Ira Stollak shot a personal question to his audience, which ranged from college students to retirees.
“How many of you,” he asked, “grew up in a community where the doors were not locked?”
To those who raised their hands: “You are probably going to live longer.”
Stollak himself grew up on a block where doors were not locked. Now he lives in Clallam County, where there are still pockets of such openness.
And in his March 1 lecture at Peninsula College, Stollak, a former English professor who more recently became a public health consultant, laid out a richly researched case for neighborliness.
In a community where residents not only know each other but also care for one another, the people are healthier, Stollak posited.
He cited a variety of sources — books, scholarly articles, websites — along with his own experiences.
The longtime Olympic Peninsula resident has spent decades studying, and then working in, communities from Port Angeles to Mathura, India.
He’s learned that, contrary to popular belief, community bonds can be more powerful when it comes to good health than exercise, diet and even medical interventions.
Stollak grew up in Queens, N.Y., during the 1950s, when that New York City borough was a place where neighbors didn’t feel the need to lock their doors. He was also a Boy Scout, and a lover of Alley Pond Park, a Queens green space where he spent much of his childhood.
While still a young man, he discovered a whole other world of open spaces.
After college, Stollak hitchhiked out West, and fell in love with this coastline. He visited the University of California at Santa Cruz, found it “magnificent,” and enrolled in graduate school there.
Armed with his degree in literature, Stollak and his first wife moved to Big Bear Lake, Calif., where they worked at a residential school for at-risk teenagers.
Next they moved to Colorado, where Stollak worked construction; then it was Portland, Ore., for a few years, and then Port Angeles in 1975.
“We came up here with a little savings and a positive attitude,” he recalls.
He soon found one job, then added some moonlighting. Stollak was hired to direct the Northwest Services Council — which partnered with AmeriCorps and the local school districts to develop activities for at-risk youth — while using that lit degree to teach English at Peninsula College.
He also raised a son, Jesse, who is now Nike’s global digital brand and innovation director, based in Portland.
For the elder Stollak, the post-empty nest years have seen a couple of dramatic turns.
The first came in 2002, when Stollak, then 53, went to work in Central America, realizing a dream he first dreamed at age 12.
He remembers listening to John F. Kennedy, then a candidate for president, speak of “a peace corps of talented men and women” who would dedicate themselves to the progress and peace of developing countries.
“I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that,’” Stollak recalls.
So this grown-up Boy Scout — wanderlust still intact — did it.
Stollak joined the Peace Corps and served in Belize, teaching HIV prevention. Yet two years in the corps weren’t enough. Stollak knew he wanted to keep working in the developing world — and he wanted to learn more about the deeper roots of poverty and public health problems.
So at 55, he enrolled at the University of Washington, in pursuit of a master’s in public health, even though it meant more years without much of an income.
The UW School of Public Health was a transformative experience. Stollak studied with classmates from everywhere: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Peru, Nicaragua.
But with these two decisions — volunteering with the Peace Corps, then going back to college — “my friends thought I was crazy,” Stollak recalls. “I went against the conventional wisdom . . . that I should save for retirement.”
Instead, now that he is past age 60, Stollak is still paying off his student loans.
Clearly, he regrets none of it.
Stollak hopes to continue his work on community projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa; he says he would love to return to Liberia, where he worked in 2008, and India — “another world” — where he traveled from village to village in 2009.
“I follow my heart,” he says.
“I bring my brain along. But I’m led by my heart.”
Stollak is an independent consultant for Curamericas Global, and has spent the past five years working with the USAID-funded organization in places as diverse as Haiti, Bolivia and Uttar Pradesh, India.
He returned at the end of February from Guatemala, where he spent five weeks working with the Maya people of Calhuitz.
In this community high in the mountains, four hours’ drive away from the nearest hospital, Stollak worked with local women to build casa materna birthing centers, places where mothers-to-be could come to bear their children in sanitary, supportive conditions.
In projects such as this, foreign aid workers do not swoop in, put up a building and leave.
Instead, Stollak and his colleagues, including Dr. Mario Valdez — whom Stollak calls “brilliant” — collaborate with community members, developing surveys, translating them into the local Mayan languages, training interviewers and then using the survey results to build a casa materna that the women will actually use.
“There are two kinds of aid,” Stollak says.
One is the kind where “you go down and do it for them.” Teams of doctors, nurses and dentists travel to an impoverished place, provide services and then go back home to the United States, or Canada, or wherever they live in the “first world.”
The other kind of aid, Stollak explains, is called “building capacity.” This means not only constructing clinics and community centers, but also developing local networks of people to run them. It means improving quality of life and health — while respecting the values and cultural traditions that belong to this particular place.
All of it is complicated — and it can be “tear-your-hair-out frustrating,” Stollak admits. In some communities, he’s faced the fatalistic “it’s always been this way, so it always will be” belief.
Perhaps the most useful thing he learned, he adds, is patience. He’s had ample opportunity to develop it, during his Peace Corps service and in the places he’s worked since.
Yet Stollak, through personal experience and study, believes in humans’ capacity to band together and take care of one another.
He’s seen it happen through social safety-net initiatives in places such as Sweden, France, Australia, Great Britain — and the United States.
In his lecture at Peninsula College, Stollak spoke of this country’s long history of social welfare programs, initiatives funded by the federal government from the late 1930s forward.
They are programs that promote equality and health across the life span: Head Start preschool, the G.I. Bill of Rights, Medicare and Social Security, to name a few. Community development block grants, also federally funded, helped towns like Port Angeles build things like Civic Field. Sports facilities are among the investments, Stollak emphasizes, that build community — and thus better health.
But these days, Stollak said, “social programs” are viewed with suspicion, and considered by some to be too costly.
To his mind, cutting them exacts a terrible cost to the people of this country. When a society suffers deep divisions in income and access to decent housing and schooling, public health suffers, Stollak has found.
He believes in investing in public education — one of the largest social-welfare programs out there — and in the environment. These are investments in quality of life that will pay off, he believes, in better health for the whole population.
In and around his own community, Stollak sees good things happening. The North Olympic Skills Center is a “huge development,” providing affordable training in Port Angeles.
The removal of the Elwha River dams and the restoration of the surrounding ecosystem are leaps forward, as is the section-by-section extension of the Olympic Discovery Trail. The trail, dedicated to bicyclists, pedestrians and equestrians, is designed to eventually stretch from Port Townsend all the way to the Pacific coast at LaPush.
“Any time I read about our community investing in its kids and in the environment, I am heartened,” Stollak says.
After serving in the Peace Corps, earning his degree at UW and working in Asia and Africa, Stollak could have gone to live in Seattle, or Washington, D.C., or some such urban place where he would be closer to the offices of Curamericas Global and USAID.
But he instead returned home to Port Angeles. His work with Curamericas “was pretty intense,” he says. Stollak admits that he needed a break.
“The Peninsula,” he adds, “is a magical place; a good place to recharge your batteries.”
When pressed for specifics on how he renews himself, Stollak replies that he uses something he learned back in the early 1970s at UC Santa Cruz.
“I meditate. And I do yoga,” learned from a yogi from India. This yogi taught the 22-year-old Stollak that yoga isn’t merely an exercise program. It’s a health regimen for body, spirit and mind; the word yoga, after all, is Sanskrit for union.
Stollak, who is divorced, has also had good fortune in another way.
“I have a wonderful wife,” he says, “which really helps.”
He met Marta, a native of Colombia, while working at Curamericas Global in Raleigh, N.C. They have been married nearly three years now, and live in a Lake Crescent-blue house a few miles outside Port Angeles.
There, Stollak has written a book about his Peace Corps service in Belize: In the Land of the Balaam.
The balaam in the title is a nod to the Mayan word for the jaguar, of which Belize still has a protected wild population. And Stollak, in his two years there, kept journals about life in the small Caribbean coastal nation.
The Peace Corps was a new beginning for this man, and he still believes in the ideal that gave birth to it. Stollak would love to see the United States government invest more in such initiatives.
“Why not quadruple the size of the Peace Corps, and make it easier for skilled people to join?” he asks. Stollak believes immense benefits, for Americans and for the world, would come with growing the corps.
“Get tens of thousands of Americans experiencing the world, and you’re not going to have 9/11s,” he says. Building partnerships at the community level — the hand up rather than the handout approach — “that’s how you create goodwill; not by building military bases.”
Americans “live in the penthouse of the world,” Stollak adds, “and though some of us are in the basement of the penthouse, it’s still the penthouse.”
Back when he was contemplating Peace Corps service, Stollak read Infections and Inequalities, a book by Paul Farmer. Farmer is one of Stollak’s heroes, alongside other scholars such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who wrote about the health effects of community solidarity in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.
Citing Wilkinson, Pickett and other public health research, Stollak speaks of places such as the Pennsylvania town of Roseto, where residents are extraordinarily long-lived. Roseto was a community of Italian Americans who got together — a lot — with their families and friends. But when the younger generations started moving away, Stollak said, “their health collapsed.”
Just as social isolation can lead to depression, the research shows, a lost sense of community means widespread malaise, and worse.
Wilkinson’s works are all about how “good life enhances health,” Stollak said. Friendships, family bonds, a sense of community: it adds up to quality of life and quantity of years.
The same goes for the Swedish and for the French, Stollak adds. The French are notorious for their smoking. The Swedes enjoy a salty, fatty diet. But Sweden and France have some of the best social safety nets in the world, Stollak said. Hence the French live longer.
“Sorry, folks, it’s not the red wine,” Stollak quipped.
Paid sick leave and vacation time, paid maternity leave, fair housing and labor laws and free, public education that is funded equally in all neighborhoods are also key predictors of public health, Stollak said.
As for the United States, social reforms here have also improved health by improving lives. Yet many federal programs are in danger of being cut — if they haven’t already been reduced significantly.
Stollak, in ending his talk at Peninsula College, asked his audience to consider their future.“We’re at a turning point,” he said. “We’ve got to decide what kind of society we want to have.”