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Never too late: Islander teaches, makes a home in Africa
For the last two years, nearly every time Joe Yarkin went to the grocery store or ran an errand, he was stopped by someone who wanted an update on his 76-year-old mother.
Yarkin's mother, Rhoda Karusaitis, returned to Vashon just a few weeks ago. The elderly woman hasn't been ill or in the hospital, though. She's been volunteering with the Peace Corps in Ghana as one of a growing number of retired people spending their later years working overseas with the organization.
Sitting last week in the living room of her modest home near town, Karusaitis, a warm and humble woman with a large smile, was still reeling from the experience.
Holding her laptop and scrolling though some of the 7,000 photos she brought back, she grinned as she told of her experiences in Like-Mate, a small village in Ghana where she spent the last two years teaching science at a boarding school.
“I just loved it,” Karusaitis said. “All the time I just felt very grateful for having the chance. I know lots of people my age, and they don't have an opportunity like this.”
An industrial hygienist who has spent her retired years as a frequent Red Cross disaster response volunteer, Karusaitis decided to apply for the Peace Corps after she noticed the organization's campaign to increase the participation of older volunteers.
“I said, ‘I’ve got plenty of years,’” Karusaitis said with a laugh. “They took my years and they took me on.”
Yarkin, who owns Sun Island Farm with his wife Celina, remembers not wanting his mother to go overseas for such an extended stretch of time.
“It sounded like a place full of diseases and danger,” he said. “I thought she might get sick and die over there or something.”
But as Karusaitis reported to her family that she was adjusting to the heat in Ghana, making friends and enjoying a simple life in the small farming village, his worries began to subside. Last winter he and two of his daughters, 7 and 10, made the trip to Ghana to see her.
When they arrived, Yar-kin said, he hardly recognized his mother, who was tanned, dressed in brightly colored African clothes and wearing her hair long and pulled back “Jane Goodall-like,” he said.
Indeed, his mother had made a home in the village.
“I was afraid she was going to stay, to tell you the truth,” Yarkin said.
Karusaitis, who has a background in science but no experience in education, spent her days teaching general science to as many 350 students a semester, a job she enjoyed but that required long hours.
“Physically it was tough, and add all the paperwork and lesson plans. Any teacher knows,” she said.
Karusaitis said learning to teach was the most challenging part of her overseas experience. She spent months preparing for the job by observing science classes at Vashon High School.
“These (Ghanaian students) are teenagers. They're not any different than American teenagers. You’ve got to put on a performance to keep them interested,” she said. “I couldn’t always do that, but I tried.”
The schoolhouse she taught in was a simple concrete building with no indoor plumbing and walls for chalkboards. Karusaitis kept the students — boys and girls who ranged in age from 14 to 25 — engaged by teaching them about the science of in their own village. She took them out of the classroom to look at plants, rocks and waterfalls. “I tried to use all local things. … It was a subject that I just loved. For me it was such a joy to have the time to contemplate science and how to communicate it,” she said with a smile.
Though utilities were spotty in her small apartment, Karusaitis spoke as if it made no difference.
“I had flowing water when it flowed, and electricity when it flowed,” she said.
Content to live simply, she clearly cared more about the beautiful green hills outside her window and the students, colleagues and neighbors who grew to be close friends during her time in Like-Mate.
“I really grew to love it. It was really hard to leave,” she said. “It felt like home in a lot of ways.”
But Karusaitis stayed connected with Vashon not only by corresponding with friends and family, but by keeping in touch with a few classes at the high school and elementary school.
VHS science teacher Elizabeth Jellison, whom Karusaitis observed before going to Ghana, said her class wrote letters and sent packages to Karusaitis as well as her students, who replied with letters telling of their own lives in Ghana. The class even raised money to send packages to the school in Ghana.
Jellison believes the high schoolers’ eyes were opened when they saw how happy the Ghanaian students were even though they had so little compared to American teens.
“I wish I could do more than what I did, but the little we did was very powerful for the students. It’s very, very inspirational,” Jellison said.
Returning to Vashon, Karusaitis joined at least one other Islander who has volunteered with the Peace Corp in her later years.
About a year ago, Maridee BonaDea, 61, returned from two years serving in Mali. An accountant who has also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, BonaDea helped business owners in Mali develop skills they needed to run successful operations.
“I had thought about (serving in the Peace Corps) all of my life,” BonaDea said. “One day I looked around, all my kids were gone, I was still doing nine-to-five and not liking it too much, so I started the application process.”
It was decision she’s glad she made. “It was life changing,” she said.
According to Peace Corps statistics, the organization has more older volunteers than ever. About 7 percent of its nearly 9,000 volunteers are over 50. The number is up 2 percect from what it was when Karusaitis left two years ago.
Karusaitis pointed out that she wasn’t even the oldest member of the group she trained with in Ghana before beginning her job. Two volunteers celebrated their 80th birthdays there.
After she rests up and organizes her photos, as well as her thoughts, Karusaitis plans to tell of her experiences at her church, Vashon classrooms and at the library.
As for Yarkin, he says he’s never been prouder of his mother.
“A lot of people told me it was inspiring that she was doing it,” he said. “I think she was testing out the waters for a lot of people, especially with our demographics here on Vashon.”