By Ellen Braunstein
Donald Chauls traveled the world for nearly 30 years, working for international aid organizations that fought poverty and improved health. By all accounts, this 81-year-old Sandy Spring resident was a big-hearted humanitarian and represented the best of America’s values abroad.
He retired 20 years ago and enjoys his days birding, reading and keeping up with progressive causes. He vividly recalls often funny stories of his journeys that took his family of four to the Philippines, Myanmar (then Burma), Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal and Yemen.
He said it was the time he spent on Kibbutz Ma’ayan Zvi, from 1960 to 1961, that stimulated his interest in working on community health projects in the developing world.
“I read the many Jerusalem Post articles describing Israel’s aid projects in Africa,” said Chauls, who grew tulips on the Carmel Valley kibbutz for export to Holland. “The articles got me interested in working in similar aid projects in developing countries.”
Chauls grew up in Port Chester, N.Y., and graduated from Middlebury College. Active in Jewish organizations, Chauls’ father was an engineer and always wanted his son to become one.
But Chauls had humanitarian work in mind. He volunteered for the nascent Peace Corps in the early ‘60s in the Philippines — an idealist among young idealists who wanted to change the world.
It was in Cebu City, Philippines, where he met his future wife, Estrella, a manager of a restaurant across the street from where he was staying for a regional gathering of Peace Corps volunteers.
When they decided to marry, this young Catholic Filipina wanted to be wed in a church. “We went from one priest to another and they all said that we couldn’t get married because I had killed Christ. Me, personally.”
They finally caught up with the Archbishop of Cebu and it turned out he was a drinking buddy of Estrella’s father. “He was much more lenient and he said it was OK. So, we were married in 1964 in the archbishop’s palace.”
The couple had two children, Niko, who trained in journalism, and Maya, a nurse practitioner, who became an Orthodox Jew despite her father’s professed atheism.
He explains his rejection of Jewish ritual. “The whole idea of praying seems like a bad idea to me,” said Chauls, who researches his Jewish heritage and has demonstrated for liberal Jewish causes. “To me, most prayers by most people consists of, sort of, asking for things. And I think that that’s something that human beings should do on their own and not ask, you know, any god to do it for them.”
Chauls completed his stint in the Peace Corps and returned to the States, where he earned a doctorate in educational planning at Harvard University. He was hired by UNESCO to run a population education workshop in Bangkok.
“The other assignments just sort of fell in line after that,” he said.
He worked for USAID, an international development agency, and on a project for the World Bank, which provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries. .
In Yemen in the mid-‘80s, he headed a team that set up health centers in the port city of Hodeida. The project was successful and replicated throughout the country, but “war wiped out anything that might have been achieved,” he said.
“My being Jewish was not considered a problem by any of my Yemeni colleagues,” Chauls said, although his Israeli folk music records were confiscated at the airport and never returned.
“Yemen was OK for me, but not my wife. It’s not a good place to be a woman. Estrella wanted out as quickly as possible.”
In Nepal, Chauls helped organize community health workers. Two decades later he learned that the program had succeeded spectacularly. More than 40,000 unpaid female villagers were providing primary health care to their neighbors.
In Indonesia, he worked with a successful family program that spread to Bangladesh and other undeveloped countries. “Five-thousand people observed the program and took it back to their home countries. It was a fairly major accomplishment.”
Of all countries he visited, Burma was most interested in receiving aid only for a short time. “I went there five times and loved the country. It was the only place in which I have worked where the nationals viewed foreign assistance as a temporary measure, rather than a crutch on which they would continuously lean.”
The Chauls family lived and traveled in countries, many of which were in the midst of economic and political upheaval, sometimes chaos. “None of the places where we lived enjoyed peaceful, periodic change of government. Often I would hear from family members and others that our life was dangerous, and that we were making a significant sacrifice by not living a standard life at home.”
Looking back, he reflects, “For nearly three decades, we had a fantastic opportunity to take part in a half dozen different cultures, to begin to understand the variety of ways of looking at life, to go far beyond the minimal experiences that a tourist may have. To me, a standard life in the U.S. would truly have been a sacrifice.”
Ellen Braunstein is a Chicago-based writer.