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I keep hearing stories from people who say they want to simplify their lives … or they’re at a crossroads and want to make a change … or they want to do something meaningful. Here’s a really uplifting example of someone who actually made the commitment …

A Little Rock friend Kathleen Wesson sent me the following* article in arkansasonline.com about a friends of hers who at age 65 joined the Peace Corps and brought an amazing amount of happiness into her life (as well as to others’) …
Kay Oursler lives in two villages.

One is this gated retirement community of about 8,300 people [Hot Springs Village] Green, welltrimmed yards and colorful flowers surround spacious houses and condominiums. Paved streets wind through green rolling hills past golf courses, tennis courts and hiking trails. Her other village is Uhekule, in western Tanzania.

Its 1,450 residents live in small houses of reddish bricks made by the villagers. The houses have thatched or tin roofs, little furniture, no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Most have dirt floors. The flowers near the houses are rhubarb in bloom. The dirt roads, Oursler says, turn into mud when it rains. The women work the fields of corn, potatoes and wheat.

When many of her peers were taking life easier, hitting the golf course, playing bridge, traveling, visiting grandchildren – Oursler realized she needed something more. “I wanted a challenge, an adventure,” she says. “Twenty years ago I wanted to join the Peace Corps. At age 65, I finally did it.” She was assigned to Uhekule, where she lived 2 -1 /2 years …

Oursler, 68, worked several professional jobs before retiring. She and her ex-husband reared two children; they have seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. In Uhekule, she was instrumental in getting a dispensary and library built, organizing seminars to educate villagers about HIV/AIDS and persuading many to be tested for the human immunodeficiency virus. She helped a group of women generate income by making jams that are sold to hotels and restaurants in the country’s largest city, Dar es Salaam.

Her Peace Corps service ended in December, but she plans to return in late September to begin construction of an orphanage in Uhekule. “There are 116 orphans in my village; most of them lost their parents because of AIDS,” she says.

Oursler is giving presentations everywhere she can – civic clubs, churches, private homes – to raise money. She has about $45,000, but needs $60,000 to meet a challenge grant that would double her total. The money would also provide scholarships for the children. The orphanage will be operated by a group of Roman Catholic nuns. “Kay is doing something the rest of us at our age would do, if we had the courage, dedication and stamina,” says her friend Kathleen Wesson of Little Rock. “She can make a big difference for a lot of people. Sixty thousand dollars would help a few people in this country, but that amount can make a big difference in a lot of lives there.” …

In Oursler’s home are handwoven baskets, colorful kangas (fabric wraps worn by women) and wood carvings, many given to her at a farewell party. “Africa enters your heart, it’s like ‘come back, come back,'” she says. “It’s a different lifestyle, so simple. I don’t worry about anything, except what I’m doing over there. It’s very much in the moment. The people are very loving.” …
Oursler tells people who come to her talks that she understands not everyone would want to follow her footsteps into the Peace Corps. “I tell them there are needy people in America. Help them. But the ones I’m trying to help don’t have the chances Americans do … no Medicaid, food stamps, shelters, food banks.” Senior citizens, she says, should consider Peace Corps service carefully. “I would ask: Can you adjust to leaving family and friends, to a different culture and food and learn a language? There are risk factors. Health care doesn’t exist in some of those areas.” But it wasn’t difficult, she says, to give up things most people take for granted. “Life in Uhekule brought a peace I never had experienced before,” she says. “I can live without electricity and running water.”

Africa wasn’t on her map in 2003. She was near retirement and living in Cottage Grove, Minn., when she and her husband separated after 46 years together. “I thought that was the end of my life,” she says. “If women aren’t in denial, they see the marriage is starting to fall apart. I saw it happening; it wasn’t another woman or another man. We realized we had nothing in common anymore other than our children and golf. “For a time, I was inside myself. I knew I had to get out of that and move on. I can’t spend a lot of time moaning and groaning about things; in time, I realized this wasn’t the end of my life, it was the beginning.” She and her former husband are “best of friends now.”

“When I realized my opportunities, I decided to retire and did volunteer work for a while. In January 2004, I decided I needed a new life and wanted to get away from Minnesota winters. I came to Hot Springs Village; we had been here before and planned to live here when we both retired.”

When Oursler received her invitation to join the Peace Corps in 2004, most of her family was very unhappy when they foundout she was going to Africa. Her friends also were worried. “It was difficult,” she says. “My son, especially, was upset.” When she returned on leave and showed him pictures of the village and the people, “he came around. He said then he knew I was OK. My daughter just said, ‘Mom, whatever floats your boat.’ Everyone’s OK with it now.”

Peace Corps training was tough. “I really struggled with Swahili,” she says. “The kids out of college could pick it up faster, but older volunteers like me … our retention isn’t as good. I got better when I got [to] the village.”

Her home in the village has cement floors, something many villagers don’t have. “My house has two bedrooms, a sitting room, and, off the courtyard, a tiny kitchen, a bathing room and a toilet.” She fetches water in a bucket from a spigot in the village. To bathe, she heats water on a clay stove and pours it into a bucket. “I use the drainage to water the roses in my garden.” Her diet was supplemented by vacuum-packed tuna and salmon in care packages sent by a neighbor and supportive friend in Hot Springs Village, Michael Moriarity… The staple food of the villagers, ugali, is made with water and corn flour. She says ugali resembles mashed potatoes “but doesn’t taste as good.” The village does, however, grow peaches, plums and pears. She was also pleased with the temperate weather; Uhekule is about 6,000 feet above sea level.

The community felt happy even though people had very little. “The people are very social, they love to visit. It can take five minutes just to greet someone.” And she felt safe. “I never had a sleepless night there.”

Oursler beams when she talks about “my greatest day” in the Peace Corps. “The Corps wanted us to work at breaking the stigma of HIV and AIDS. I knew we had these mamas in the village who were HIV positive. I started a vegetable garden for them and others who were sick. I told one of the villagers who was HIV positive that I needed the mamas to come and work in the garden and take the produce. ‘They are afraid to come, they don’t want people to know,’ he said. I asked him to talk to them. “Five days later, I heard a ‘hodihodi’ [Swahili for ‘May I come in?’] outside my door, and there were 10 mamas with buckets of compost on their head. That was one of the best days in my life.”

One weekday about a year ago, Oursler took the bus to a nearbytown for supplies. “I saw Isaya, a boy who always followed me around town on weekends. He was at the bus station selling onions. I asked him why he wasn’t in school. He told me … ‘Mama died.’ “It was a spiritual awakening for me; it was like a message – ‘do something about this.’ That’s when the idea of the orphanage came to me. I like to think that it’s a higher power giving me direction.”

After returning to Uhekule, she spoke with the village’s leaders about the orphanage and they agreed to help. “I’d also like to get dairy cows or dairy goats into the village,” she says.

Leaving Uhekule was heartrending, she says. “They gave me a wonderful farewell party and showered me with gifts. I couldn’t believe the number of people who worked so hard to show their appreciation.”

Her age had something to do with it, she says. “Anytime I was carrying something, a child or adult would runup and carry it for me. The attitude toward elders is different. I think we’re missing the boat in America; our older people go into nursing homes, not with their families. Over there, they love older people. They’ve told me, ‘We want you back, we want your wisdom.’ I was so moved.”

Oursler says the Peace Corps warned her and others that re-entry into America would be harder than adjusting to Africa. “I pooh-poohed them. But when I came back, I looked at my house and it looked like a palace, I looked in my closet and started to cry. I couldn’t believe I had so many clothes. Mike and I went to church one Sunday and I started crying, I couldn’t stop.”

Her former husband, a therapist, told her she needed to see someone. “I did. I just had to talk about how self-righteous I’d become because I think everybody here has too much. I couldn’t get over how much my grandchildren have when I know so many kids who have nothing. I don’t want my friends or others to feel guilty.This is America, the land of plenty. But I get uneasy when people talk about how much something costs; it’s a turnoff for me when I know people in my village are hungry and don’t have anything.”

Oursler, who is sending several Uhekule children to boarding school, is hopeful that the orphanage will provide a stable home for children who don’t have one.”Education is the key for Uhekule, for Tanzania and all of Africa,” she says. “But it’s expensive. Elementary is free, but secondary [high school] is very costly. Most can’t afford it. And these children won’t have a chance without it.”

How to give to Kay’s Efforts
More information about Kay Oursler’s efforts to raise $60,000 for a matching grant to help Tanzanian orphans is available by calling (501) 915-8174, e-mailing kayhsv@earthlink.net or checking the Web site bibikay.tripod.com. Checks for tax-deductible contributions can be mailed to Praecavemus Foundation, 128 Wilder Ave., Los Gatos, Calif. 95030. Add “BBK orphanage” on the memo line.


Democrat Gazette, Arkansasonline.com, “It takes two villages” by Ellie Widner, Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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