Retired accountant ready for Peace Corps trip to Botswana

April 30, 2009

By Jim Feehan

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Connie Czepiel has been retired for a few years, and lately she’s been looking for something different to do.

That urge, reinforced by interests she’s harbored over time, led her to the Peace Corps.

Czepiel

Czepiel

Ask the 60-year-old Newcastle resident about her scheduled trip this month to Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer, and she’ll tell you: “I feel very privileged to be invited to serve. This has been a lifelong dream of mine.”

Czepiel will serve as a district AIDS coordinator in Botswana, providing logistical and administrative support for the nation’s battle against the AIDS epidemic. 

AIDS has hard hit Botswana. In 2007, there were an estimated 300,000 people living with HIV, according to a United Nations report released last year. Considering Botswana’s population is below 2 million, the epidemic has reached disturbing proportions. 

Life expectancy at birth fell from 65 years in 1990-1995 to less than 40 years in 2000-2005 and an estimated 95,000 children have lost at least one parent to the epidemic.

“It is vital these children have access to education, but this is problematic in families already weakened by AIDS, where children may be providing care for ill relatives or supporting siblings,” Czepiel said. “AIDS has exploded to every strata of society. And so many teachers are dying of AIDS, it’s hard to keep schools open.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $1 billion in the global fight against AIDS with a big chunk of that money going to Africa. The Gates Foundation has a large presence in Botswana and its goal is to have no new HIV infections by 2016, she said. 

In 1961, President Kennedy created the Peace Corps to send volunteers around the globe to work with governments, schools, nonprofit organizations and entrepreneurs in the areas of education, business, information technology, agriculture and the environment. Since its inception, about 195,000 people have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 139 countries.

Czepiel signed up for a two-year stint in the African nation, bordered by South Africa to the south and southeast, Namibia to the west, Zambia to the north and Zimbabwe to the northeast. 

She’s no stranger to the Third World. In the early 1990s, she went to New Guinea as a finance manager for Mission Aviation Fellowship, a Christian missionary organization that provides air transportation in support of missionary efforts and humanitarian needs in hard-to-reach areas of the world. As well as providing transport for missionaries, it also provides medical emergency flights and relief flights in case of natural disasters.

“That really changed my life,” Czepiel said. “I have a real passion for people in the Third World.”

She is quick to point out that the Peace Corps is selective when it comes to hiring volunteers, preferring candidates with an advanced college degree. Fifteen months ago, she applied at the Peace Corps regional office in downtown Seattle.

“They want to understand your motivation, your expertise,” she said. “The more flexible you are about what countries you’ll go to increases the chances you’ll get sent.”

During her first three months in Botswana, she will lodge with a host family to help her acclimate herself to the region. After that, she is encouraged to find modest housing and live like the locals, she said.

“I’m not sure what to expect, but I’ve been told to be prepared for a lot of death and dying,” she said. 

“If I can impact one life, that could change the fate of a family and perhaps the next generation.”

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