Groner on the go

Published 11:51 am Wednesday, January 5, 2005

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
People magazine recently interviewed Barbara Groner by phone.
Time magazine may tag along on their next trip to India in February.
Barbara and her husband Dave, who received the Rotary Foundation's International Service Award for a Polio-Free World, are featured in the "Service Above Self" documentary which premieres today on Chicago PBS affiliate WYCC just in time for Rotary's Feb. 23 centennial.
She saw a rough cut of the television special last summer and felt "very proud" at the way the polio eradication team was used as a thematic thread, "a conduit to move through lots of other Rotary projects."
Barbara, 60, is a retired educator who taught elementary school and was a school librarian and administrator.
Dave is wind, she's glue, they tease.
Traveling extensively has only convinced her that there's "not a better place on earth" than Dowagiac.
She modestly compares the logistics of mobilizing teams of volunteers from afar afield as California, Arizona, Canada, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maine and Connecticut, as well as Michigan and Indiana, as not unlike organizing more "fifth grade field trips."
Even a mysterious health scare which sapped her strength, hospitalized her in Nigeria and necessitated four blood transfusion will not deter her from returning to India - to its poorest state, Bihar.
She guides a tour of the living room that takes in spears and launchers, walking sticks, including one of sectioned camel bone, a shield, embroidered tablecloths, containers made from camel teats and a banana leaf bowl from Brazil - a gift from an exchange student. A wooden bowl from Australia was a gift from a 15-year pen pal she finally met.
Hand-tooled boxes are full of different kinds of Muslim prayer beads.
An ebony globe held up by figures with outstretched arms came from Benin, a carved elephant, from Ghana. A herder's hat with a wide brim shields the sun. A wooden cat opens like a briefcase into a board for a game played with coffee bean seeds. She has an emir's bracelet, holy water from the Ganges, a Buddhist prayer wheel and a box of some of the world's oddest musical instruments.
The 80-member team going to India next month will travel in "families" of 12 to 14 on three buses, led by proven problem-solvers like the Groners or Wilber Breseman of Marcellus, a former Cass County Board of Commissioners chairman.
Since their second trip they have made regular stops at an orphanage that "moves you to tears." Each team member packs their second bag with gently used children's clothing to leave there.
Each team member will receive a thick packet from Barbara.
The Groupies' suggestions are very personal, based on their individual experiences.
India National Immunization Day volunteers collectively have distilled their message to five points: polio is a preventable disease; with just two drops of vaccine each child can be protected from polio; the vaccine is a gift to the children from Rotary International; I am here at my own expense for one very important reason - protecting the children of India from polio's crippling effects; and yes, the vaccine is safe. Every one of our children (grandchildren) has taken it.
Muslims resist immunization due to illiteracy, poverty, distrust of the Hindu government and rumors that the vaccine will sterilize their children.
Participants also receive a briefing on baggage policies, weights and charges. Another handout covers "The ABCs of Travel in India," from A (apparel), B (banners, business cards, baggage and bargaining) right on through the remainder of the alphabet.
Barbara notices a remarkable difference in India just in the last six years compared to Africa. Many jobs have been "outsourced" there. "In one way, the Indian culture has kept it from developing because they're generally not an aggressive people," she noted. "This life, this is where I'm supposed to be. I will come back at a higher status in the next life."
Even Americans who start from the bottom of the heap expect to attain their dreams in this life. The Indian government outlawed the caste system. A few politicians have even reached Parliament from "the untouchables."
She remembers assisting Nigerian health officials with immunization. She wore native garb. He kept on a trench coat, even in the heat, because it was a status symbol. "One of the best gifts our team members could give was to leave our shirts with the people we worked with. Those shirts from D&R Sports are all over the world now."
She recalled in Niger when Dave taught a group of twentysomething men gathered in a courtyard for a baby-naming ceremony the card game hearts. He organized a tournament, with their shirts as prizes.
And hard it must have been immunizing 81 million children in 23 countries.
Africa was November's destination. The first team of 13 left for Niger Nov. 11, led by a Stevensville Rotarian on her third trip. Breseman was part of that group.
Dave left Nov. 14 for Benin with a team of 16. Barbara departed Nov. 17 with a team of 20 for Nigeria. The Egypt team was the last to leave Nov. 24, returning Dec. 2.
While Barbara counsels that back-to-back trips are not possible, she cannot ultimately control her husband, who flew Air France into Paris Nov. 23 and arrived in Amsterdam on the 24th to meet the Egypt team.
Barbara was in her third day of immunizing in Nigeria when she didn't feel well enough to enter a school. Her difficulty breathing made her suspect an asthma attack. One of her volunteers was a retired Borgess emergency room doctor. She told him after dinner that she was feeling tired and didn't know why.
Plus, her heart was pounding. Her eyesight felt "wavery, the colors weren't right." Maybe she got too much sun the first day.
The doctor looked at her palm and made an off-the-cuff diagnosis of anemia. They had been to four schools, holding babies, giving drops.
She found herself sitting whenever possible.
Maybe it was a reaction to air pollution, given all the diesel fumes and tire fires.
She was shuttled to a number of locations for a battery of tests.
Each seemed to have a tiring flight of stairs to climb, but her heart checked out.
Finally, "We know what's the matter with you, and it's bad." Her blood volume was low. In fact, it was remarkable she was still walking and talking because normal is between 12 and18 and she was at 5.6.
Dave couldn't be reached immediately at any of his phone numbers. Michele Boyd of Signal Travel helped track him down in Paris. Barbara's doctor was consulted via conference call and her medical records checked.
It was considered too risky to put her on a long flight, so she received O-positive transfusions from four team members. One, a magician who smokes, kids her that she'll be craving cigarettes before she knows it.
She's not leery about returning to India Feb. 10. "This condition was there when I went over," Barbara said. "It (developed) over a period of time and my body adjusted. I spend more time alone in the house. I could have collapsed here and not been found for six hours. Over there, I had a roommate and immunized with people. I was never alone. By the time I knew it was a crisis situation, we were on the way to solving it."