Peace Corps Volunteer Links Girls Across Globe

By Susan Spencer Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Judith Fleming is a perfect example of the idea that it is NEVER too late to explore your passions, learn and most of all, make a difference.

WORCESTER

Judith Fleming wanted to do more in her golden years. The former Allmerica Financial Corp. (now Hanover Insurance Group) executive enjoyed spending time with grandchildren and teaching courses part-time at Assumption College. But something was missing.

"I was busy, busy, but I wasn't completely satisfied," the 74-year-old Worcester resident said at a program at Girls Inc. on Wednesday, an organization she served for many years as a board member.

So at age 70, she applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

"I have to admit, I was a tad surprised. But they accepted me," she said.

She signed on for months of intense training and traveled 7,000 miles to a village in Uganda to fulfill her two-year commitment.

Ms. Fleming had been a Peace Corps volunteer 50 years ago in Tonga and Western Samoa, but she said she'd always wanted to go to Africa. Retirement seemed to be the right time.

A roomful of girls in the tween and teen afterschool programs at Girls Inc. sat enthralled as Ms. Fleming described the countryside that was her home, a landscape they might recognize from the "Black Panther" movie, which was filmed there.

She got around on a bike known as a "bota bota," and stood out wherever she went as a white woman, or "mzungu." She was also older than the typical lifespan in the country, which is 59.

She ate beans, rice, vegetables, bread, and some goat and chicken meat. But unlike her neighbors, she did not eat grasshoppers. Ms. Fleming's work focused on empowering girls and women, much like the mission of Girls Inc., but in a country where women don't own land and girls have fewer opportunities.

Seventy percent of girls don't go to school when they have their menstrual periods, because they don't have or can't afford pads, Ms. Fleming said.

"We taught the girls how to make pads that they can reuse," she said, showing a slide of schoolgirls laying out formed pieces of fabric. The sewn pads, stuffed with terry cloth, could be washed and worn again.

Girls Inc. participants in Worcester raised money to support the program, sending more than $250 to Uganda.

Children attend boarding school and don't live with their families while in school, so Ms. Fleming said she also taught girls about their bodies.

Just like at Girls Inc., she said, girls were supported "to be strong, smart and bold, and to be able to say 'no'."

A Peace Corps grant the team received paid for a facility for girls to shower in and wash their feminine hygiene products.

Ms. Fleming worked with grown women to raise chickens and run their own business selling eggs, with a portion of proceeds going into a savings account.

Another sustainable business the Peace Corps volunteers helped young women - most of whom are unemployed - develop was building drying stations to turn bananas from local farms into banana chip snacks.

Villagers made articles for sale from all sorts of things. Old tires, cut to form, became sandals with colorful thongs crocheted by girls. Necklace beads were formed out of paper pressed from fiber in elephant dung, which was plentiful.

"How to make paper from elephant dung; a little language; a lot about myself, how strong I am, and smart and bold," were some of the lessons Ms. Fleming said she learned.

Mostly, "We have some of the same issues as the girls in Uganda," she said. "I learned we are probably more alike than different."

Girls Inc. CEO Victoria Waterman said before the talk that she wanted Ms. Fleming to speak with the girls because, "It's the circle of life. It's about taking a village. Everything we do here she was doing in Uganda."

The partnership between Worcester girls raising money to support Uganda girls, while they're working on empowerment in their own way, was "really and truly... two worlds coming together," Ms. Waterman said.

Ms. Fleming decided her retirement could wait a little longer after two years in Uganda. She re-upped for eight months with the Peace Corps in the country of Georgia. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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