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Peace Corps volunteer's protege wins prestigious award

Mary Myers-Bruckenstein of Coram stands next to her

Mary Myers-Bruckenstein of Coram stands next to her "daughter" Berhane Daba, an Ethiopian orphan whose life she transformed, after Daba received the 2015 Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award -- the National Peace Corps Association's most prestigious honor -- at a ceremony in Berkeley, California, on June 6, 2015. Photo Credit: Peace Corps Connect

It's often said that one person can't change the world. But what about one individual changing another person's world? That's doable, and Coram resident Mary Myers-Bruckenstein did it in a faraway land more than four decades ago.

On June 6, in an auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley, Myers-Bruckenstein, 69, a retired registered nurse and former Peace Corps volunteer, beamed like a proud mother as Berhane Daba, an Ethiopian orphan whose life she transformed, received the 2015 Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award, the National Peace Corps Association's most prestigious honor.

Thanks to years of devoted "mothering" from Myers-Bruckenstein, Daba was being recognized for co-founding in 2002 an organization that positively affects the lives of thousands of women.

She is executive director of the Ethiopian Women With Disabilities National Association, a 3,000-member national advocacy group that provides job and small-business training to foster those women's economic independence, and counseling to raise their self-esteem.

"She established seven regional offices in Ethiopia and is setting up similar organizations in other developing countries," Myers-Bruckenstein said. "She wants to expand this across the globe."

Meeting Daba

Myers-Bruckenstein's relationship with Daba began in 1968 when she was on a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. She had joined the Peace Corps in answer to President John F. Kennedy's inaugural call: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

At the time, Myers-Bruckenstein was 23, unmarried and working at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Manhattan.

"I had no commitments," she said. "The Vietnam War was going on, and everyone was looking at America as a terrible country. I wanted to show that we weren't all about war."

In Ethiopia she lived in a mud-covered house and subsisted on $1 per day while teaching anatomy, pharmacology, first aid and English to Ethiopian nursing students.

One day, a Peace Corps colleague asked her to visit some physically disabled children at an orphanage to figure out what to do with them.

"I saw Berhane curled up in a fetal position dragging herself on two blocks of wood in her hands," Myers-Bruckenstein recalled. Daba had polio and couldn't walk.

"It was a common sight in Ethiopia," Myers-Bruckenstein said, but she felt drawn to the girl, who was about 4 years old. "She let me touch her. She wasn't afraid and she was cute!"

On her days off, Myers-Bruckenstein nursed the orphans, focusing her attention on little Daba.

She learned that the child was born in a village outside Addis Ababa where, Daba would later tell her, "there was no electricity or pipe water"; and her parents, poor farmers, couldn't afford to raise her.

"Polio and any other disability is seen as a curse or sin," Daba wrote in an email.

Myers-Bruckenstein tried physical therapy on Daba's legs, to little effect. "They were contracted up against her torso," she said. A Czechoslovakian doctor at the hospital where she worked offered to do surgery to stretch them out.

After the operation, Daba was in a full body cast. The orphanage refused to take her back. "They said we can't take care of her, so I took her home," Myers-Bruckenstein said. "She became mine."

With no children of her own, Myers-Bruckenstein saw Daba as "like a daughter to me." She said she saw in the girl a strong spirit and potential. While she did her Peace Corps duties, she entrusted Daba's daily care to a woman who cleaned her hut and an Ethiopian student, Tekle Selassie Gelan, who did the cooking and shopping.

As Daba healed, her cast was replaced with braces to keep her legs straight, and she walked with the aid of crutches.

"Now she's looking at people eye to eye," Myers-Bruckenstein recalled. "It changed her self-esteem from dirt to a person."

Daba started calling Myers-Bruckenstein "Mom."

"It was prevalent in the culture, if you were disabled you begged on the streets," Myers-Bruckenstein said. "I told her that would never happen to her. That was our first mother-daughter conversation."

Continuing contact

When it was time to leave Ethiopia 18 months later, Myers-Bruckenstein arranged for Daba to live with Gelan and his family. He would be a big brother to her, ensuring that she continued her education.

Myers-Bruckenstein resumed her nursing career when she returned to the States, working at several facilities on Long Island and in Manhattan and Queens, including the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook. But she kept in touch with her protégé, guiding her development over the years by email and letters. Daba earned a bachelor's degree in information and communication technology from a private college and took postgraduate courses. She got a job as a librarian at Ethiopia's national library.

"We talk to one another every day," Myers-Bruckenstein said. "I write to her that she has to eat right and get enough sleep and drink enough fluids because she has some kidney problems. I make her go to the doctor. I make her do all the things she does not want to do because 'only foreigners go to the doctor, not Ethiopians.' She goes because her mother told her to go."

Once a month they communicate by Skype. "Sometimes I need to see her," Myers-Bruckenstein said.

Daba, who is now 49, said she is grateful to Myers-Bruckenstein.

"Treating me as her child, she sent me everything that I want, like clothes, cards for holidays, and she encouraged me to get good grades from school," she said via email. "She advised me, and I became a good person.

"She was following my situation and progress. Her letters have encouraging words and express her love. I feel a confidence because I have a mother. I am not alone."

Getting the award

Myers-Bruckenstein reunited with Daba in Ethiopia in September 2012 when the Peace Corps celebrated 50 years of service in the country. They met again in June when Daba received the National Peace Corps Association's award.

The association is a network of former Peace Corps volunteers. Its Global Citizen award is given to an individual who grew up and lives in a country where Peace Corps volunteers served, whose life was influenced by the Peace Corps and whose career contributed significantly to the person's country. Daba is the fourth recipient.

"It took me three tries for this to happen," said Myers-Bruckenstein, who nominated Daba for the award. When she heard that Daba won, she said, "I cried, and then I got a text from Berhane. We smashed two glass ceilings: the first woman and the first disabled person to win."

Daba's organization received $2,500 as part of the award.

"I was really excited when I heard the news that I won," she said. "This award is not only mine; it is for all Ethiopian women with disabilities."

On what was her first visit to the United States, Daba was feted at luncheons, dinners and receptions with Myers-Bruckenstein accompanying her to every event, along with Bette Bass, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Massapequa who also served in Ethiopia. Daba arranged for someone to make the Ethiopian national dress that she and Myers-Bruckenstein wore to the presentation.

"I was proud of her," Myers-Bruckenstein said. "Some people hang on to what's grief in their life and go nowhere. She let go of it, and look where she is now. Every step of the way she worked against great odds. Berhane is the culmination of all my nursing abilities."

Myers-Bruckenstein said her relationship with Daba "has given me so much happiness you have no idea. . . . This is how we change the world, one on one."

Her commitment to that cause continues. Myers-Bruckenstein is a member of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Long Island, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association that collects bicycles to send to Third World countries and provides community services "that make people aware of what we do, and that encourages people to join the Peace Corps."

Erica Burman, a spokeswoman for the National Peace Corps Association, said, "The story of Peace Corps volunteer Mary Myers-Bruckenstein and Berhane Daba is the story of the Peace Corps, a compassionate person-to-person connection that empowers, opens possibility, ripples outwards and touches even more lives in ways that can't always be predicted."

In radio interviews and in Tadias -- an online magazine for Ethiopian-Americans -- Daba said meeting Myers-Bruckenstein was one of the defining moments that profoundly changed her life.

"There was Mary, then me, and now there are 3,000 me's."

Honoring the Corps

Berhane Daba's story will be included in "A Towering Task," an upcoming documentary film about the history of the Peace Corps, its achievements and its future.

"Berhane's voice is a powerful one," said Alana DeJoseph, a former Peace Corps volunteer and producer/director of the documentary.

"When we discuss the relevance of the Peace Corps today, Berhane's story serves as a reminder that there is a world community, and that, for all the questions one may have about the Peace Corps' effectiveness, there are people whose lives are drastically impacted, whether this is by an individual who cares, or by an organization designed to send those individuals. It is the story of the Peace Corps' ripple effects."

Harris Wofford, for whom the National Peace Corps Association's Global Citizen Award is named, met Daba in June at a private luncheon while she was in Washington, D.C., where the association is based. The former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania was instrumental in the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961 and afterward was the Corps' special representative to Africa and its director of operations in Ethiopia.

"A Towering Task" is scheduled for broadcast on public television in 2017 or 2018. DeJoseph said it will be screened in the nation's capital on Sept. 22, 2016, at events marking the 55th anniversary of the Peace Corps.


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