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Coming full circle

Sue Stine, of rural Browerville, just might have a record in the number of years she has been a volunteer. From Indianapolis, to far off Kenya, to rural Minnesota, Sue has always volunteered.

Sue was only 5 years old when she began her “career.” Now, in her eighth decade, she has a wealth of experiences and stories from her many years of doing for others.  She has always found a way to turn what others might have seen as unfortunate circumstances into fortunate ventures.

In 1948, Sue’s mom and stepfather had a tiny apartment. They had only one bedroom, which meant that Sue and her younger sister slept on the couch in the living room. Since both parents worked (her mother had the distinction of being the first female letter carrier for the United States Postal Service in Indianapolis) they needed childcare for the two girls. A friend of the family wanted playmates for their son, who was about Sue’s age. The two families made an arrangement in which the girls would stay with the boy’s family from Sunday evenings to Friday evenings each week.

Sue, who had just turned 5, was to be a gentle playmate companion for the boy, who had hemophilia and if bumped or bruised, could suddenly be in danger of bleeding excessively from his condition. The two walked to school each day. “I had to watch out for him. If his knees hurt I had to run home and get his tricycle so he could ride the rest of the way home.”

There were advantages to staying with this family. Sue remembers the erector set and play space this family had as well as beds and regular meals. The boy whom Sue protected for two years grew up to be a doctor and head of the St. Louis, Mo., Red Cross Blood Bank.

Looking back on her early years, after herself becoming a teacher of math and biology, Sue recognizes what modern research has shown. What happens between the ages of 5 and 12 sets the course for life. Having studied genetics and reviewed the research studies of twins reared apart, she also accepts that 50 percent or more of behavior is determined by genetics.

Whether it was a natural setting of life course, genetic predisposition, or the youthful yearning for adventure, volunteering for the Peace Corps seemed the right move in 1965 for Sue and her husband of two years. Both recent graduates of the University of Indianapolis, Sue and Mike were influenced by friends from the Republic of Kenya who said their country was a wonderful place. The Stines wanted to spend their Peace Corps years in this new country, a country that had acquired its independence from British rule only three years before.

While the plan, which ultimately took them to Africa in 1965, took some twists and turns, they acknowledge that the 13 weeks of Peace Corps training in New York City was the best the nation could offer. You can’t say that hers is a fond memory, though, of the November night when the lights went out in the city. She and Mike were in a one-room apartment in the Paris Hotel in Manhattan, sick in bed from the immunizations required before departure.

Sue and Mike joined a cadre of 78 fellow teachers and headed for a country of 10 million people; who at that time had only three college educated teachers and a death rate of 50 percent of children before the age of five.

Housing was provided for the teachers, usually within a reasonable distance of the schools. The Stines ended up in a house on the Catholic school grounds four miles from the school where they taught. Not allowed to have cars, they acquired bicycles and were an unusual sight for the locals each day as they propelled themselves to work. Wild animals were of little concern. A favorite along the route was the herd of cows and the man dressed in traditional attire topped with a tattered western style suit jacket. His pockets bulged with small rocks used in herd control.

“We flew by the seat of our pants; there was no instruction booklet,” Sue said of figuring out the best way to assist the proud and beautiful people they came to know.

A cow herder in Africa kept rocks in his pocket to help control the herd.

A cow herder in Africa kept rocks in his pocket to help control the herd.

Their 26-month service in Kenya engendered a wealth of experiences, memories and artifacts as well as thoughtful reflections on the effects of long- term missionary work in a poor country. Sue treasures several clay sculptures made by a gifted artist among the residents of the Kenyan community. As an example of unintended consequences, Sue tells of this artist’s comparative wealth acquired by the sales of her work. She was instructed in sculpting figures by missionaries. In a rural area without banks or methods of investing income, the people wore their wealth in the form of beaded earrings, neckware, and lip plugs. For this woman, after feeding her family and decorating her body, the temptation of drugs, khat and alcohol, meant addiction and an early death.

Sue and Mike left Africa in 1968, returning to Indiana. They moved to Minnesota two years later. Their mind-expanding experiences in Africa sensitized them to cultural biases they still saw every day in Indianapolis. They found Minnesota to be a much more welcoming place with better acceptance of people of all colors.

Sue’s happiest memory is an unusual reflection of her childhood in a large city as well as other places that relied on mass transit: riding a bus and smelling diesel fumes.

In the years while the Stines were raising their family of three children, they taught in the Twin Cities, Sue, math and biology, Mike, earth science and physics. Sue became a scout leader and continued to volunteer her time.

As the two were nearing retirement, Mike had a dream. His parents had had a farm. He’d spent the first ten years of his life hunting, fishing, and roaming the fields with his grandfathers. “He wanted to return to something he loved,” said Sue, knowing about that influence of the first 5 to 12 years.  They found a 160-acre farm in Todd County and reinvented their lives for their retirement years when they moved there in 2004.

With that penchant for diesel fumes, Sue was a little out of her element but was determined to “hit the ground running.  I wanted to know as much about the community as I could,” she says, and knew that volunteering was a good way to get to know people. She volunteered at the Long Prairie Christie House Museum, joined a Red Hat group, and served on the local Economic Development Authority.  Then she saw a photo of Senior Companions in the local newspaper. She made the proper connections and for the last six years has assisted seniors in helping them stay in their homes as long as it’s safe and practical.

Sue finds the goals of the Peace Corps to be similar to those of the Senior Corps program. Both exist under the Corporation for National & Community Service. The Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs, both under Senior Corps, are administered by Lutheran Social Services.  The Peace Corps mandate is to fill a professional need, to teach by example what Americans are, and to return to the U.S. and teach U.S. citizens about another country’s people. As a Senior Companion, Sue is still filling a need, being an example of what Americans are, and modeling acceptance of others.

Marcia Ferris is the Central Minnesota Lutheran Social Services program manager.  She appreciates that besides seeing clients, Sue helps recruit and orient new volunteers and has helped place volunteers with client referrals.  “Sue is a great example of the generation of volunteers who have volunteered most of their life, learning new skills and lessons for each phase of life.”

As a 5-year-old playmate/companion, Sue changed a young boy’s life by helping him live as normal as possible. As a Senior Companion, her life has come full circle, and she’s doing the same thing. She considers her clients friends and spends two to three hours a week with each of the seven currently on her list. “We do baking, puzzles, shop, write notes, visit their friends, have coffee or lunch. I spent nearly a year helping one ‘friend’ write her autobiography.”

Sue is puzzled by her need to do things for other people. “I’ve analyzed it from every angle.” Her only conclusion is that it’s just her nature. “I don’t worry about getting anything from it. I just want to have people let me do good.”

Senior Corps volunteers are paid a small hourly stipend and receive mileage to cover travel expenses. They’re not in it for the money, and like Sue Stine, they know that while enriching the lives of others, they enrich their own.

Both women and men are needed as Senior Companions. Call the Senior Companion office in Brainerd to learn more about volunteering: 218-839-6650.

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