South Korea returns 40-year-old favor to San Diegan with COVID ‘survival box’
Forty years ago, Paul Courtright went to South Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer, helping a third world country find its place after decades of foreign occupation, poverty, disease and war.
Last month, as the United States was reeling from an increase in the number of new coronavirus cases, South Korea returned the favor. He sent “COVID-19 survival boxes” to Peace Corps alumni in the United States.
When his box arrived at the Rancho Bernardo home he shares with his wife, Courtright found 100 face masks, antimicrobial gloves, a collapsible fan, instant coffee, candy, and silver chopsticks decorated with turtles (a symbol in Asian culture of good fortune and long life).
“The irony of South Korea sending us COVID-19 supplies and gifts is not lost on any of us,” Courtright said.
When he went there in 1979, at the age of 24, it was a catching-up country, industrializing rapidly but still dotted with impoverished rural communities. The one where he worked was a resettlement village for people with leprosy.
Courtright was a “repairman” who took people to doctor’s appointments on certain days and did his “tours” on others, visiting villagers in their homes – “a lot of walking,” he said – for check for ulcers on their feet and hands and to make sure they are taking their medication correctly.
“My village was poor – a lot of houses still had thatched roofs,” Courtright said. “Yet people brought me eggs, sweet potatoes and rice. They took care of me. Today, 40 years later, this same country sends us a box to say “thank you”, it’s incredible. “
The survival kit was also accompanied by a letter from the president of the Korea Foundation, the diplomatic arm of the government’s Foreign Ministry.
“Thanks in large part to the assistance received from the Peace Corps,” the letter said, “Korea has since achieved an economic breakthrough.”
In 1964, measured by its gross domestic product, it was among the poorest countries in the world. Now it’s one of the richest.
South Korea’s response to the new coronavirus – aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation – has also been viewed as first-rate, although it faces its own recent spike in cases. Since the start of the pandemic, the country has reported around 45,000 infections and 600 deaths.
No wonder he looked at his friends in the United States – who have seen 16.8 million cases and 305,000 deaths – and thought about sending care packages.
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the Peace Corps The program was started in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, months after he told Americans in his inaugural address, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you; ask yourself what you can do for your country. “
With a stated goal of promoting world peace and friendship (and a low-key goal of combating the spread of communism), the program sent about 750 volunteers to 13 poor countries in its first year. By the end of 1963, 7,000 people were serving in 44 countries.
Now suspended due to the pandemic, the Peace Corps has deployed more than 235,000 volunteers to approximately 140 different countries throughout its history.
About 2,000 of them went to South Korea from 1966 to 1981 to work in education or health care. For some, it was the first time they had lived outside the United States.
Not Courtright. His father was a pilot under contract with the State Department and that meant jobs in Iran, Taiwan and Australia, with his family in tow. “I grew up overseas,” Courtright said.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education from Boise State University, he enrolled in the Peace Corps, which asked him if he would go to South Korea and help leprosy patients.
He didn’t know anything about Meadow, an infectious disease that mainly causes nerve damage and skin damage and that was once believed to be so contagious and incurable that its victims have been isolated in leper colonies on islands and in remote places.
Doctors have learned that it does not spread easily and is treatable, but the stigma still surrounded patients in Korea, Courtright found when he arrived there after three months of language training from the Corps of the United States. peace. And he noticed something else: about 10-15% of the people were blind.
“I was amazed at the different eye complications they had,” he said. He started making a four-hour bus ride every Monday to a hospital where an ophthalmologist was treating leprosy patients. He reported what he had learned in his village of around 600 residents and then in other resettlement communities.
And then he made it the vocation of his life.
At the end of his two-year mission in the Corps, Courtright returned to the United States and received an MA from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley in public health. Then he set about trying to prevent blindness, mainly in Africa, where he and his wife, Dr Susan Lewallen, founded the Kilimanjaro Center for community ophthalmology.
“Korea taught me a lot of things and it gave me my career,” Courtright said. “I always felt like it gave me more than I gave it.”
Which, he said, made the “Survival Box” all the more touching.
To a foreigner, it might seem strange that a treatment package from Korea arrives with instant coffee instead of tea.
But coffee is what many Peace Corps volunteers drank, said Gerard Krzic, who taught English to middle school students when he was there from 1977 to 1980.
“Coffee brings back memories of the people you shared time with,” he said. “It was nice to have the COVID supplies, but it’s the cultural items in the box that really made it meaningful to so many of us. “
Krzic now lives in Athens, Ohio, where he runs an English program at Ohio University. One of his college colleagues is his wife; they met in Korea while he was there in the Peace Corps.
“It was a life changing experience,” he said, “and it was true for a lot of us.”
Many former volunteers belong to Korea Friends, a group of former students. Krzic is the president. When the Korean Foundation decided to send survival boxes, they contacted the group of friends to get the names and addresses. Boxes were distributed to around 550 people, Krzic said.
Some of the former volunteers, especially those who feel isolated during the pandemic, say they were brought to tears by the gift.
“There was something magical in the box” Sandra Nathan told the New York Times after one of them arrived at her home in Stephentown, NY “Some people, Koreans, from far and wide wanted to make sure I was okay; that I had what I needed to fight a bad disease. They behaved as if they cared about me and were responsible for me.
Courtright was so moved that he sent a thank you letter to Geun Lee, president of the foundation who sent the box. “You should be proud of the beautiful, enchanting, fascinating and welcoming country you call home,” he wrote.
Lee quickly emailed her back.
“Although decades have passed, the country where you spent years of your cherished youth has not and will not forget this affection,” he wrote. “We are making it and will continue to pass it on from generation to generation.”