Brianna Backes went to Madagascar to get some on-the-ground experience working in public health. The Cathedral High School graduate had been inspired to work in public health in Africa after a three-week trip to Tanzania her senior year of high school.

Brianna Backes went to Madagascar to get some on-the-ground experience working in public health. The Cathedral High School graduate had been inspired to work in public health in Africa after a three-week trip to Tanzania her senior year of high school.

But she came back with more than professional experience, the St. Cloud Times reported . The relationships she developed with kids and their families were the most meaningful part of her Peace Corps experience. The people she met quickly became close, as she refers to them: "my kids" and "my family" in "my village."

Backes was already working in public health and international development in Washington, D.C. for a policy-focused think-tank when she applied for the Peace Corps.

"They said, how do you feel about Madagascar? I said, well, I've seen the Disney movie," she said. "Madagascar, in many ways, is like the least African country in Africa."

Early on, she was embraced by her neighbors.

"When I first showed up ... the 9-year-old and 11-year-old were like, we're going to teach you how to do everything," Backes said, how to do laundry, cook and even sweep the floor.

"They really thought I couldn't do anything. And I understand why they thought that and in some ways, I couldn't," she said. "So not only was it wonderful that they took me in just because they were kind people ... but they also helped me survive. ... By the end of my time there ... I'd eat all of my meals there. The kids slept at my house. We got really really close."

Of course, some things don't change from country to country.

"I am sitting in this village in Madagascar and hanging out with these old people. And they're all sitting round complaining how all of their kids are ... on Facebook all the time," Backes said. "That could have just as easily been Foley, Minnesota."

Backes had knowledge on public health to share, but she also she had plenty to learn.

"I think every Peace Corps volunteer ever would agree with me on this ... this definitely wasn't a story of, I come in and I'm this wonderful person who is giving my knowledge to this village," she said. "It taught me so much about relationships and how critical those are to everybody," she said, especially in terms of public health and community development.

She spent much of the first year learning the local language — Malagasy, which is distinct from other African languages and similar to the Indonesian language. The language reflects the people and culture, which mixes African, Arabic and Asian influences.

"The first year that I was there, I was sitting at the market with people learning the language. That's why when I first started working, I was doing a lot in the schools because it's a lot less intimidating speaking in public in front of 6-year-olds," she said. "They take your language mishaps in stride."

Over two years, Backes did a variety of work as a community health worker: youth sexual and reproductive health work, nutrition mentoring for pregnant women and malaria education.

Some of her favorite work was with teenagers. About 30 of them formed a group of peer educators who she met with every few weeks to teach health lessons.

"Then they were responsible for spreading those health messages to their friends and other people in the community," Backes said. "Some of my kids came up with this great idea, where they started making raps and music."

In one video, a teenage boy sings about delaying sexual activity until they are older. One girl says she is 13 years old and she already likes a boy, but she's going to wait to get into a relationship because she wants to finish school.

"When I started doing this, I didn't realize how relevant it was. But the more I got kids talking about it, I found out a lot of different stories," Backes said.

A World Health Organization report shows only about one quarter of people in Madagascar ages 15 to 24 have comprehensive, correct knowledge of HIV and AIDS. Less than one in 10 people ages 15 to 49 use a condom during higher-risk sex.

She said there are a lot of problems throughout Madagascar of older men taking advantage of younger women, especially if the men are wealthy and the girls poor. A 2013 study found more than one-third of Malagasy women had given birth by age 18.

"I felt like parents were very, very supportive because it got kids involved in something that was helping the community, in something that was helping build their own self confidence," she said.

A highlight of the trip were camps she took her kids to around the country. More than 100 girls from all over Madagascar were brought to the capital for a a weeklong series on health. They also visited the local university and American Embassy.

"And that was a really, really big deal. ... They had heard a lot about the capital city but they've never imagined actually going there," Backes said.

There was also a camp for boys in a national park, where they talked about being partners to girls in relationships, but also to the environment and society, she said.

Her final youth camp brought all the kids who participated in camps to come together and share what they learned.

"That was cool because I got to see my kids really step up and be leaders in the community. That's when ... the music videos came out," she said.

She hopes the trips were as transformational for her kids as a trip was for her when she was their age.

"I went to Tanzania when I was this age, and I remember how that impacted my whole career trajectory," Backes said.

She learned a lot along the way.

"It was an incredible experience for me personally because I had to get out of my comfort zone," she said. "Sometimes being a little bit uncomfortable is important, especially doing that kind of work."

She says she's also learned to be more patient, humble and more able to negotiate cultural experiences.

Coming back, she's noted the cultural tension in Central Minnesota.

"Seeing that (discord) has been really, really hard for me. Because I have more compassion than ever for people who are coming into new situations, and they're in a new place," she said. "Having this experience has given me a lot of empathy. I'd really love to do more work with refugees doing forward."

What is she up to now? Backes is pursuing her master's degree in public health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, which she applied to when she was in Madagascar.

"It's weird coming back. They say a lot that the readjustment period is actually harder than the adjustment period, which is true," she said. "I wouldn't say that changed me as a person. But it's been very satisfying in getting to have those experiences that I really felt like I needed to be effective in public health."