January 10th, 2013 by bobebill
By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM
GARMISCH, Germany – When she joined the Peace Corps in 2008 at age 57, Fargo native Kaye Thompson was decades older than the average volunteer, but her hunger to help far outweighed her age.
“For me, it’s really about the people,” she said.
The Peace Corps wasn’t Kaye’s first overseas adventure, but one that she’d craved since she was a college graduate.
Melanie Wroe, Kaye’s friend of 50 years who also grew up in Fargo, said Kaye was anxious to travel more and aid people around the world.
“She had this tremendous, adventurous, helpful energy surrounding her like a bubble,” Melanie said. “She’s had a philanthropic thread running through her whole life. The phrase ‘The world is your oyster’ suits her very well.”
Kaye, now 61, was first assigned to work for the Peace Corps for two years in Lesotho, a landlocked country in South Africa. Lesotho has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world and as a result, an extremely high mortality rate. Kaye, who is a clinical social worker, trained village health workers and counselors about bereavement.
Life in Lesotho was challenging. Kaye was isolated from the outside world and often couldn’t contact her friends and relatives. The phone ringing was a welcome sound, she said.
“The hardest part for me was that I was unable to initiate contact with friends at home due to the technology limitations, so I felt unable to reach out to soothe the loneliness when it hit,” she said.
While in Lesotho, she partnered with the African Library Project and helped establish nine school libraries. Kaye also raised funds for local income generation projects and helped facilitate communication and coordination between the traditional healers in the area and the local health care clinic.
People who know Kaye aren’t surprised by her devotion to helping others because that’s how she’s always been, Melanie said.
“Some people say they’re going to save the world, and she’s actually doing it. She’s always wanted to help others,” Melanie said. “That’s her heartbeat.”
That heartbeat has steered Kaye around the globe. She’s lived, worked, visited or volunteered in Africa, Europe, India, China, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti, Mexico, Central America, Peru and others.
Kaye is single and has no children, which offers her the flexibility to live a life of travel, she said.
“It’s just very easy for me to live like this,” Kaye said.
She’s currently living in Garmisch, Germany, as a military family life consultant, working with soldiers and their families to provide confidential counseling to help them handle work and family stress.
Since joining the organization prior to the Peace Corps, she’s taken assignments in Germany, Belgium, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Korea and Germany.
Kaye has also worked with St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for Victims of Torture. They embedded her in a Cameroonian (West Africa) organization that goes into prisons to counsel inmates and provides villages that have suffered intertribal conflicts with group counseling.
Volunteering at the Mefou Primate Reserve for one month was a highlight of her time in Cameroon. She lived with, fed and observed 14 baby chimps.
“I enjoyed watching what looked like unsupervised preschoolers slapping, running, jumping, teasing and napping,” she said.
Before her work with the Peace Corps and as a military family life consultant, Kaye lived a “kind of normal life” for about 30 years. She worked in schools, jails, other mental health institutions and her private practice in Sacramento, Calif. International work, though, was always in her heart.
“I love the adventure and the challenge, but the bottom line is that it expands me because I see myself and my culture through the eyes of others,” she said.
When she’s returning from or away in other countries, she counts on her “touchstones” for comfort. Her brother and sister-in-law’s home in San Diego and Melanie are important touchstones in her life, she said.
“For me, a touchstone is a place and/or a relationship that I can return to and feel comforted, secure, nourished, accepted,” Kaye said. “These relationships are grounding points for me and provide much emotional and psychological support when I am far from home.”
The travel seed was planted in Kaye while she was growing up in Fargo. Her parents planned to take her to Kenya when she was in sixth grade but couldn’t due to conflict in the country. Even though she didn’t travel to Kenya, the idea of a far-away country stayed with her.
“Travel is a way of personal and spiritual growth,” Kaye said. “What’s strange to me becomes part of me.”
Her family traveled frequently in the U.S., and she spent a summer in Austria. The Thompsons hosted a French foreign exchange student, Martine Darriet, who Kaye grew close to. The two women still keep in touch, and Kaye spent Christmas with Martine’s family in France.
Kaye typically stays in Minneapolis when she comes to the Midwest for visits, since that’s where two of her brothers live. But, she occasionally goes to Pelican Lake in Minnesota, where she spent summers as a child.
She’ll call Germany home for two more months, and she doesn’t plan to stop traveling and working abroad. She has applications in to work with Doctors Without Borders and another Peace Corps assignment.
“I think I have more years in me, and I still want more international experience,” she said. “I get tired, but then I get rested, and I’m ready.”
Kaye is happy to talk to people who are thinking of joining the Peace Corps. She can be reached at email@example.com.