By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Region – As a young woman, Judith Fleming, who grew up in Chicago, joined the Peace Corps in 1967, serving in Tonga and Western Samoa.
“It was still new then,” she said of the organization. “The experience really framed how I saw the world.”
That experience had made such an impact on her, that nearly 50 years later, on a whim fueled by a desire to help others, Fleming, who was then 70, decided to sign up a second stint with the group.
A successful business executive
After returning to the United States from her first time with the Peace Corps, Fleming had a successful career working as a staff assistant for the city of Worcester and then for Allmerica Financial/Hanover Insurance, where she rose to the positions of Vice President, Corporate Services and Vice President, Class Action Administration at Allmerica Financial/Hanover Insurance.
She also became the mother of a son and a daughter and the grandmother to three.
When Fleming chose to accept an early retirement in 2001, she also “took a deep breath and thought what else do I want to do?’”
An opportunity arose for her to work part-time with Easter Seals of Massachusetts as the director of Special Projects for 14 years, where she managed all Human Resources policies and practices.
“I really loved working there,” she recalled.
A second chapter with the Peace Corps
At age 70, Fleming felt she was “a mature healthy woman,” who still felt she had the passion and energy to take on a significant challenge
“So I decided,” she said, “to just go onto the Peace Corps website to check it out. I had always wanted to go to Africa.”
She decided to apply, but was not really thinking that she would be accepted. But much to her surprise, she found out that indeed she was – and that she would be assigned to serve in Uganda.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’” she laughed.
After 12 weeks of extensive training, learning about the language, culture, economic and community development, Fleming left with a group of approximately 50 others to serve a two year commitment in southwest Uganda.
There, over the course of her service, she used her extensive business skills to oversee three different projects.
The first project, Agape Nykiabale, was to obtain funds to construct two wash and sanitary facilities for girls at upper and lower primary schools. She helped conduct training for 140 girls and 40 teachers in the making of RUMPS (Reusable Menstrual Pads). She also helped to acquired outside private donations for the purchase of six sewing machines to develop an income generating project for the making and selling of machine-sewn RUMPS.
“This was so important because it was about keeping girls in school, by giving them a way to have sanitary supplies each month,” she said.
The second project, Nybikukuuku Women in Development (NUWID), was also an income generating project, this time for a local rural women’s group. Fleming helped to secure a grant that would be used to purchase 750 chickens which were then distributed among 25 women who would raise them for egg production, which they could then sell. As part of the initiative, the women were also required to participate in three days of training on financial literacy, recordkeeping and social empowerment.
The third project, The Purple Ray, was a youth-centric organization focusing on youth development initiatives, life skills training, and camps. Through a Peace Corps grant, Fleming helped to oversee a business that produced and sold banana chips. The project also included the construction of a storage facility and dehydration stations for producing, packing and storing materials.
“These projects create a model for sustainability and income opportunity, which helps to empower the people there,” she said.
After her service was complete in Uganda, Fleming then spent nine months as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in the country of Georgia, where she was assigned to the Women Wellness Care Alliance HERA as a Fundraising/Networking Specialist.
Once back in the United States, it was “definitely a bit of a culture shock,” she said. “I was really struck by the excess and waste. But I had missed my family so I was happy to be back with them, especially my grandchildren.” (A fourth had been born when she was in Uganda.)
As a longtime member of the board of directors for the Worcester branch of the national nonprofit Girls Inc., Fleming knew how much that organization meant to so many young women in need. So when CEO Victoria Waterman offered her a part-time position as Human Resources liaison, she decided to accept.
“It really made sense as to where I was in that time of my life,” she said. “I love working here and seeing the difference this organization makes in the lives of these girls.”
And although she is now 74 years old, she is not quite ready to say “never” to other volunteer opportunities.
“I always said ‘My book wasn’t finished yet – there were still a lot of chapters left’,” she said. “So we’ll see!”