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Kathy Williamson Realizes Long-Held Dream During Service-Learning Course in South Africa

Ever since she was a teenager in Connecticut, Kathy Williamson has had a dream.

Through college and into her working career, she has always been drawn to the issues and human needs in Africa. At home in Chesapeake, she has a box filled with information, pictures and writings she's collected about the continent. Her entire adult life, she's imagined going to Africa to provide some kind of service - to make some small difference in people's lives.

Through a combination of coincidences, Williamson, employee relations manager at Old Dominion, realized her dream this summer as the recipient of the university's Dream Fund. And it was better than she ever imagined.

"It honestly changed my life. It was more rewarding, more exciting, more special than I could have possibly thought," said Williamson. "I have new friends in Africa with whom I will remain in contact and relationship - with the hope of returning in the future."

For three weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, from July 15 to Aug. 9, Williamson worked with the organization Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA), a non-government, grant-funded organization whose backbone is 300 strong South African women whose families have been impacted by HIV-AIDS. The grandmothers lead support groups for others affected by the disease, on topics ranging from dealing with grief to AIDS prevention.

"These women are so strong. Each one has experienced tragedy and loss, and now, in their senior years, they are raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have lost parents to HIV-AIDS. They support each other and sing with joy! It was incredibly inspiring," Williamson said.

Also during her visit, she got a very exclusive audience with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the truly inspiring figures in her life.

In her role with the ODU's Department of Human Resources, Williamson was responsible for coordinating the selection process when the university started its Dream Fund initiative in 2008.

The Dream Fund was created to provide an opportunity for full-time classified employees and administrative and professional faculty to fulfill a dream - unrelated to professional development or their job, and not to address personal financial hardship.

She coordinated the selection of two ODU staff members in 2008. Overseeing the selection process sparked Williamson's long-held hope to realize her own dream.

"I asked my supervisor that if I oversaw the selection process (in 2008), could I be excused from it and apply the next time the program is offered," Williamson said. The answer was yes.

Unfortunately, a dive in the stock market meant money wasn't available for Dream Fund initiatives in 2009 and 2010. But that only allowed more pieces to fall into place for Williamson.

During a meeting last year with Jennifer Fish, associate professor and chair of women's studies in the College of Arts and Letters - regarding a personnel matter - Fish told Williamson about the service-learning course she had been leading in South Africa, in which students learn about socio-economic development, political transition and human rights by working directly with groups in Africa. Williamson asked Fish if she could take a class to be eligible to go on the following year's study abroad trip. Again, the answer was yes.

"At about the same time that I met Professor Fish, I was told by my supervisor that it was my turn to go to an HR conference that year," Williamson said. "The conference was in New Orleans. I looked at the agenda online and who was the keynote speaker? Immaculée Ilibagiza! I thought, 'This is meant to be.'"

Ilibagiza, one of Williamson's African heroines, is the author of "Left to Tell," a chilling autobiography about surviving the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The book has been in Williamson's Africa box since its publication in 2006.

With everything in place, Williamson found out in the spring that she had been selected as ODU's Dream Fund recipient, which came with $2,000 and five days of paid leave. That's when the pieces really began to fall into place.

Her church, New Creation United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, contributed $750 for her to give to GAPA when she was in South Africa. That became $1,500 by the time she left, through additional donations from ODU colleagues and her fellow travelers in the service-learning course.

Williamson also took with her 300 handwritten cards from her fellow parishioners, heartfelt letters of support "for these grandmothers who they've never met, and never will meet," she said.

When the executive director for GAPA found out Williamson, a human resources professional, was volunteering with the organization for three weeks, she was overjoyed. Williamson partnered with the executive director to create job descriptions, evaluation tools and HR policies. "These are things that the executive director knew that she needed but did not have the time to focus on and complete," Williamson said. "The opportunity to establish a friendship in South Africa that I can sustain is the single most meaningful result of the trip for me."

She also had plenty of face-to-face time with the grandmothers themselves, which included sharing meals of traditional African pap (a boiled cornmeal dish) and gravy at lunch, cooked by the women in giant aluminum kettles.

"These are truly amazing ladies. I was so inspired by them," Williamson said.

Fish said Williamson's contribution was felt far beyond her strengths as a professional capacity-builder for GAPA . "Her guiding personal philosophies of social justice and peace-building captured the underlying principles of our global service-learning partnership," Fish said.

Another highlight of the trip for Williamson was getting to meet Archbishop Tutu. "When we planned our trip, I was determined to attend a worship service in the church where he served before retiring officially from public life last year."

At an evening function, Williamson said Fish was informed quietly that Tutu would be performing a Eucharist service the next morning at St. George's Cathedral. The ODU delegation was invited to be part of a group of about 25 that participated in the service. They even had an opportunity to chat and take pictures with the renowned archbishop afterward. Williamson's eyes shine when she retells the story.

Tutu entered the chapel with a big smile on his face and warm words of welcome for the group, Williamson said. She was elated. "It seemed surreal to be in the presence of this amazing man. My heart smiled being in the same space with this learned, humble man who has inspired and encouraged and led his people for his entire life. It was a blessing to be there."

This article was posted on: August 18, 2011

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