays, but the women at the Women’s Resource Center were so thoughtful and inclusive, that my mood quickly changed. The week between New Years and January 6th was spent going from house to house, eating, drinking and being grateful. At that point, I no longer felt like an outsider who had come to volunteer, I had become part of the collective.

What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
My work in both placements helped me realize the importance of policy in affecting change in health and women’s rights. This sparked an interest in law and I actually applied to law school, with plans to do a dual masters in public health and law degree. I decided to start with the MPH and am trying to figure what my niche in the health policy world would/could be, and how to best prepare for it.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Most of the world works at a slower pace than we are used to in America. Making that mental adjustment can be very tricky and result in a lot of frustration. This was especially true for me at World Vision. There were also gender inequality issues and issues of people smoking indoors that was very challenging and resulted in many fruitless conversations.

Taking part in a march organized by the Women’s Resource Center Armenia, to increase awareness about domestic violence and the need for more stringent punishments.

Do you have any advice for prospective gappers?
Be a flexible, self-starter. Think hard about things you might want to bring with you that you can’t get there. Resistance bands for exercise, a multi-tool, a head torch etc.

Where is Talene now?

Talene went on to get  her Master’s in Public Health from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hall. Currently she is studying law at Boston University

When I Grow Up

“I was surprised, that’s the cool thing about AmeriCorps, you get to do things you never thought you would do.”
“Things I saw and experienced that year we unforgettable.”

At NGS we are always talking about how service years allow young people to feel entrepreneurial and help them uncover their passion and work they enjoy. Laura’s story is a testament to both of these points.


Laura Hanley majored in Liberal Arts and found herself a senior in college with no idea what she wanted to do next. She heard about AmeriCorps and that was a “turning point” in her life. She went on to launch the first “Connect” event in Indianapolis, distributed FEMA funds in beluxi, Mississippi after hurricane Katrina and moved a family with an infant out of a rat, mold and lead infected home. Laura’s adventure is inspiring and worth a listen.

Brad, Atlanta

I put down my flashlight, picked up three-year old Arafat and set him on my lap. He still weighed no more than the metal flashlight now on the ground. His head fell limply against my chest as I picked up the bottle filled with soy bouille and began feeding him. He had gained some weight, yet his sunken-in fontanel, his inability to sit up, and the ever-present loose skin on his finger-thin arms and legs still incited worry for his life. He locked eyes with me as he gave a grimace and uttered a cry that touched the inner-workings of my soul. I had known that Djoulde, my best friend in village, had a child but I had never seen him until last week at the health center. Arafat’s mother died of AIDS when he was 4 months old. He was currently suffering from extreme marasmus and advanced malaria; preventable diseases. This was 10 months ago. This is Arafat’s life.

By stark contrast, my childhood consisted of growing up in wealthy and white suburbia, pampered with a neighborhood pool, a jet-ski, and expensive restaurant cuisine. Needless to say, my existence has been easy being a member of one the most privileged groups of people in the world; white, American, and male. Due to this fortunate upbringing I feel a personal requirement to dedicate my life to humbly serving others; working to make a small dent in the incredible amount of preventable suffering occurring worldly. I cannot rest content and complacent with the way the world is currently. I seek my meaning in this world through bringing about change with regard to how individuals view the global community and global ecosystem as a whole and I believe education is the first step in achieving this goal.

After two years in the Peace Corps, charged with improving health outcomes and education in an African region of more than 100,000 people, I discovered that good intentions and a humanist life perspective do not inherently result in positive outcomes. One must use science to inform action. For this reason I am in the process of pursuing a PhD in globally-focused epidemiology, hoping to use science to build functioning comprehensive primary health care systems internationally.

I feel incredibly blessed daily to have opportunities to contribute to improving care for depression and suicide in rural Haiti, to preventing HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Malawi, to the development of new anti-malarial drugs in Thailand, and to educating youth on health issues in Cameroon. It is amazing how every time I travel abroad individuals thank me for what I am doing when I should be thanking them for being patient with the world as we sit idly with so much inequity and suffering. That I am able to live my dream to hopefully (eventually) make a career around improving the health of populations globally is just beyond words.

I strongly believe in the mission of NGS and think that the ultimate goal of the educational system in America should be to build character in our youth, a sense of purpose in life, and a desire to improve themselves and the world at the same time. The learning that takes place during volunteer service to the underserved is soulfully empowering on a level that cannot be touched by getting an “A” in classroom studies. Seeing children like Arafat suffer is extremely difficult, but where there is great suffering and need there is also the greatest opportunity for positive change. Nothing is more empowering than being needed and being able to contribute positively to society. I look forward to a day where all youth can be paired with an organization or opportunity where they can be needed and can contribute positively to the making of a better world.

Philippine Medical Society of Northern California Video Feature

GiveYourGap presents its first organization to be featured from our travels- the Philippine Medical Society of Northern California and their Medical/Surgical Mission to Occidental Mindoro in January 2012. We really got to volunteer as a part of the mission and it was an incredible experience. Check out the video we produced for them to get a glimpse of the work we were doing.