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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of December 3 - 9, 2003

Opinion Columns

Over 50 and counting

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

… we discovered that most of the original Project India members had gone on to live remarkably committed lives.

When I stepped up into the bus taking us from a nearby hotel to the UCLA campus, I announced, "What am I doing on the bus with all these OLD people!" Everyone laughed, because the reality, of course, is that I am equally as old as most of them and we all respect and love each other anyway.

Over Halloween weekend I attended a reunion of many years' worth of participants in a former UCLA program called Project India. When we were young and idealistic, 14 of us were sent each summer, over a period of 10 years, to very-exotic India for 10 weeks. The Ford Foundation and the State Department sponsored us. A precursor of the Peace Corps, which studied our program for its training and methods of communication, it was a heady experience. We met Mother Teresa (then Sister Teresa) and had a long afternoon with Prime Minister Nehru and tea with his daughter Indira Gandhi at their Delhi home, whose walls were graced with oil paintings by the likes of Churchill and Eisenhower. Many years later in a job interview for a non-profit organization here, I was asked if I could "carry on conversations with the rich donors." I was tempted to say, "If Nehru were still alive, you could ask him!"

We had planned this reunion/conference for the Lake Arrowhead Conference Center, which, on Oct. 31, was out of reach due to California's raging fires, so UCLA generously donated the use of its most marvelous facilities. We proceeded to enjoy surprisingly clear air as the fires shrank a bit, as well as two days of brilliant conversation and reminiscences about our experiences in India and the complexities of life thereafter.

Two truths emerged: First, in a seminar where we shared our experiences, almost all of those present affirmed the life-altering nature of the experience, and secondly, we discovered that most of the original Project India members had gone on to live remarkably committed lives. Few had not transformed the cauldron of culture shock (where we took a prop plane and lived in college accommodations, disdaining the appellation of "Ugly American Travelers") into careers or avocations that had altruistic goals.

One of the women who went to India two years before I did became a nun and has spearheaded a dynamic project in East Los Angeles that provides a vibrant community of affordable housing for the dispossessed of our materialistic culture.

Another former team member is Ed Peck, who devoted his life to diplomacy, serving in Egypt during Sadat’s tenure and as ambassador to Iraq under President Reagan. His perceptions alone about the Middle East could have absorbed the whole weekend.

A third was a recently retired professor who now oversees the newly renovated Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park. A renowned Lincoln and Roosevelt scholar, his take on what really happened during the World War II internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent was fascinating. Since there were three of my alum fellows who spent years of their childhood in California internment camps, it was especially moving. We have been invited to hold another reunion in two years at Hyde Park.

Incidentally, my friend and fellow teammate Freddy told a lighthearted story. His father, as a poor black man in the 1930s, adored Franklin Roosevelt. So when his first daughter was born, he named her Nira. We all smiled, waiting for the story's relevance. As we then learned, she was named NIRA after the National Industrial Recovery Act, which FDR had developed to save the economy, and which had given their family some income! I jokingly said that my brother had been named CCC after the Civilian Conservation Corps. A sign of our mutual goodwill was that everyone laughed, including Freddy.

My perceptions of the week included the truth that age has nothing to do with being dynamic, committed and vibrant people. One of the layers of sadness, of course, was the truth that we have lost friends. One, a woman who went to India the year before I did, recently died after a long and painful bout with liver cancer, which had been festering for many years due, in part, to the deprivations she experienced in the Philippines as a child. She was imprisoned there in a Japanese camp and almost starved to death. Her husband read the letter she wrote knowing she was going to die. It spoke of her full and exciting life, of the places she had traveled, of the love she had experienced, of the friends she had cherished. Just before that most moving reading, I had presented a slide show of pictures of my life quilt accompanied by some of my poetry, the memories of a woman of the 20th Century. I was shy about sharing that before such an august group, but I was received with love and respect, and, as it turned out, my reflections did not seem out of place after all. For what we celebrated was the constancy of deeply idealistic people in a world of tension and hate, of the strong currents of continuing friendship which survive years of distance, of the unique moments when we can reunite. I hope I shall be able to get on a bus with all the other old people at Hyde Park!



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