Taking steps to challenge oneself is a great way to gain experiences that allow someone to better help others in difficult situations — at least, that's what Derek Rush believes.
Rush, a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff's Office and staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, says he has always been looking for new ways to test his ability to learn and overcome hardship.
It's what motivated him to join the Marine Corps, he said.
It's also what made him request to move to temporarily inactive service status in order to join the Peace Corps.
While he was studying at Oregon State University, Rush, a combat engineer, was hoping his unit would have the opportunity to deploy.
But the drawdown of troops in Iraq in the early 2010s was increasing, and deployments for Marine Corps reservists were decreasing, Rush said.
It wasn't looking likely he would be able to deploy, but he was itching for a challenge and a dramatically different experience.
"I knew I wanted to get overseas, and I wanted to test myself and see how far I could go," Rush said.
After graduating, he joined the Peace Corps and spent more than two years in Senegal working on public health initiatives in small, rural villages.
Rush, who grew up in Portland, says the experience was the challenge he was looking for.
He was placed in a village about 20 miles away from any paved road, where the residents mostly spoke a local tribal language instead of French, the West African country's official language, and lived with a host family in a mud hut, he said.
"It's very mentally taxing, because you're the only American in your village," Rush said, who went by the name Abdul-Rakman Njaiye while there. "There's this huge culture shock."
Rush worked to improve hygienic conditions by building latrines because some villages without sewage systems were getting sick, he said.
With a dry season that often left subsistence farming families able to eat one meal per day, he also helped fight malnutrition in the area, he said.
Rush would travel to villages and help educate residents about what resources were available to provide food aid, including at a facility run by the United Nations that would give severely malnourished children fortified peanut butter packets.
"One of the things that I come out of it with is just a much greater empathy for other people," he said.
Rush added that what he learned from the experience helps him in his current work serving Cornelius with the Sheriff's Office.
He brings that greater sense of empathy to interactions he has while on duty, allowing him to consider the reasons behind someone's actions or statements without excessive judgment, he said.
"Someone with a mental illness, for example," Rush said. "It's not uncommon, unfortunately. If they're having a delusion, the key isn't to break down their delusion. I'm not a psychologist. Maybe they don't have a feeling of security. What they're feeling is real to them. What I say to them is, 'What can we do right now to put you in a situation where you can at least feel safe?'"
Rush says he's still hoping to be deployed overseas with the Marine Corps, adding that he'll jump at the first opportunity.
For now, he says he'll focus on helping his community.
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