Peace Corps volunteer brings smiles with baseball

Jamel Russell in front of her house in Bolivia

Jamel Russell, a graduate student in public health, has volunteered with the Peace Corps in Bolivia and Honduras. “People really care about their neighbors. Someone was always checking on me,” she says. “It taught me what community really means.”


Of all her work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia and Honduras, Jamel Russell says one of the best things she did was start a coed baseball team for kids in a Honduran village.

At first, the players were barefoot.

“During practice the ball would hit their little toes and shins, and it broke my heart,” said Russell, a graduate student in the School of Public Health. “They would still show up to practice in spite of it.”

She and another volunteer raised money to buy shoes and T-shirts for the team. That was it for uniforms; they played without caps. The Peace Corps provided gloves, balls and bats. The kids had never played baseball before, and “I had to fight to get space on the soccer field,” Russell said.

The team, in the village of Nueva Armenia, entered a league and, though it was their first year, the kids ended up north coast champions. “They gave me the trophy to bring home,” Russell said. “I’ve gone back to visit them.”

Russell started her Peace Corps service in 2007 in Bolivia, teaching health education, including dental hygiene. The kids ate only two pieces of soy bread, washed down with soy milk, every day.

“With the help of the school principal, I made a garden to supplement the bread,” Russell said. “And I taught them how to make banana bread — they had bananas growing all over.”

She was stationed in the village of La Emboca, pop. 175 with no electricity or running water, “but I loved it,” she said. “The idea was I was going to be helping them, but you soon realize that while they don’t have what we call education, they are self-sufficient.

“People really care about their neighbors. Someone was always checking on me. Anyone who was hungry, someone would send them a plate of food.

“It taught me what community really means.”

Russell’s service in Bolivia was cut short by political unrest when the Peace Corps pulled out its volunteers. Having served five months less than the standard hitch of two years, she was given the choice of coming home or continuing her service elsewhere.

She chose the latter and was sent to the Central American republic of Honduras, where she spent a year with a clinic treating TB and HIV patients — with baseball as a sideline.

Russell also has strong ties to Liberia. Her father, a Peace Corps volunteer there, was in the West African nation for eight years. That’s where he met her mother. Russell was born in Liberia, leaving 18 months later with her parents when they fled amid rumors of the approaching civil war.

They’ve never returned, kept away by the various conflicts, and Russell has never met her mother’s side of the family. The mother and daughter had planned a three-week Liberian visit for earlier this year when the Ebola outbreak forced them to cancel.

Russell is hoping they can go next summer. In the meantime, she is gathering donations of items like multivitamins, prenatal vitamins and blood pressure cuffs for the All Grace Clinic in Buchanan, Liberia’s third-largest city.

Liberia isn’t handling the Ebola outbreak as well as some other countries because of a lack of infrastructure and other factors, many of which can be blamed on the civil wars, Russell said.

“The reason Ebola spread so quickly is that people thought the disease was a conspiracy, another ploy to scare them,” Russell said. “Brutal and grotesque things had been done to them for so long, they had absolutely no trust.”

Russell — currently president of the UIC chapter of Minority Students for the Advancement of Public Health — will receive her master’s degree next May. Her concentration has been in health policy and administration and she wants to move into global health.

She’s applying for fellowships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has global health programs.

Russell grew up in Denver and earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado. She lives in Pilsen. “I can speak Spanish. I go into stores — it’s important to keep my language skills up,” she said. “And in Pilsen you can get a great apartment for a reasonable amount.”

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