Ginny Kirkwood, owner and director, the Shawnee Group
It is an honor to be before you today at Marlboro College. It gives me a true sense of joy to be part of this inaugural event in honor of President Kevin Quigley, my friend. I must also add that I feel somewhat unworthy. My accomplishments are personal, not academic and all of them I attribute to good luck, good health, a wonderful marriage plus family and friends.
Many years ago, I graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, also a fine liberal arts school. It was shortly after the time of President Kennedy's death. Fresh on my mind was his challenge to our nation, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Most of my friends were heading straight into grad school, internships with major companies, teaching jobs or marriage. I made a bee-line for the airport...It was Kennedy's call plus my wanderlust, which sent me off to Turkey, a Muslim country, and two years in the Peace Corps. It turned out that I did not come home for a long time.
My first year of Peace Corps service took place in a small Turkish town. While there, I learned many things: that people are more alike than they are different, that all people, especially children, need love, respect, and understanding, and that even small kindnesses can change one's life. I went to Turkey to try to do good—but, as often happens, I gained so much. I would like to share with you a true story that happened to me which is especially relevant now while our world is in turmoil with issues with immigration and great and great disharmony. Shortly after leaving college, I spent three months in Portland, Oregon, learning the Turkish language and preparing for orphanage work. In December of that year I arrived in Kirklareli, a small, cold, northern town where I spent one year working in a provincial orphanage. There were no cars there, no real roads, no electricity, and no running water. I was assigned with another PCV and we soon discovered that the orphanage there was very sad.
It was on the side of a hill and a sight right out of Dickins. There were around 80 children aged 3-7, and no real toys. They had no outdoor clothing and, therefore, did not leave the orphanage from October to April. My Peace Corps roommate and I found a room that we planned to make into a playroom, as we had been taught in Oregon how to make toys out of discarded materials. We were astonished to discover when we hung a mirror in that room that the children had never seen their own reflections.
The kids were cared for by five teenaged girls who had been orphans themselves. They were bored and uninspired and longed to be anywhere but Kirklareli. It never occurred to them that working with small children could be fun. In addition, there were a number of older ladies who cleaned and cooked. Twice a week the children marched through a bleak shower room where they were scrubbed and then given a clean pair of black and white flannel pajamas which they wore all the time. They owned no personal clothing. At night they lined up and went into a room filled with cots. They had no personal bed. It was sad and our work was cut out for us. There were, however, two good things about the orphanage. One was, it was warm. It was the only centrally heated building in the province. The other was, Mustafa, an older, illiterate, but kindly man who handled all the maintenance for the place. He always had a smile and a hug for the children.
We had presumed that we would live in the orphanage, but my Peace Corps colleague and I immediately realized that we needed to live somewhere else in order to maintain our own stability. This was a challenge in Kirklareli as no one is there unless they were born there and there were no hotels or apartments. Amazingly, the town had recently built a new bakery and there were three small rooms above the oven. That is where we lived. It was even warm there from 4- 7 am. As was their custom, once we moved in, everyone in the town came to call on us, as we were definitely the most interesting and amazing things that had ever happened to Kirklareli. They sat and stared. We offered them tea, and I sang a few songs to them with my small guitar. (It is not a custom in Turkish village life to have private things, so they looked happily into all of our luggage and belongings. It takes a bit of getting used to.) It was especially hard because it was Christmas time and we missed home.
Finally, it was Christmas Eve and we heard a knock on the door. By then nearly 200 village people had come to see us over about a three-week period. We were especially homesick and really didn't want to see any more curious Turkish guests. However, in Kirklareli there was no place else to be and all the people knew that we were at home. I slowly went to the door, and there we greeted Mustafa from the orphanage. Over his shoulder was a freshly cut Christmas tree, and in his hand was a string of colored lights run on a battery. His wife was with him in her black layers of cloth, holding a homemade cake. Their two young sons were right behind, one carrying an earthenware bowl he had made for us and the other carrying a small handmade twig frame with a magazine cover photo of JFK. We burst into tears—amazed and joyful. They came in and we all shared a memorable and wonderful Christmas Eve.
It turned out that Mustafa was the only person in Kirklareli who regularly went to Istanbul because he had to bring coal for the orphanage. Though illiterate, he noticed that the Christian people in Istanbul celebrated with that kind of tree at that season and although he didn't know it was Christmas Eve, he thought that since we were Christian we would like to have such a tree. It was remarkably thoughtful and changed our whole way of feeling about our situation.
So I say again, some small kindnesses change lives and times completely. We often gain when we think we are giving. Thereafter we were very happy in Kirklareli. This experience illustrated for me the essential goodness possible for all of us to achieve by being kind and respectful to others and, aware of others. Imagine yourself knowing that some Muslim people in your hometown were having a holiday and that they needed some special thoughtfulness.
During my second year in the Peace Corps, I moved to Istanbul to work in a slum orphanage and to serve as a fund raiser for several orphanages. While there, I met my husband of 49 years. Charlie Kirkwood, the most unique and wonderful man I know. He was traveling around the world. He came from a blue-collar family and had worked his way through Harvard Law School. He proposed to me after eight days and then went on his way—eventually to Thailand where he opened a law practice. A year later, when I completed the Peace Corps, I followed him, with my mother, by land from Turkey to Thailand. Charlie and I were married in Bangkok and lived in Thailand for the next six years. Three of our children were born there.
We later lived in Singapore for three years before returning to America in 1978. By then we had two more great kids. I soon began to work for Special Olympics—first in Pennsylvania, where became the chairman of Pennsylvania Special Olympics, and later, internationally, where I had the chance to set up programs in a number of foreign countries, including Pakistan, Thailand, and Nepal. Eighteen years later, in the early 1990s, I returned to Thailand for three years to be the director of the Peace Corps there. Mark Twain once said, "Years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do then by the ones you did...so sail away from the safe harbor." That is what I did, and Twain was right. But it is more than that. Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the places, actions, and moments that take our breath away—and such moments can occur at any time and in any place in our lives. After work in service, both home and abroad, my belief is that most such moments occur when one is engaged in some type of life activity, which helps others.
As we made our life in Asia and then in America it became clear to me that opportunities were all around for each one of us for that type of a fulfillment of life. With such need all around us we can all make it a goal to give back, to serve and to help others whenever possible.
During my married life our family has had the pleasure of hosting scores of people to live at our home as our guests. Most of them were quite poor and from other countries. We have been able to do this, in part, because we have a big old house and also a lovely resort, which can employ people. But it was also because we wanted our children to know many different kinds of people and we wanted to help those who needed a safe place to live and work. More than 15 different countries have been represented by residency with us—most for a summer, but many for much longer, including a Vietnamese family of four for five years, a Columbian family of four for six years, and a Thai family for two decades. In all cases we have gained immensely through deep friendship and love and cultural understanding. It has rubbed off; all of our children have lived and worked overseas and all have been engaged in service work in many countries. Our daughter, Amy, who is here today, met her husband while they were both doing public health work in rural Liberia.
I know that not everyone can have lots of foreigners come to stay, but an occasional guest from some other culture or walk of life can go a long way in increasing understanding between people. As each of us moves onward in our lives we should ask- What value do we add? What future can we enhance? What will our children and their children say of our generation and us? So let us look at the existential question: Does it make a difference if we make a difference?I say Yes!
There are answers in religion and in philosophy. Some will say that our own comfort and indulgence are all we know and they are what matters. As Malcolm Forbes is said to have said, "He who dies with the most toys wins." But they are wrong. Toys rust. Their novelty fades. We search in vain for new ones that will satisfy, only to be disappointed again. Only people, family, and friendships and meaningful endeavors grow richer and better with time. The poet Robert Byrne, put is this way, "The purpose of life is a life of purpose." But, how to find meaning and purpose? One needs to do something of value.
The value of our lives is not one answered by how much we make, but rather by how much we give ...by how much we serve. I was very lucky. My parents had limited financial resources, but they had vision and encouraged me. They also had a world view. They brought what Henry David Thoreau once said, " ...a broad margin to life." In fact, they too, joined the Peace Corps years after I did, in their mid-70s, and served in Malaysia. Our family, with two of their grandchildren having served, is the first ever three-generation Peace Corps family. And, now, my niece, Carrie Hessler Radelet, who is also my dear friend and a good friend of Dr. Quigley is the National Director of the Peace Corps. As you can imagine, this makes our family very proud.
I know that many of you are engaged in community service of some sort while here at Marlboro and that is fantastic. Your school stands out because of this wonderful involvement.
I must say that all of the "service" work I have done in my life has had one other important facet, which is important to relate to you. This is my secret. I have had fun! Lots of fun and lots of adventure. Great times and good work often coincide, and in my life they have.
There are always chances to take - some are small and some are large. Some are far away but many more are close to home. Dan Fogelberg, the late rock singer, wrote a line in a song saying that in each day "there is the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance," and that is what I mean. Children, old people, poor people, sad people are nearby. Involvement with such folks even for a few hours a week is so worthwhile. You can become a big brother or a big sister; you can volunteer at a senior citizens' center or a hospital. You can help groups like the United Way or the Salvation Army.
When you have the chance to help someone less fortunate—just do it! When you have a chance to influence a young person or to comfort a sick person or to assist an older person, just do it! Even a stranger.
President John Kennedy said, "One person can make a difference and everyone should try." When idealists roll-up their sleeves, a better world is pushed forward. Seek something that will make you happy, and try to think out-of-the-box. Learn and grow and contribute.
To sum it up, take risks, love your families, do good deeds daily, make friends—lots of them—and nourish and cherish them. Serve your community and the world. Become part of the powerful force of civilization. Lives filled with friendship and service become lives of purpose and joy. We need to remember those with the spirit of my friend, Mustafa, for whom kindness came naturally.
The Marlboro community has a story to tell. Let's tell it! Let's keep the flame of this wonderful college burning brightly for many years to come under the leadership of the remarkable man of service, both at home and abroad, Dr. Kevin Quigley.
Remember, people, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed. Never throw out anybody.
If you ever need a helping hand, you'll find one at the end of your arm. As you grow older you will discover that you have two hands. One for helping yourself, the other for helping others.