Ella Phillips Lacey, a member of the Rotary Club of Carbondale, Illinois, USA, as told to Jenny Llakmani. Photos by Monika Lozinska
“I was a professor at Southern Illinois University’s school of medicine for 22 years. My Ph.D. is in health education. At the end of 1994, I retired and joined the Peace Corps. It was a transitional step for me. I think it’s a great opportunity for people who are retired. When you’re working in cultures as different from yours as Malawi was from mine, it’s great to have some life experiences already. Sometimes when we first leave college, we think we’ve learned all we ever need to know.
“Malawi is a country where the people are warm and friendly, but it was also a country that the UN rated as second or third poorest in the world. You always knew you were needed. Every day. It was a matter of carving out an area where you could deliver a benefit. My being an older volunteer with credentials and education helped with that.
“Malawi has a great thing about respect for your elders, but that got in the way sometimes. I celebrated my 55th birthday my first day on African soil. In their minds, you should be back in your home village taking care of your grandchildren. I often had to prove myself, in the physical activities more than anything, like if there was a long way to walk or if there was something heavy to carry. But they never questioned my judgement; they trusted that.
“After the Peace Corps, I was a polio surveillance officer for years, working with UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The only way to find polio is to detect the wild virus in the stool. Many medical professionals didn’t trust that system, because it’s not the way they learned medicine. My role was to educate them about that, and about the reporting system. Health staff were often very comfortable saying, oh, we don’t have polio, so we don’t have to fill out a report. You have to get them to check the things they need to check on a consistent basis. It sounds simple, but it’s very important.
“I joined Rotary in 1999. I was selected for an exchange to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and went to 23 club meetings in 30 days. After that I was sold on Rotary. I’ve been to almost every convention since Chicago. You come, you meet other Rotarians, and you get a renewed sense of energy to devote to your efforts.”
Editor’s note: Ella Phillips Lacey was a 2008-09 recipient of the RI Service Above Self award.