Who’s There: George and Peggy Kornreich
BRECKENRIDGE – George Kornreich carefully pried open the long wooden crate in his garage Wednesday under the watchful eyes of his wife, Peggy.They “oohed” appreciatively, smiling, hardly daring to touch the wooden sculpture inside, a 6-foot-tall tam tam, a hand-carved gift from Billy Bong, a chief of magic and sorcery on the South Pacific island of Ambrym.”It’s beautiful,” Peggy whispered. “Look at the detail.”Bong had been working on the totem for two months, and sold it to the Kornreichs in appreciation for the work they’ve done on the tiny atoll halfway between Fiji and Australia. It was a gift they couldn’t refuse – you just don’t say ‘no’ to the second-in-command of an island, Peggy said.The work the Kornreichs have done in the past three years has run the gamut, from teaching people basic sanitation to bringing them hundreds of T-shirts after a cyclone ripped through the 800-mile-long archipalego of Vanuatu.The Kornreichs first learned about the islands – known until 1980 as New Herbides – through a sailing website. A doctor was sailing toward Australia and bumped into the island Efate, and posted a note on the internet that doctors and medicine were needed there.”The government (based about 500 miles away over rough seas) had very little idea about what was going on out there,” said George, an ear, nose and throat doctor. “They didn’t know about their medical needs.”The Kornreichs decided to help.
So, through an agreement between the Medical Assistance to Remote Communities (MARC) and the local Ministry of Health, they joined a group of volunteers and sailed onto Ambrym in 2001, setting up a clinic on a boat offshore.”There’s no such thing as public land,” Peggy said. “You can’t come on unannounced.””Every coconut belongs to someone,” George said. “Every tree.”Drums announced their presence far before they arrived, and the natives welcomed them ashore with a large feast. The natives love a party, George said.There, and on other islands in years to come, he treated people for malaria, orthopedic problems, arthritis, skin infections and other maladies. Peggy taught in the schools.”When I first walked in, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I thought they wouldn’t have anything more than a secondary education. And as I was coming through the door I saw on the blackboard a chemistry equation. I thought, ‘Uh-oh. New lesson plan.'”She also taught health, prenatal care, obstetrics and nonviolence to the women. “The women though it was all right if their husbands hit them on the head with a stick,” she said. “A woman would come in with a headache, and you’d ask how long she’d had it for and she’s say, ‘Five years. My husband hits me on the head with a hammer.'”
The following year, George ran clinics in Malakula, a series of tiny islands off the main island.”The thing about volunteering is, when you leave, if you don’t leave anything behind – any infrastructure – you haven’t really done anything,” he said. “Healthcare workers abandon clinics. You work very hard with the chiefs to make sure the people stay, to make sure they’re paid enough. We want to come back the next year and see the people we trained.”In 2004, the couple returned after a cyclone ripped through the area in February. Salt water contaminated fresh water, huts were strewn to ribbons and everything they owned was washed away in the high waves.The only supply boat that visits the islands comes once a year, making clothing difficult to obtain, so the Kornreichs decided to start there.”They lost what little they had,” George said. “I thought, ‘There’s a company here that makes T-shirts; they must have seconds they can’t sell. What if we could get some?'”He contacted Pat Somers, the owner of Shirt Off My Back, who agreed to supply some of the shirts off his back.”We returned a few days later and there were four cartons of stuff,” George said. “We had to buy luggage to get it overseas. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of people here. They gave us so much clothing.”Months later, scores of children were walking around various villages boasting purple and red Keystone Ski Resort T-shirts.
Anytime we have some extra shirts can’t sell, we’re always willing to donate to things like that,” Shirt Off My Back office manager Sandy Weston. “We like to see it go to someone in need. We were definitely glad to do it.””I felt that this part of the mission did more than any other,” George said. “It seemed to help tremendously.”Upon their departure, Billy Bong presented them with the tam tam, saying he didn’t want them to go home thinking he was a dishonorable man.The Kornreichs aren’t sure if they’ll make the voyage next year. Much depends on whether the contract between MARC and the Ministry of Health is renewed.”We always say we can’t do this again, and we end up coming back,” George said, adding that going elsewhere would involve starting all over again. “We’re too involved in this part of the country.” Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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