This month, St. Norbert College in De Pere will recognize three people from the same family who have dedicated their lives to saving and changing the lives of others.
On September 19th, Father Jack MacCarthy, his brother Chuck and sister-in-law Peg will be given the 2013 Ambassador of Peace Award, presented by the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice & Public Understanding at St. Norbert College.
While the MacCarthys have different ways of accomplishing their missions, their motivation is the same: to spend their time on this earth serving those in need while teaching and inspiring others to do the same.
Here are their stories.
Bringing Medical Help and Healing to the Ends of the Earth
Picture this: a child falls terribly ill in the jungles of Peru. His family lives in a rural village with no hospital. They need to get him medical attention as soon as possible, or he will die. What can they do?
Fortunately, someone in the village is able to contact the doctors at the Centro de Salud in Santa Clotilde. This small hospital is the boy’s only hope. But it is six days away if the family takes their canoe. That’s too long for the boy to wait.
The workers at the hospital ask the family to start the journey in their canoe, and promise to send a speedboat ambulance to meet them along the Napo River. The precious minutes shaved off their travel time might just save the boy’s life.
And it does. The speedboat ambulance is able to meet the family in less than ten hours. They rush him to the hospital, where he is treated by Father Jack MacCarthy and a handful of other doctors and nurses.
This is the work that Fr. Jack does day in and day out. This is the work that has made him a co-recipient of the 2013 Ambassador of Peace Award.
Fr. Jack MacCarthy, a priest, doctor, member of St. Norbert Abbey, and graduate of St. Norbert College, has been with the Centro de Salud Santa Clotilde since 1986. He was the first full-time doctor to join the hospital, but was shortly joined by another priest and physician who served with him for numerous years.
The hospital opened in an old Franciscan mission sixty years ago. And although medical care in the area has made great strides since then, Fr. Jack describes it as a place where medical care is still being established. This small hospital plays a very important role in caring for the area.
The Centro de Salud Santa Clotilde is the only hospital on the Napo River in Peru (a tributary of the Amazon) and serves more than 100 villages just on its own. The workers at Santa Clotilde have also established 13 other outlying clinics, which each serve 7 to 11 villages. That means that the Centro de Salud Santa Clotilde is responsible for the care of anywhere from 191 to 243 villages.
You can see the impact that this one small hospital has made on the area in the numbers of people it has served. The Centro de Salud has just 30 hospital beds, and yet they hospitalized more than 1,000 patients last year. The hospital alone had 16,000 clinical visits, and the outlying clinics had 20,000 as well.
The nearest large hospital is over eleven hours away from the Santa Clotilde hospital, so the doctors and nurses at the smaller hospital see and treat everything from pneumonia to snake bites to dengue. They’ll also deliver babies, perform amputations, and handle vaccinations. And since some people travel for six days to reach them, the Centro de Salud really is their only hope.
Fr. Jack has served those people for over twenty-seven years.
Fr. Jack says that he had a different idea in mind when he finished medical school.
“I wanted to go to India and work with other Norbertine physicians there. When I applied for a work permit, I couldn’t get one. The abbot then said, why don’t you go to Peru for a year, and then we’ll try it again. That was in 1980. I stayed two years in Peru.”
Fr. Jack’s initial work in Peru was in government healthcare. But he and his fellow workers were marked as troublemakers by the cocaine syndicates, and they were kicked out.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Fr. Jack says. “At that point in time, my older brother knew of a hospital in the Caribbean on St. Lucia that was looking for an intern and a medical director. I had never been there, didn’t know where it was. I stayed there for three years. They were very good years. I learned a whole lot out there that has helped me start from scratch in a small clinic on the Napo River.”
Those formative years in St. Lucia went on to spur a movement there as well, but Fr. Jack didn’t know that. All he knew was that he was learning how to tackle different aspects of medicine. He didn’t know how vital those skills would be to the people of Peru, either.
After three years in St. Lucia, Fr. Jack was invited back to Peru. He worked for a period of time in the mountains in Lima, and then found out about the opportunity at Santa Clotilde. He jumped at the chance, and now, twenty-seven years later, has not only saved numerous lives, but is training others to do the same.
Fr. Jack doesn’t just want to provide medical care to the 22,000 people who live along the 400 miles of the river basin. He wants to train other people, local people, to provide the same level of care.
“One of the things we try and do is make rounds with the nurses and all of the doctors and talk about each patient,” he says. “The doctor who’s on call the night before presents all of the patients and describes their changes. He’ll give a five minute talk about a disease process. Every day has to be a teaching day.”
The days at the Centro de Salud are long. Rounds begin at eight; after that, the doctors head to the clinic, where the people who live closest to town have arrived.
“They may be four or six hours on the river to get to us,” Fr. Jack says. “They leave at 4:00 in the morning. They get there at 8:00 and want to be seen so they can get home before dark.”
The time spent in the clinic lasts from 9:00 until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. That’s the hottest part of the day, so the staff take a break to have lunch and go for a swim. Then, around 6:00, a second wave of patients arrives in the emergency room. Fr. Jack is there every night until 9:00 or 10:00, making his days often twelve hours or longer.
The hospital faces plenty of challenges, like the same drug syndicates that originally caused Fr. Jack to be kicked out of working in government health care. Some boys from the area leave their villages, believing that they will make an unimaginable amount of money working for cocaine dealers in the cities. Those same boys are often never heard from again. A mass grave containing fourteen bodies has been discovered near Santa Clotilde.
Another challenge is the industrialization of the area. Winds carry methylmercury from the cities to the Amazon, where it is ingested by fish, which are then caught and eaten by locals. Those fish are the main food source of many people who live along the Amazon and its tributaries, like the Napo River.
“We tested 239 kids in four villages,” Fr. Jack says. “Ninety-six percent of them had levels of toxic mercury in their hair.” Those levels of toxic methylmercury are especially ominous for children and pregnant women, who can develop or pass on severe disabilities.
Since fish are the primary protein source of many Peruvians, Fr. Jack wants to teach them how to incorporate different proteins and minimize their exposure to methylmercury.
“We are planning a big campaign to introduce soybeans,” he says. “Small villages are good places to raise goats and goat milk and goat cheese. And buffalo milk and buffalo cheese. These are all good alternative sources of protein.”
These protein sources will be very important to incorporate into the local diet soon, since the general consensus is that methylmercury will be present in the river for a generation at the very least.
Despite and perhaps because of the challenges of a small hospital facing huge issues, Fr. Jack says he gets a very real sense of personal satisfaction from his work.
“One night maybe ten years ago, we had an emergency C-section to do. Finishing that operation, I looked around the room and thought, I’m the only high school graduate in this room. They were local people that we had trained. The satisfaction that brings is something worth working for. Those people were all proud of being able to do that.”
Because of Fr. Jack’s insistence that he not just heal people but train others to do the same, he has helped make the hospital capable of sustaining itself. He and the other doctors at the Centro de Salud have trained a network of local doctors and nurses who can then go on to train others.
It is that level of passion and service that makes Fr. Jack a perfect recipient for the 2013 Ambassador of Peace Award.
Yet when Fr. Jack was approached about the award, he actually wanted to defer the honor on to his older brother and his wife, Chuck and Peg MacCarthy, who have also dedicated a lifetime of service to the people of St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica, and Wausau.
The Good News Project – Changing Lives Overseas & at Home
Recognition of the MacCarthys’ legacy of service prompted St. Norbert College to present the award to three recipients: Fr. Jack MacCarthy for his work in Peru, and Chuck and Peg MacCarthy for their work with the Good News Project, an interfaith volunteer organization they founded in 1985.
And although Fr. Jack works in the Amazon and has to tangle with piranhas and cocaine syndicates, Chuck and Peg’s story is no less incredible.
Chuck, a retired ophthalmologist from Wausau, Wisconsin, is the one who helped Fr. Jack find the three-year position he held at St. Lucia. And when Jack initially went to the island, he didn’t go alone. Chuck went with him.
“I went down and spent a week or ten days doing eye surgery in that little hospital and traveled around and met some people,” he says.
One of the people he met was a local bishop. Chuck asked the bishop if he could come back to St. Lucia with a small music group. The bishop set up a few local churches for the group to sing in, and in 1983, Chuck returned to the island with Peg and a few of their friends. They sang gospel music at both churches and community events.
After Peg and Chuck went home to Wausau, they found themselves explaining their trip to friends, who said, “That sure sounds like fun. Wish I could do that, but I’m not a doctor, I’m not a musician. What would I do?”
So they went back to St. Lucia in 1984 with a group of people from their parish.
“We said, what will we do?” Chuck recalls. “We can build something. So we built a house, and we helped renovate an old house that was being used as an overnight shelter for street people.”
And again, when Chuck and Peg returned to Wausau, they found a group of people eager to join in their ventures. The result was the Good News Project, which had its inaugural visit to St. Lucia in 1985.
The Good News Project has grown exponentially since the days of music workshops and gospel concerts. The cornerstones of their project are hands-on volunteering and relationship building. And often, those relationships take them further than they could have imagined. What began in St. Lucia has now spread to include St. Vincent and Dominica as well.
The work that Peg, Chuck, and Good News volunteers do is strongly welcomed by the people of St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Dominica. One of their primary tasks is building houses. Many of the people on the islands live in small shacks. If they want a more permanent home, Good News volunteers will construct one for them. Since 1985, they have built more than 300 houses.
One of the Good News volunteers’ most recent projects is working with a school on St. Lucia for at-risk girls.
“It’s a mess,” Chuck says. “Kids who’ve been on the street, dropped out of school, are into drugs and alcohol and prostitution.”
Currently, the girls go home to their bad situations after class. Peg, Chuck and the school’s leaders want to build dorms so that the girls can both get their education and get away from the street.
But Peg and Chuck don’t like to compartmentalize their trips. They make sure to use the talents of whoever goes with them.
“When we have physicians or nurses, we’ll plug them into the medical system,” Chuck says. “When we have people who like to teach, we put them in a school.”
“We had a lawyer from Washington, D.C.; she taught tap dancing,” Peg adds.
Chuck and Peg design their program around the volunteers they have available. “We take the time to talk to people who want to go,” says Chuck. “And most of the time they’ll say, I’m just a housewife, but when you talk to them you find out, oh you love to sew. You can make clothes. Or you find they are a musician or an artist or a carpenter or a wood-turner. And they don’t realize that those are skills that have value.”
They also take into account the needs of the people they know locally.
“Sometimes, the two of us will go by ourselves and just talk to people,” Chuck says. “We’ll talk to the nun that runs the nursing home and ask, what kind of medical care do you have? What kind of nursing training do your people have? What would you like the volunteers to do? What would be helpful? And we form a personal relationship with that nun, so we can call her up or write and say, we have three experienced nurses coming along, and they can do some teaching. So the nun lines that up and puts them in there to teach.”
Connor Romenesko, a junior studying political science and international studies, is one of the many St. Norbert College students who has volunteered with the Good News Project. He says he has been on trips with other organizations, but that the Good News Project is unique.
“Peggy and Chuck work alongside their Lucian partners to both address local needs and provide volunteers opportunities to learn from Lucians about their island,” Romenesko explains.
That combination of using their volunteers’ strengths and local people’s needs combines to make the project both effective and contagious.
Peg and Chuck are not the only ones building relationships. Many of their volunteers keep coming back. Some have been on ten, fifteen, or twenty trips and have formed their own friendships with the people of St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Dominica. Those personal contacts help build a global community.
But the Good News Project doesn’t limit itself to global service. They also make sure to aid their local community in Northeast Wisconsin. Their warehouse in Wausua also functions as a HELP Closet. HELP stands for Health Equipment Lending Program. They make medical equipment like crutches, wheelchairs, and hospital beds available to those who need them for no charge.
If you ask what prompted him and Peg into a lifetime of service, both locally and abroad, Chuck will describe himself as “ruined for life by the Jesuits.” He says that the teachers at his Jesuit high school told him that he wasn’t being trained for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. That training instilled in him a responsibility to serve others.
And although Peg and Chuck have their own religious convictions, the Good News Project is an interfaith organization. One of their friends in Wausau, a rabbi, noticed that they have a very different way of serving than other organizations. “Your purpose is not to change somebody else, but to live out your own faith,” he observed to Peg and Chuck. Because their focus is primarily service, their trips include people from all different faiths who come together to help others.
Father Jack says that he finds his brother inspiring. “He’s my big brother and I’ve always looked up to him. I’ve never had any reason to stop looking up to him. He’s had a tremendous leadership role in medicine and community service in Wausau. That’s the sort of thing that characterizes Chuck and Peg. They don’t just live in Wausau, they live in a community. And they don’t just go to St. Lucia, they’re a part of that community.”
Connor Romenesko echoes that point. “Locals from the island refer to Peggy and Chuck as being Lucians after 30 years of coming to the island and serving with them.” The couple have become interwoven into the fabric of the community.
And so, as Fr. Jack, Chuck, and Peg MacCarthy receive the Ambassador of Peace Award for their lifetimes of service, let us all remember our own responsibility as both local and global citizens. Let us be inspired by the work they are doing in Peru, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica, and Wausau. And let us remember that service can be performed anytime and anyplace; all that is required is a humble and compassionate heart.
The Ambassador of Peace Award will be presented to the MacCarthys on September 19. If you would like to attend, the ceremony is free and is being held at 7 p.m. at Dudley Birder Hall on the St. Norbert campus. You’ll be able to hear remarks from Fr. Jack, Peg, and Chuck MacCarthy and celebrate their combined years of service.
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