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Very special simple gifts: my people in Georgia

6 women sitting around a dinner time

A village, composed of dozens of individuals who became family and dear friends, deeply touched and enriched my life in ways I never could have anticipated.

Serving in the Peace Corps was among my lifelong goals and dreams. But multiple chapters of life happened when I became an adult – college, a year of (literally) traveling around the world, graduate school, marriage, family, career, community life, more graduate school, and quasi-retirement. I had to be patient, given that the opportunity didn’t arrive until 2017, when I was more than 60 years young and my husband of 33 years gave me an extraordinary gift.

“Karen, you need and want to do this. Go for it!” he said.

Women sitting with bags
Karen Crossley prepares to head out to service in Kutaisi, Georgia.

Earlier, I had imagined – and perhaps romanticized – that my husband and me serving as Peace Corps Volunteers together. Over time, we recognized that Peace Corps service was my dream and not his. We acknowledged that strong relationships and marriages nurture both shared and individual aspirations. So off I went to Georgia, flying solo, in the late summer of 2017, for a six-month Peace Corps Response assignment and an amazing adventure as a management and proposal writing specialist with Organization Future Prosperity House (OFPH), a local nongovernmental organization (NGO).

The highlight of my service, by far, was my people. A village, composed of dozens of individuals who became family and dear friends, deeply touched and enriched my life in ways I never could have anticipated. They were very special simple gifts, for which I am abundantly grateful.

In the beginning, there was our eclectic group of seven – three women and four men – who comprised our 2017-2018 Peace Corps Response cohort, with each of us assigned to a different projects and location throughout Georgia. Three more or less retired seniors including me, two accomplished, midcareer professionals, and two talented millennials.

Group of people standing together
The Peace Corps Response cohort in Georgia enjoys a group gathering before their close of service.

One never would have predicted how closely we would bond and support each another. Our journey together began in the Prague airport, where we all converged while waiting for our delayed flight to Tbilisi. Most of our luggage was lost in transit and we arrived late at night, with nine days of intensive training beginning bright and early the next morning. Throughout our varied terms of service from scattered locations across the country, we kept in close touch then and continue to do so now.

Instantly upon meeting my OFPH counterparts and colleagues, and arriving in Kutaisi, I was warmly welcomed. We went to work my first day on duty. A grant proposal was due later that week and an early draft needed substantial review and revision before submission.

We became a tight-knit, collegial family, working closely together and sharing our lives both at the office and outside of it. Yes, I tackled my expected duties and responsibilities with vigor – offering counsel and coaching that supported strategic planning, strengthened grant writing and communications, and piloted a new social-enterprise program. And I became more of a language teacher than I expected, helping my colleagues expand their English skills. Peace Corps service always requires flexibility and adaptation, and is guaranteed to deliver surprises along the way.

Woman rolling dough with person standing next to her
Karen, right, prepares a local Georgian dish with her host mom.

Commuting to and from my home to work every day was easy – it was a walk across the street. My host family and home quickly became my circle of support, love, joy, fun, and kindness. Our time living together was never dull or routine. And I was up for everything and anything.

I had rich conversations with my host father, who was eight years my junior, where we shared our hopes and dreams for the future and the ingredients that contributed to each of our long marriages. I enjoyed many lavish meals featuring Georgian specialties prepared by my host mother, who was also eight years younger than me, and cherished the outings and travels with my host sister and brother, who were about roughly the same age as my three adult children. Daily hugs and tutoring sessions for English lessons and other homework with the two young children (around the age of my grandson) were among my fondest memories, as were gatherings with extended family and friends for special celebrations. And there was so much more. I could not have felt more welcomed and integrated into the daily rhythms of my family’s home and their busy lives.

My community colleagues also became dear friends. My Georgian language tutor with whom I regularly met twice a week displayed boundless patience and encouragement as I struggled to acquire even modest Georgian language prowess. My Austrian pal doing similar work with a local feminist NGO became a mentor and close, trusted soulmate. Several young women inspired me with their intelligence, determination to dismantle patriarchy, and commitment to positively change the world. And my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers serving two-year assignments in my city and nearby, became my much-appreciated mentors and guides.

Two women smiling
Karen and a Peace Corps Response manager after her gong out to mark the end of her service.

I left Georgia seven months later, accompanied by my husband who visited after the conclusion of my assignment. I thankfully was able to introduce him to my people, including the extraordinary ensemble of Peace Corps Georgia staff that supported me and us well. Feeling sated with a collection of very special, simple gifts, we bid everyone farewell – until we meet again.

My long-awaited Peace Corps service provided me with many gifts: deep friendships, new knowledge, intensive learning, elevated understanding about many things, heartfelt gratitude, memorable adventures, increased self-reliance, bolstered courage, and a warm, expanded heart and soul. And in addition, I’ve gone forth with an even greater recognition of our connectivity and shared humanity within our communities and across the globe, reinforcement of my belief in the goodness of people, and an even deeper commitment to help compose a better world.