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After their 24-year-old daughter died alone in the Peace Corps in 2018, family warns others who prepare to volunteer amid pandemic

By Alison Bowen, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Parenting News

While in Chicago, Bernice Heiderman volunteered at the Field Museum, showing children things like dinosaur and mammoth teeth, said her sister, Grace Heiderman. She went to Lollapalooza and worked at Nookie's and Dairy Queen. Her favorite museum was the Chicago History Museum. She loved dining out in Greektown. And she was a huge Cubs fan.

After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she got on a plane in 2016 for her Peace Corps assignment in Comoros, an island nation off the coast of Africa.

"She was looking to have something that she'd never experienced before," Grace said.

During her year and a half there, she taught English to junior high students and started a program called the Junior Exploration Club that took children to places they hadn't seen within their island nation, like an animal rescue and the National Museum of Comoros. She taught the kids to sing "Go Cubs Go."

She couldn't easily get Wi-Fi, but she kept her parents updated on her new life. She loved the people and the country; her mother remembers a photo of her sitting on a rock, looking over the ocean, "just glowing."

While celebrating New Year's, she felt nauseous. In the days following, she recounted chills, a headache and dizziness to her worried mother. Although under the care of Peace Corps medical personnel, she was never tested for malaria.

Then, the texts stopped.

 

The phone rang at home on a Monday morning. When her father, Bill Heiderman, answered, a stranger told her that his daughter had died that morning.

"I literally screamed so loud I lost my hearing," he said.

The Peace Corps has a memorial fund for her that will support projects in Comoros.

Her brother, William Heiderman, had planned to visit during her tour. Instead, her sister went to collect the things from her apartment in Comoros after her death.

Her brother still traveled to spend a week Comoros. He remains in touch with those who helped create her explorer's club. It still exists.

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