After an enlistment in the Air Force and completing my undergraduate degree in professional aeronautics, I was sure I was headed for a career in the civilian world with FedEx. Like many “sure things,” life got in the way and instead I got married to a petroleum engineer and moved to Nigeria.
Despite being in a completely new and exciting place, my first days in Nigeria were spent in solitude, sitting in a hotel. In order to get anywhere, I had to be driven by an “approved” driver, I couldn’t go out alone and safety was a huge concern. To pass the time I would people-watch and in doing this, I discovered a primary school across the street from my hotel. Being the rule breaker that I am, I decided to leave my hotel, walk across the street and into the school campus which was a long rectangular building made of cinder blocks with 3 rooms, no furniture, no chalkboards, a large stone wall and a large gate. The area around the school building was dirt. I asked for a job. I told the schoolmaster that I wanted no pay and I didn’t yet know what I would do, but I wanted to work. She agreed.
So many things came to my mind to begin working on: obtaining chalkboards, desks, writing utensils, etc. Surprisingly, that was the easy part and I found a multitude of expats willing to donate funds to my small cause. My next battle was hygiene. The children at this school were not clean. They had a small sink with running water and I helped the staff implement a hand washing protocol. I taught many of the mothers to sew using a sewing machine we set up at the school so they could make and mend clothing for their children, including a cloth diaper pattern for babies to eliminate the need for disposable diapers which were frequently used. There were a number of children at the school with physical deformities, so I researched and found ways to accommodate them, either by making something or adapting what we had. One child had no legs and was being carried everywhere. I was able to make him a skateboard of sorts to get around at least at school without being carried. I worked in the school for a little over a year and expanded my efforts to other schools and an orphanage in the area with a focus on hygiene and accommodation of the physical needs of people with disabilities.
On a trip back home, I was looking at job postings for PTAs with my younger brother who was considering that as a career path and happened onto a posting for an Occupational Therapist. I read the job description and thought; This is what I’ve been doing! This is a real job that people get paid for! After several more years abroad in Europe and Scandinavia, I returned to the US and went back to school to become a COTA.