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Pendleton's trip to Kyrgyzstan provided 'culture shock,' insight
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Courtesy Photo: Amy Pendleton holds one of the babies she met during her recent trip to Kyrgyzstan. She was there to make presentations on organizing non-profits. Pendleton is director of the Franklin County Perinatal Education Center.

Monday, November 14, 2011

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

To say that Amy Pendleton experienced a culture shock on her recent trip to Kyrgyzstan may be an understatement.

"I had never realized how much abundance we have and how much waste happens in this country," she said after spending almost two weeks in the small country that was once part of the Soviet Union. "We were told we would go through a culture shock and I definitely did."

Pendleton, the director of the Franklin County Perinatal Education Center, was asked to go to the country to share her story about starting a non-profit organization.

The trip was part the Kyrgyz Women's Leadership Development program and was sponsored by Bedford-based Legacy International. Several of the women in that program visited Franklin County last year.

Pendleton was accompanied by six other guests, and a busy itinerary included visits to hospitals, presentations and tours of other facilities in the country that has a population of about 6 million and has struggled to establish itself after its split with Russia in 1991.

With that split, all government resources had to be rebuilt. The rebuilding process has led to considerable instability and civil unrest, which makes it even more difficult for groups to create non-profits, Pendleton said, adding that health care is often crude and pregnant women face difficult circumstances.

"Many sick babies are just left at the hospital," she said, because mothers are simply unable to care for them. Pregnant teens are often forced to abort, and medical procedures are often dangerous, leaving women barren.

"If they are not fertile, they are not wanted," she said.

The infant mortality rate is high and orphanages are common, she said. Adoptions are not allowed and children can stay in orphanages until they are 14, then they are "put out into the street," she added.

Expectant mothers receive little, if any, prenatal care, she said, and babies are born in hospitals by C-section for the convenience of overworked doctors. If they can't pay, they receive no treatment.

"There is no childbirth education and little postpartum care," Pendleton said.

That's one of the reasons the women in the program want to try to duplicate the services there that Pendleton offers here in the perinatal center. But it's been a tough, uphill battle because there is little government, social or business support.

Pendleton said she had to redo her presentations when she realized just how few resources are available.

"There are no stores like Lowe's around (for materials and volunteer help)," she said.

Besides the lack of resources and government support, cultural attitudes make it difficult as well, she said.

"Women are often treated as slaves," Pendleton said, adding that "bride-napping" is common, as women are taken by force to a potential groom's home, and domestic violence is a serious problem.

All of these obstacles are daunting, but Pendleton said there is hope.

"They are such dedicated and strong-willed people," she said of the people she met. "They are determined to get this country back. They have tremendous pride in their country ... they are achieving something."

In fact, some of the meetings with the women in the program and officials were attended by members of the country's Parliament.

"They are starting to get some support from Parliament, which is now about 30 percent women," she said. "One man from Parliament came to a presentation. The men are coming around."

Pendleton made presentations on her work and visited hospitals in Bishkek (the capitol city) and Osh, but an illness forced her to cut her trip short and return to the states.

"I felt bad about leaving early," she said.

One aspect of the trip that is having a lasting effect on her and her perinatal program here, though, is the concept of appreciation.

"Seeing what these women do with so little, and seeing how appreciative they are for what little I could do for them made me more aware of the lack of appreciation here," Pendleton said.

As a result, she is starting a "pay it forward" program at the center, requiring women who receive services and donations of supplies to find a way to return the favor.

"Somehow, I need them to appreciate what they are getting," she said, adding that they can pay it forward any what they want, even if it's just doing a good deed for someone else. Clients of the center will be required to document what they are doing to pay it forward.

Pendleton also quickly learned to appreciate the creature comforts (outdoor, primitive toilets are common there) and abundant food supply here. While on the trip, she said everyone had to be very careful. They could eat no local fresh fruits or vegetables because of the bacteria in the soil and they drank only bottled water.

Pendleton said if she ever returns to the Krygyz Republic she would be better prepared because she knows what to expect.

"I wish I could do more for them," she said.

Others on the trip included former Congresswoman Karan English; Shanna Flowers, manager of volunteer services with Carilion Clinic; Johna Campbell, managing partner with Cogent Management Resources; Roger Matthews with Goodwill Industries; Joe Robinson, consultant in global commerce; and Jules Sowder, executive marketing advisor.

Legacy International promotes peace by strengthening civil society and fostering a culture of participation worldwide. The program, including the trip by Pendleton's delegation, is also supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

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