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Two local couples respond to plea from Pakistan

Union Leader Correspondent

November 25. 2011 9:40PM
Joe and Lori Pratt of Northwood and Steve and Deb Puderbaugh of Candia participate in a Polio Awareness March in Lahore, Pakistan, with fellow Rotarians during a recent trip to the nation. (COURTESY)

RAYMOND -- Joe Pratt and Steve Puderbaugh have been involved with Rotary for more than 20 years. They know the importance of the international organization's impact locally, but always had an eye 'outside the backyard.'

A recent trip to Pakistan brought Rotary International's mission of goodwill, peace and cultural understanding to life for the two men and their wives, Lori Pratt and Deb Puderbaugh.

The notion of traveling to the predominantly Muslim nation arose last spring when a Rotary Group Study Exchange team from Pakistan spent a month in the area with Rotary District 7870, which covers much of southern New Hampshire and southern Vermont, speaking to Rotary clubs about their nation, staying with local host families, including the Puderbaughs, and wishing they could reciprocate the hospitality shown to them.

Because the U.S. State Department advises against travel to Pakistan, Rotary International will not sponsor GSE teams to the country.

But impassioned pleas from Pakistani Rotarians that they 'must' come to their country made up Joe Pratt's mind.

'In meeting these people, having them in our home and whatnot, we were just so taken with them and at some point the idea came up that it would be nice to come and visit Pakistan and literally their eyes just lit up,' Joe Pratt said. 'They know what a bad rap they take in the press.'

Despite the State Department advisory and an outbreak of dengue fever, the Pratts and Puderbaughs boarded a plane to Lahore, Pakistan, in October and spent the next two weeks 'humbled' by the hospitality showered upon them and the generosity of spirit exemplified by the Pakistani people they met in many different parts of the country.

Part of their mission was to participate in a National Immunization Day as part of Rotary International's worldwide effort to eradicate polio. Pakistan is one of four nations left where the disease is endemic.

The couples marched in World Polio Day events and spoke at a conference with representatives from UNICEF and the World Health Organization.

They stood side-by-side with Pakistani adults stricken with polio and administered life-saving polio drops to children.

On National Immunization Days, polio clinics are set up all over the nation to inoculate children.

'It was heartbreaking to see those children, even those adults, who have a disease that is so preventable,' Deb Puderbaugh said.

She said giving polio drops side by side with polio victims who want to be part of doing something about the disease was very important.

Joe Pratt said although the two couples traveled as Rotarians and participated in club meetings, social events and humanitarian efforts as a normal GSE team would and were hosted by Rotary clubs in Pakistan, they paid for the trip themselves and it was not technically sponsored by Rotary.

Deb Puderbaugh said hospitality is at the heart of the Pakistani people.

The Puderbaughs and Pratts said everywhere they went families vied for the opportunity to make them dinner or have them to tea, an important cultural exchange in Pakistan.

'If someone asks you to have tea, you have tea,' Joe Pratt said.

They spent two weeks in Pakistan and said they never saw another American tourist.

'American tourism is a pipe dream for them,' Joe Pratt said.

Lori Pratt said she hopes by sharing her experience, she can help dissuade the prevalent view that Pakistani people are dangerous and are a foe.

'These people are like us. They want the same for their families we want for our families,' Lori Pratt said.

Joe Pratt said being on the frontlines of Rotary's fight against polio was also humbling.

'Steve and I always had an eye outside of the backyard, I guess,' Joe Pratt said. 'So to go to Pakistan and just realize how big the need is, how acute the need is, really resets your moral compass a little bit. We came back humbled.'

Inspired by their adventure, the Puderbaughs and Pratts have two projects in the works to help the nation.

Steve Puderbaugh is working with United Christian Hospital, one of several hospitals and orphanages the couples visited while in Pakistan, to help them get new equipment through Rotary.

Joe Pratt was already planning to climb Mount Everest next year, and decided it would be nice to wear the bright red and yellow Rotary 'End Polio Now' patch on his gear for photo ops. Steve Puderbaugh took it a step farther with the idea of raising $1 for each of the 29,000 feet Joe Pratt is going to climb.

The Rotary Foundation felt the men were underestimating themselves, and the goal now is to raise $1 million for the Foundations' Polio Plus program through Pratt's climb.

Pratt, an experienced ice climber, will be 'Conquering Everest for Polio' from the north side of the mountain, the Tibetan side, with a Russian team beginning in April 2012.

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