Can One Volunteer Change the World?
Frankfort’s Carrie Hessler-Radelet — former Peace Corps director and current CEO of a humanitarian nonprofit — says yes.
By Al Parker | Nov. 9, 2019
Carrie Hessler-Radelet came across her life's passion more than 35 years ago during a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in the island nation of Western Samoa, now known as Samoa.
“I was living with a host family, and the wife was a 32-year-old woman with eight children,” recalled Hessler-Radelet. “One day I came home, and she was just weeping and weeping. Turns out, she was pregnant with her ninth child.”
The family was a poor farming family, and life in the Polynesian village was already difficult. “She had delivered her other children on the floor of the house,” said Hessler-Radelet. “But I was hoping to convince her to visit a clinic.”
The woman's husband was hesitant, but Hessler-Radelet earned his trust over several weeks. Late in the pregnancy, the woman had problems and was rushed to the clinic where she delivered a healthy child. “If she had remained home, she would have bled to death,” said Hessler-Radelet. “Her life was saved.”
That incident led Hessler-Radelet into a career in public health, one which saw her eventually become director of the Peace Corps from 2012 to 2015. Today she serves as president and CEO of Project Concern International (PCI), a global organization working with families and communities to enhance health, end hunger and overcome hardship in 16 countries.
On Nov. 21, Hessler-Radelet will speak at the International Affairs Forum at Northwest Michigan College. Her talk, “Can One Individual Change the World,” is the last of IAF’s 2019 season.
TAPPING GLOBAL POTENTIAL
Before she became CEO of PCI, Hessler-Radelet had a 20-year career in international public health. As director of the Peace Corps, she oversaw the agency's work in 65 countries around the world.
“Throughout my long career, I have met incredibly talented people from many nations and all walks of life,” she said. “There is so much talent residing in communities around the world, but it is often untapped because people don't have the education, access to services or financial capital to be able to pursue their dreams or realize their vision for a better world.”
Talent, intellect and motivation are equally distributed around the world, but opportunity is not, according to Hessler-Radelet.
“There is surely a young girl in Africa who is capable of being the next Bill Gates, if only given access to education and the opportunity to pursue her passion,” she said. “Somewhere in Latin America, there is a young boy, capable of leading with the compassion and humility of Nelson Mandela, if only given the opportunity to develop his potential. And in Asia, there is a child capable of Ruth Bader Ginsberg's commitment to justice and equality, if only given the opportunity to thrive intellectually.”
Hessler-Radelet believes in building leadership capacity by providing the education, training, tools and access to capital that allows individuals and communities to lift themselves out of poverty. “I found in PCI an organization that shares this vision and believes passionately and intentionally in investing in people as the surest pathway to sustainable development.”
PCI is an organization with a wide range of initiatives, but if there’s one project close to her heart, it’s the Women Empowered program, a global initiative dedicated to economically and social empowering women through the formation of self-managed and self-sustaining savings groups.
“Fifteen to 25 women work together in a group to save money, lend to each other, and conduct business together,” she said.
As a result, the women learn entrepreneurship and leadership skills. They even address social issues like domestic violence and HIV/AIDS.
“They become powerful agents of transformational change in their communities,” explained Hessler-Radelet. “Globally more than 1 million women participate in Women Empowered, and they are changing the world, one community at a time.”
NO PLACE LIKE NORTHERN MICHIGAN
Despite her resume as a world traveler and international health expert, Hessler-Radelet has deep roots in northern Michigan.
“I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, but my family spent part of every summer in Frankfort,” she explained. “My mother and her family have been coming to this area ever since the early 1940s, and northern Michigan has always been our family's 'true north.' When I was 16, my family moved to Frankfort permanently. All of my siblings and their families still live in northern Michigan, and my husband and I have a house in Frankfort, so we get back as often as we can. Although I went away to college and have worked elsewhere ever since, Michigan is my heart home, and when asked, I always say I am from northern Michigan.”
Hessler-Radelet and her husband, Steve, try to spend six or seven weeks in Frankfort each summer.
“And we come every few months for a long weekend during the rest of the year to see our family her,” she said. “I love everything about northern Michigan — Lake Michigan and the dunes, the wonderful small towns of Frankfort, Beulah, Leland, Traverse City and its great breweries — the Workshop is my favorite — and Interlochen.”
What does she see as the most critical health issue in northern Michigan?
“I'm very concerned about the opioid epidemic in northern Michigan,” she said. “It's a problem everywhere in the U.S. It's an incredibly complex issue.”
Despite all the problems locally and in the world, Hessler-Radelt remains hopeful. It isn’t blind optimism at work; her hope is borne of a career spent witnessing the immensely positive impact one person can have on many.
So what can attendees at her Nov. 21 International Affairs Forum event expect? Inspiration to hope — and to act.
“Mostly I hope to share stories of remarkable leaders I've met throughout my career whose work is making a difference in the world,” she said.
Want to Make an Impact?
IAF’s “Can One Individual Change the World” event, with Carrie Hessler-Radelet, begins at 6pm Nov. 21 at the Hagerty Center (715 East Front St.) in Traverse City. Tickets are free for students, $15 for the general public and available at the door.
PCI: The Positive Multiplier
Founded in 1961, Project Concern International — headquartered in San Diego, with offices in Washington, D.C. — is the sum of many singular people effecting positive change for millions of others. It employs more than 900 people around the world, 83 percent of whom are host-country nationals. In 2018, PCI impacted the lives of 10 million people through projects like these:
Last year, more than 1.4 million community members took part in peer/self-help groups to improve health and nutrition behaviors. PCI helped improve the well-being and health of more than 25,000 orphans and vulnerable children.
More than 18 million nutritious meals were served to 220,000 school children through PCI programs last year.
In 2018, more than 930,000 people were helped by PCI relief efforts.
PCI is helping adolescent girls in Botswana and Malawi to develop into resilient, empowered women. Last year more than 85,000 new Women Empowered (WE) groups totaling 1 million members were formed to improve their lives, households, and communities.