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A senior's comfort zone includes the world's ailing

A retiree sold her house, gave everything away. Now she's off to Africa again, to help children orphaned by AIDS.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published January 19, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - At 73, Patricia Stoddard believes she has plenty to offer a hurting world. The retired teacher and perennial Peace Corps volunteer takes off for Africa next month.

It will be her fifth trip to the region as a volunteer. This time, she will establish a school for 70 orphans. The petite, energetic woman can't wait to be off. She bought a Berlitz book and tape and is studying Swahili.

"I have my new passport, my malaria pills. I started to collect things. Today I got on the Internet and saw that there are 1.1-million AIDS orphans in Kenya alone and now they're like throwaway kids," she said during a recent interview in her Presbyterian Towers apartment.

The orphanage she's traveling to was established in a large, old house by a Kenyan who wanted to give children orphaned by AIDS a place to live, Ms. Stoddard said. They range in age from 6 to 16.

The home now is a project of Care Highway Humanitarian Aid, a shoestring charity founded by a British man about seven years ago. The charity operates primarily in Eastern Europe, Africa and Central America. After reading a Neighborhood Times article about the group, Ms. Stoddard decided to contact founder Chris Morrison to offer her help. He wanted her to travel to Kenya as soon as possible to help educate the children at the orphanage, she said.

"What Chris has charged me with doing is setting up an education system. There is such a stigma with anyone associated with AIDS that no one wants to be associated with them," she said.

This is not the first time Ms. Stoddard has encountered children with AIDS. The first time was in the 1990s as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone and in Namibia. In Lesotho, she taught and supervised about 60 teachers, walking about 100 miles a week to get to each of the schools she supervised. That was from 1997 to 1999.

She has also worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa and Armenia. She also served as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer in North Carolina for three years.

The mother of two adult children - a son who is a major in the Air Force and a daughter who is a biologist - Ms. Stoddard said she decided to start her adventures as a volunteer when her children left for college. Though she enjoyed teaching, she yearned to do something new.

"Somewhere in there, I got really, really itchy feet," she said.

That led to an Outward Bound course.

"It nearly killed me," she said, but then the leader suggested she would be perfect for the Peace Corps.

"I sold my house. I also gave all my belongings away. I have an early retirement pension which allows me to live a very modest lifestyle," she said.

There are no regrets.

"It's been wonderful," she said.

What is her motivation?

"I suppose there is a spiritual thing there, but I'm not strictly religious," she answered recently.

"God is love, whatever God is. And work is prayer. I want to use everything I have until I can't use it anymore."

This trip to Africa will be a little different. As a Peace Corps volunteer, her travel, immunizations and other expenses were covered by the organization. With Care Highway, though, she will have to buy her own tickets and take care of other expenses. The ticket to Nairobi, Kenya, via Miami and London, will cost $1,200. She's not yet sure how she will get to the Subukia Kirengero Orphanage, which is about 200 miles north of Nairobi. She hopes someone will be at the airport to give her a ride.

The grandmother said she will leave for Kenya on Feb. 23 and return before May. She would like to remain longer, she said, but Presbyterian Towers allows residents to be away from their apartments for only three months a year.

She's taking the bare minimum for herself. Most of her luggage will be for the school.

"They need all kinds of stationery. I will know after this trip what they really need," she said, adding that she is hoping for donations of old picture books from St. Petersburg libraries.

"I can do a million things with picture books. Most of all, we need money," she said.

She is passionate about the project.

"In my mind, there are two things that make this the most wonderful thing that I can do at this time in my life: No child should grow up not being nurtured," and the cycle of AIDS must be broken and can be done by educating the children.

"AIDS is not just an African problem," she said. "It's the world's problem."

FOR INFORMATION

Care Highway Humanitarian Aid, www.carehighway.org

[Last modified January 19, 2005, 00:32:23]


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