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Dream Fund Winner to Work with Grandmothers Against Poverty Group in South Africa

Kathy Williamson will get to live out a long-held dream this summer when she travels to South Africa with a group of students for an Old Dominion University service-learning course.

The latest winner in the Staff Dream Fund program, the employee relations manager in ODU's Department of Human Resources will receive $2,000 and five days of paid leave to make her dream come true. The Staff Dream Fund Selection Committee surprised Williamson on Tuesday with the news.

Williamson had already made arrangements to join Jennifer Fish, chair of the women's studies department, and the students for the three-week course on South Africa: Exploring International Development Through Service Learning, scheduled for July 15 to Aug. 7.

As part of the course, each student develops a service project to carry out during the visit. Williamson plans to work with members of the organization Grandmothers Against Poverty (GAPA), leading a series of peer workshops on "Self-Care." She will be sharing techniques for coping with stress and relaxation techniques, as well as providing information about nutrition, exercise and hydration. In addition, she hopes to introduce some "fun" instruction in meditation, art, poetry and music, as well as explore hopes and dreams, self-esteem and building self-confidence, all while celebrating the support community that GAPA has developed.

"I am excited about our shared status as grandmothers," Williamson wrote in her application for the Staff Dream Fund program. "The women of GAPA are raising their grandchildren (because their daughters and sons have died), and many are taking care of family members with HIV/AIDS amidst poverty and conditions in a violent community."

Williamson, who joined the human resources staff in 2004, said she has dreamed of going to Africa since her high school days.

"It is hard to find the words to describe this yearning," she said in her application. "I have always been drawn to and concerned about issues of social justice - things like the rights and treatment of 'minorities' and watching things change too slowly when I was growing up; the devastation that war leaves behind - in Vietnam, Cambodia and the Middle East; poverty, welfare, human dignity and the stark contrast between the 'have's and have not's' in the communities where I lived (New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.).

"I was always aware of the suffering in Africa from the news about famine, civil wars, genocide, Apartheid in South Africa, colonial rule, and later the AIDS epidemic. I think that my heart focused on South Africa because of the suffering Apartheid caused, the resiliency of the people, their apparent deep spirituality, and the inspiration and hope offered by heroes like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu."

For Williamson, who has been involved in service or mission projects through her church and community for the past 30 years, her upcoming trip to South Africa will be the realization of a high school dream that continued during her college years when, as president of her school's International Relations Club, she had an opportunity to participate in the National Model United Nations in New York City and learn more about South Africa.

"My first real effort to realize this dream was during my last year in college," she wrote in her application. "I planned to join the Peace Corps after graduation and had begun work on the applications. However, my parents' 'influence' changed those plans. This was the time when I knew that my heart's desire was to be in relationship and service in Africa one day - not simply to travel there to see the wonders."

Williamson said she has gone on several major trips over the past 10 years, but believes there was a reason that Africa had not been one of her destinations until now. "If the dream had been to travel to Africa, it might have been realized by now," she wrote. "But my dream has been to go and do something there - to somehow, some way be a minute part of healing and encouragement. The 'vehicle' for providing service did not present until this past year when it seemed that the stars all aligned and propelled me toward realizing the dream."

That was when Williamson met Fish - in the spring of 2010 - to partner on a personnel matter. In talking with Fish, she learned of the educator's years of research, writing, service and travel to South Africa - and the upcoming course planned for the summer of 2011.

And now, Williamson's dream is about to finally come true.

The course website includes the following information: "Participants in this course will share in enriching opportunities to contribute to social development projects as they learn from local experts within a variety of contexts - including parliament, nongovernmental organizations, schools, health care facilities, women's centers and labor unions. This study abroad opportunity takes you into the daily lives of community leaders in South Africa who continue to actively engage with the process of rebuilding society in the aftermath of severe racial conflict. Through direct contact with local organizations and social development projects, students will gain first-hand experiences with a culturally complex society in ways unavailable as an outside tourist."

The ODU Staff Dream Fund was established in 2008 to help deserving employees realize a long-held dream. It provides monetary awards and up to five days of paid time off for staff members to fulfill their dream - pursuing studies in an area unrelated to work, traveling to another country or visiting family far away, for example. The award is not intended to address personal hardship situations, emergencies or job-related professional development.

Full-time classified employees and full-time administrative and professional faculty who have worked at the university for a minimum of five years are eligible to apply.

The Staff Dream Fund Selection Committee includes representatives from all of the vice president divisions on campus. The Department of Human Resources coordinates the program. Voting members of the selection committee are Harry Boucicaut, Dan Campbell, Chandra de Silva, Velvet Grant, Jane Jones, Bridget Nemeth and Lynda Shirk. The Department of Human Resources is a non-voting member in the selection process.

This article was posted on: March 28, 2011

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