This summer, islander and retired school teacher Georgia Hartness will celebrate her 70th birthday — not with family, and not with friends or neighbors, but with a host family near Pretoria, South Africa, while she is in the midst of a three-month culture and language training for her Peace Corps assignment: Hartness will be teaching English to primary school children in rural South Africa for 27 months.
“This is a goal I’ve had for nearly my entire life,” she said in an interview with The Beachcomber, not long before she left for the East Coast to visit with family before she gets on a plane in Philadelphia for her Peace Corps assignment on July 7.
President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961. Hartness was just 13 years old when she heard the young president speak about the volunteer program, intended for American citizens to work throughout the developing world, both to help as well as to learn.
“It was something that just resonated with me,” Hartness explained. “I thought, ‘I am going to do that some day.’”
What she didn’t know was that “some day” for her wouldn’t be for another 57 years.
Early on, when Hartness was 18 and old enough to apply to join the corps, she found herself caring for her mother who was ill. After that she was married and having her own children.
“Life happened,” Hartness’ son David Hartness said. “It derailed those dreams of hers. But now she’s in a place where she can take that dream up again.”
Derailed might just be an understatement.
Georgia Hartness was married twice, had three children and ultimately found herself a single mother and primary school teacher on Vashon.
“Oh, I am pretty sure I taught at every primary school there was on the island at some point,” she said, noting that that included Burton Elementary School, which no longer exists. “I taught mostly fourth grade and second grade, and even some driver’s ed.”
Georgia Hartness taught on the island for 22 years, until a battle with cancer forced her to retire in 2005.
David Hartness said that his mother was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer while he was at university in the early 2000s, and then diagnosed with tongue cancer in the mid-2000s.
“That’s why she had to quit teaching,” he said. “It was just too hard for her to speak without real difficulty.”
But the apple did not fall too far from the tree, as it turned out, and it was David Hartness who joined the Peace Corps in 2008 and spent time in Mozambique and Zambia. Ultimately he was in Africa for seven years, during which time he adopted his son, and his mother paid him several visits.
“How did you beat me?” Georgia recalled laughingly saying to her son during her visits to him in Mozambique. “I just fell in love with the villages and the people… I always knew Africa was where I wanted to go when it was my turn.”
And as she has now been cancer-free for five years, her final hurdle has been cleared and it is, in fact, her turn with her 70th birthday just around the corner.
“She called me last summer,” David Hartness said, “and asked for help with the application process, since I had already been through it. I think it’s the right time. Now more than ever the U.S. needs good ambassadors to the world.”
The stated mission of the Peace Corps is “To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
• To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
• To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
• And to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of America.”
Georgia Hartness said she is “eager to represent and show the good side of this country of ours.”
Per Peace Corps protocol, new members must spend the first three months of their assignments “training.” Which in Georgia Hartness’ case means that she will be placed with a South African family that lives on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, to be immersed in the culture of the people there, and to learn as much of the Zulu language as she is able.
“I am a little bit afraid of that,” she said with a chuckle.
The very nearly septegenarian added that after the first three months of culture and language immersion, she will be sent somewhere in the more remote/rural parts of South Africa to teach English to primary school-age students.
“I don’t know exactly where I will be,” she said. “The closest major hub is Pretoria, that is all I know. But I am thrilled, excited, nervous … eager to get there and meet the people.”
David Hartness, now the Peace Corps veteran in the family, is also very happy that his mother is finally able to realize her dream.
“I think that this is just so cool,” he said. “She has gone through so many struggles to get to this point.”
By the time this story goes to press, Georgia Hartness will be out east visiting with family before she heads to Philadelphia to fly to South Africa on July 7, and she could hardly contain her enthusiasm.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” she said. “I know I will learn more from them (her soon-to-be students) than they will from me.”