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Kansas Citians Take Volunteering To The Extreme

Courtesy of Kirsty Morgan

Most people have spent time at a local soup kitchen or sorted cans for food banks, but others take an entirely different approach to donating their time. 

But an extreme volunteer commitment can mean you’re giving weeks, or even years, of your life to help others. And sometimes you'll get into some pretty hairy situations as a result.

On Up to Date, three extreme volunteers from the Kansas City area joined host Steve Kraske to discuss their adventures with teaching in Kazakhstan for the Peace Corps, fighting fires in Paola, Kan., and finding ways to send local doctors and nurses to help the people stuck in the middle of the Ebola crisis.

When you think about extreme volunteering, the Peace Corps is one of the most well-known organizations  to do this sort of work. Kirsty Morgan, of Lee's Summit, Mo., knew that when she joined up.

She got a few months of teacher and language training, before heading off to Kazakhstan to teach English.

People like Morgan, who join the Corps, find themselves in countries across the globe where people need agricultural, economic or educational help, among other things. 

Morgan, who is president of the Kansas City Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group, spent two years in Kazakhstan, a country that borders Russia and China. Many of the former Soviet republics, while considered to be developed countries, have significant problems.

In 1998, Morgan arrived to a severely economically depressed region plagued by massive rates of alcoholism.

"I was in this very isolated town," she said. "When I served there, it was not very westernized at all."

Many of the locals didn't get why Morgan would want to be there with them.

"To be honest, I think they thought I was crazy … they thought, 'Why would you come here of all places? We’re all trying to leave,'" she said. 

Being a stranger to the language and customs of an area and jumping in to help isn't easy.

"Overseas, they have a feeling that if you’re an American, you’re an expert," Morgan said. "There were some really professional teachers that I worked with, and they had really good techniques in Russian." 

Despite the hardships, though, there's also a lot of fun in blending cultural customs. Morgan's student enjoyed celebrating American holidays with her, including Halloween and Thanksgiving. Sometimes adapting the American customs to Kazakhstan lot a bit in translation, though.

"My church donated a whole bunch of good from home… and they sent stuffing… and the students looked at it like, 'What is this green and brown stuff'?" Morgan said. "It didn’t look appetizing to them at all."

You don't have to travel halfway around the world to make an extreme volunteer commitment. In Paola, Kan., the fire department is staffed with volunteer firefighters. Many of them, like Joe Flake, are full-time firefighters in other cities and choose to be on call for Paola in their spare time.

"I think it’s kind of exciting ... and there’s always the community service side of it," said Joe Flake, a former professional firefighter for the city of Overland Park, Kan., and a current volunteer in Paola.

Others are just regular citizens of the area, but all of them have proper training before they go out in the field.

"When you first come on, you don’t know anything about what we do. A lot of it has to do with operating as a team. There are ways to carry a ladder (or) operate a hose," Flake said.

Just as in the Peace Corps, the popular image of these volunteers isn't necessarily what they do the most.

There are times when Flake and his fellow firefighters do take charge of a burning building, but more often, they're extricating people from cars after bad accidents.

Unlike in the Peace Corps, the firefighters can carry on with their regular daily lives while still being involved in their volunteering. However, being a firefighter means that a lot of dinners go cold, and often your seat at a football game or other event is often empty.

"You need to be ready to go 24/7," Flake said. "We can get out of bed in the middle on the night… or leave your son’s baseball game . Everybody wears a pager. I’ve gone to work tired many times." 

Another side of the coin is when you enter an extreme situation for a limited amount of time.

That's what volunteers do at Heart to Heart International, which sends medical help to regions that have experienced natural disasters and epidemics. Right now, they're about to send volunteer medical personnel  from the Midwest to western Africa in the wake of the Ebola epidemic.

Since Heart to Heart's volunteers are mainly family practitioners, not epidemiologists, they're not going to treat those infected by the epidemic. They're heading over there to support the regular medical systems in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where regular patients with everyday conditions have fallen by the wayside.

"We’re not going to be on the front line of Ebola. What’s important to note is that there are 4 million people (in Liberia), and there’s no medical care for them," said Jim Mitchum, CEO of Heart to Heart. "Our doctors are going over there to help pick up the slack. They’re going to treat the malaria patients, the HIV patients… (We'll be) working with mothers who are delivering babies."

On trips like this, volunteers commit to about two weeks in the field. For closer trips to places in the United States or to a closer country, such as Haiti, they can commit for shorter time periods.

Heart to Heart is also sending all kinds of medical equipment and protective gear to the region to help the International Medical Corps and Doctors Without Borders.

All the volunteers, from the Peace Corps, the fire department and Heart to Heart, get training that helps them keep themselves safe.

"Usually the Peace Corps is going to be very careful before they even send a volunteer to a country, they’re not going to send someone to a country they assess as a high risk area," Morgan said. "A lot of times there’ll be a situation that’s localized (and doesn't affect where the volunteer is)." 

Heart to Heart collaborates with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide training. Flake's firefighters in Paola attend courses at the University of Kansas to train as team and learn safety procedures

For many people, these extreme time and life commitments seem overwhelming. So why would you do it?

"When you’re younger, you don’t really know what you’re getting into," Morgan said. "You have a lot of idealism; you don’t think about the danger. "

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