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Overseas Childhood Leads Oklahoma City Nonprofit CEO To Career In International Aid

World Neighbors
World Neighbors CEO Kate Schecter meets with residents during a recent trip to Indonesia

Kate Schecter’s passion for internationalism started almost before she could talk. Her dad was a journalist for Time Magazine, and she spent the first dozen years of her life overseas in Hong Kong, Japan, and Russia. Her childhood in Moscow coincided with the height of the Cold War.

“My parents made a decision to send all five kids to Soviet public schools,” Schecter told KGOU’s World Views. And we’re the first American children to go to Soviet Schools. And I learned Russian [laughs]. Very quickly.”

She’s now the CEO of the nongovernmental organization World Neighbors. Even 24 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Schecter says there’s still a lack of information about the extreme poverty in all the former Soviet states. Before leading the Oklahoma City-based charitable group, she worked as a program officer with the American International Health Alliance working on blood safety issues in Central Asia and Ukraine. Schecter also says there’s very little knowledge about healthcare issues in the former Soviet states, leading to some of the highest rates of HIV and tuberculosis in the world. What little health care infrastructure the USSR had collapsed in 1991, and was never really rebuilt.

“There was terrible isolation for the 75 years of the Soviet Period in healthcare. The doctors that were working in the Soviet Union had no access to research that was going on outside, to new medications,” Schecter said. “You get out of Kiev or Moscow or St. Petersburg…there are hospitals that you or I don’t really want to go to.”

Improving the lives of the impoverished in developing studies is what led her to World Neighbors.

“What will actually help people to improve their lives, and how can we help them to help themselves, as opposed to handing them goods and equipment and money?” Schecter said.

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Kate Schecter, welcome to World Views.


GRILLOT: Well, Kate, I want to get to your international work that you're doing today, but I really wanted to start with a personal question, because you've had an interesting upbringing with your dad being a journalist for Time Magazine. Not many kids get to grow up traveling the world with their dad as they're traveling to Moscow, and Hong Kong, and Tokyo. So tell us what that was like, and how that ultimately did influence your future career?

SCHECTER: Well, I was very privileged, in retrospect, to have had parents who thought that all the kids should go with them. And we lived overseas for the first 12 years of my life. We lived in Asia - in Hong Kong and Japan - for seven years. And then we lived in Moscow in a period when it was really the height of the Cold War. And my parents made a decision to send all five kids to Soviet public schools. And we're the first American children to go to Soviet schools. And I learned Russian [laughs]. Very quickly. And have been lucky enough to be able to have kept it up since then. So all of that really had a strong influence on my world view, and on my desire to keep learning about different cultures around the world.

GRILLOT: What an amazing experience, having spent time in the Soviet Union as a child and continuing that experience throughout your adult career. But I have to ask you, Russia is obviously back in the news today. Significant concerns about security and the threat that it perhaps poses, obviously to Ukraine and others. But they also struggle significantly internally. And I think that's not well understood. They have a lot of health problems, development problems, economic issues that relate to employment and poverty in this country. And that feeds back into the health concerns. So what is it that we need to know about Russia as we get into this conversation about development that will help us better grasp what is motivating them today, or what it is that they need?

SCHECTER: I fully agree with you. I think there is a lack of information about the extreme poverty throughout Russia and Ukraine and all of the former Soviet states. The Baltic states are doing much better - Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. But in all the other ones that I've been to, you have extreme wealth, and primarily extreme poverty. And yeah, that's just not covered very much. And there really isn't a lot of knowledge about the healthcare issues. Ukraine and Russia have some of the highest HIV rates in the world. The TB [tuberculosis] rate is very high. More people are dying from TB than any other disease in the former Soviet states. The health care infrastructure is still, I would say, collapsed, and never really rebuilt. There was terrible isolation for the 75 years of the Soviet Period in healthcare. The doctors that were working in the Soviet Union had no access to research that was going on outside, to new medications. They really were isolated. And that isolation has really not been overcome in the last 22 years since the walls went down. So you get out of Kiev or Moscow or St. Petersburg, but even within Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Kiev, there are hospitals that you or I don't really want to go to. When I left AIHA, we had just been awarded a big program to help with blood safety throughout the former Soviet Union, in Central Asia, and Ukraine, which has this terrible problem of HIV and TB. And the blood safety program was to help with everything from blood donors all the way to blood transfusions. So from vein to vein, as they say in the blood world. And I was going into blood banks, and going into hospitals, and seeing the collapse of a system. And this is 20 years after they've moved away from the Soviet system. So that, I think, is just one microcosm that was really revealing about how dangerous it is, still, and how infectious diseases are still rampant there.

GRILLOT: Well, this relates to your current work that you're doing as CEO of World Neighbors, a nongovernmental organization, development organization based in Oklahoma City. So tell us a little bit about that, and how, in particular, you were referring to, in some of your previous work, these partnership models, and making sure that people on the ground are included in these development projects. How is it that World Neighbors engages in their local communities in order to promote a development, healthcare, education, all of the things that we need to develop these societies?

SCHECTER: Well, thanks for asking about that. I just started four months ago with World Neighbors, and actually the country that World Neighbors works in are very different than the countries that I have my primary experience in. I have worked in Asia, but other than that, all the countries that World Neighbors is working in now, 13 countries, are places that I've never actually been to. But I do have, as I explain, a lot of program development experience. Setting up programs and working with local governments, and national governments. The committee who interviewed me for the job understood that. I was very straight with them. I said, 'I haven't been to these countries, but I think that a lot of my experience will work within the countries that World Neighbors is in.' World Neighbors has been around since 1951. Dr. John Peters was a chaplain in the U.S. military. He was in the Philippines, and he was seeing all this terrible poverty. When he came back, he was still haunted by what he had seen. And he became a Lutheran minister, and while he was speaking to his congregation one day, he told them, 'I still think about what happened, and what I saw.' And that led to him developing World Neighbors. I think it may be one of the oldest development organizations in the world. And he was really visionary in thinking about what will work. What will be sustainable. What will actually help people to improve their lives, and how can we help them to help themselves, as opposed to handing them goods and equipment and money. So when I heard about World Neighbors, I was very, very attracted to the model, which is one we hear all the time: Teach a man to fish, and he'll be able to help himself for the rest of his life. And that is essentially what the basis of the World Neighbors methodology is. World Neighbors works in very, very rural, out-of-the-way, hard-to-get to places with really the poorest of the poor. So it's a different context than I've been working in in these urban areas, in these terrible healthcare environments. But of course, the idea of people getting trained and learning new skills in order to help themselves is very similar to what I was doing when we were working the healthcare partnerships. World Neighbors is also not a one sector approach. We're not a healthcare development organization, or an agriculture organization. What we do is work with communities to help them identify their priorities, to have them decide what they need to do first to lift themselves out of poverty. And then we help them with all the various components, in a very holistic approach. I just was privileged to go on my first trip for World Neighbors to Nepal and Indonesia, and to see whole array of different programs - from people we've worked with for a decade, to people we've worked with for a few months. And primarily people focused on agriculture. These are primarily subsistence farmers who need help in improving their livelihoods. And it's really incredible to see how it works. It's a proven methodology that has now been used in 45 countries. We've been able to 26 million people around the world to change their lives.

GRILLOT: So, just as we conclude, give us an example of what you saw in Nepal and Indonesia, as far as those where you're just coming in, vs.; those where you've been there for a long time, and are finishing those projects. The distinctions - can you give us just a picture of what that's like in the minute or so that we have.

SCHECTER: In Nepal, most of the men are now working outside of the country, and sending in remittances. The country runs on remittances. So I think, I only met women farmers. But what I did see is that with each new community that we go into, there is a more rapid pickup. So for example, there are all these different innovative technologies that we're teaching them. Organic composting, growing, fodder grass for their livestock right in front of their homes. Gosh, there were all kinds of techniques that they were taught to improve their farming. But what maybe had resulted in somebody becoming really wealthy, actually, and being able to hire others, now you see in the new community that those technology are happening faster, because the experienced farmers are teaching the new farmers, and there's less of a lag time.

GRILLOT: So fascinating. Thank you so much for being here today and sharing with us the important work that World Neighbors is doing. Many of us know the organization, but don't understand exactly what they do. So it's great for you to share that with us today. Thank you.

SCHECTER: Thank you so much for having me.

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