Alumna Wilnie Merilien increases resilience to disasters in the Philippines

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USF College of Public Health alumna Wilnie Merilien recently completed a seven-month US Peace Corps placement as a disaster risk and reduction management program officer for the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office in Carigara, Philippines.

Born in Cap-Haitian, Haiti, Merilien moved to West Palm Beach, Fla. when she was four years old. As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida, Merilien began as a psychology major but switched to public health after feeling a strong connection to the field.

“I decided to change my major from psychology to public health during my sophomore year. The COPH stood out to me because of its level of community engagement,” she said. “As a product of marginalized communities, I saw public health as a way to give back to my community.”

Merilien graduated from the COPH with her BSPH in 2012 and earned her MPH with a concentration in disaster management, humanitarian assistance and homeland security in 2018.

“I left the COPH with a strong sense of community not only to my COPH peers and faculty, but also to the surrounding community,” she said.

Wilnie Merilien (far right) and Alejo Urmenta, department head of the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, (far left) and participants at the Carigara Barangay Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Orientation. (Photo courtesy of Merilien)
Wilnie Merilien (far right) and Alejo Urmenta, department head of the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, (far left) and participants at the Carigara Barangay Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Orientation. (Photo courtesy of Merilien)

During her time the COPH, she completed her first placement with the US Peace Corps in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. During her 27 months there as a HIV and community health volunteer, Merilien worked with a variety of high-risk groups such as commercial sex workers, day laborers, orphans and vulnerable children, blind/deaf/disabled youth, middle/high school students, religious leaders and local government agencies.

“I developed projects, lead trainings and produced outreach events in collaboration with my Ethiopian counterparts. These activities concentrated on areas such as sexual health, HIV/AIDS prevention, family planning, woman’s empowerment, Malaria prevention, sanitation, food security and computer literacy,” she said.

Merilien was able to learn two languages while in Ethiopia: Amharic, the Ethiopian national language, and American Sign Language.

“After two years of grassroots work in Ethiopia, I recognized the current needs and the future challenges we face,” she said. “I have strong commitment to the field of Public Health.”

From 2016 to 2018, Merilien was also the campus Peace Corps recruiter at USF. She interacted with USF students and community members who had interest in serving underdeveloped communities. This experience inspired her to apply for a Peace Corps Response position in the Philippines.

Fifteen new Peace Corps response volunteers took their oath during their swearing-in ceremony administered by Ambassador Sung Kim on October 12, 2018 in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo courtesy of Merilien)
Fifteen new Peace Corps response volunteers took their oath during their swearing-in ceremony administered by Ambassador Sung Kim on October 12, 2018 in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo courtesy of Merilien)

Merilien’s placement in the Philippines began in September 2018 and ended in April 2019. She arrived September 29, 2018 and successfully completed an intensive nine-day training to prepare her for 7-8 month assignments in the field of environment, education, and disaster risk reduction and management. 

“I was drawn to disaster management in the Philippines because of how similar the social, physical, economic, environmental and vulnerability to natural disasters is to my birth country, Haiti,” Merilien said. “The strength and resiliency of the people of Philippines reminded me of the people of Haiti.”

There she collaborated with the local government to carry out disaster preparedness and response activities with local stakeholders. She worked with staff to develop workshop and training modules for disaster management-related trainings and was responsible for data management, planning, training and the coordination of disaster risk reduction and management program activities.

“What I loved the most about working for the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office was the dedication and commitment of the staff and community stakeholders to building a healthy and disaster resilient municipality,” Merilien said.

Wilnie Merilien and Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office staff presented the newly-translated English plan to their pilot barangay (neighborhood). (Photo courtesy of Merilien)
Wilnie Merilien and Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office staff presented the newly-translated English plan to their pilot barangay (neighborhood). (Photo courtesy of Merilien)

While she was serving in the Philippines, was able to see a natural disaster firsthand.

“Three days before I was scheduled to leave the Philippines, I was completing my Close of Service paperwork in Manila when a magnitude 6.1 tremor hit the island of Luzon. This earthquake claimed many lives and collapsed buildings. I felt the earthquake in Manila and was inside a building when it started to shake. Roughly, 24-hours later a 6.4 earthquake struck near my assigned community in the Visayas region. There was no reported deaths in my community,” she said.

One of Merilien’s greatest professional accomplishments at her placement was working with staff to translate and update the disaster risk reduction and management plan for three years from Tagalog to English. This new template will be implemented by 49 barangays (neighborhoods) within Carigara.

Merilien said that she ultimately wants to increase resilience to disasters and hazards in Haiti as well.

COPH Alumni Fast Five:

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

I dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Where would we find you on the weekend?

The beach or downtown St. Petersburg.

What is the last book you read?

“The Uses of Haiti,” by Paul Farmer.

What superpower would you like to have?

I would have the power to teleport.

What’s your all-time favorite movie?

“Coming to America”

Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health

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