July 7, 2003 - Minneapolis Star Tribune: Kimberly Rennie left the corporate world and followed her heart as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Ghana

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ghana: Peace Corps Ghana : The Peace Corps in Ghana: July 7, 2003 - Minneapolis Star Tribune: Kimberly Rennie left the corporate world and followed her heart as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Ghana

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Kimberly Rennie left the corporate world and followed her heart as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Ghana

Kimberly Rennie left the corporate world and followed her heart as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Ghana

Opening doors

Kimberly Rennie left the corporate
world and followed her heart
as a volunteer in the Peace Corps


July 7, 2003

Kimberly Rennie sits with her dog Baxter among some of the souvenirs she collected while working for the Peace Corps and living in Ghana. The stool (a symbol of royalty) was given to her during a ceremony in which the village named her Queen Mother.

Kimberly Rennie always chose the road less traveled, which led her down the rugged paths of Africa. In her early 30s, the Brookfield native decided to leave the fast track for life in the rainforest as a volunteer in the Peace Corps.

During her college years, Rennie recalled a yearning to reach out to the world in some way. Though she often volunteered her time for childrenís hospitals and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, she always found herself wanting to do just a little bit more. These desires, however, were put on hold as she accepted a job in sales and marketing with Eastman Kodak Company in Atlanta and went directly from college into job training.

As time passed, Rennie says, her longing to help others didnít subside and she began to realize her desire to do more was leading her toward becoming a volunteer.

"I began to think more about the Peace Corps and so I got an application and eventually I filled it out. I wasnít sure what skills I would even have to offer them at the time, but I always found myself wondering what doors would open if I did join."

Much to her surprise upon interviewing with the Peace Corps, the organization expressed a need for business and marketing type individuals. And when the organization asked where she wanted to go, for Rennie the answer was simple - Africa.

In September 2000 Rennie left for Ghana, located in Western Africa, for a 26-month stay. Her primary project was to put her business and marketing skills to work and help develop eco-tours for a forest reserve and arboretum in the village of Bunso located in the rainforest region of South Ghana. But it wasnít long before Rennieís need to help reached far beyond her scheduled tasks.

Once in Ghana, Rennie says she began to notice the needs of the community and the toll HIV and AIDS had taken on the country. "West Africa is actually in a much better position with HIV/AIDS than other regions in Africa, but itís a growing problem throughout the country," she explains. "People with HIV or AIDS are immediately ostracized because others donít understand the disease or how itís spread."

In response to the growing problem and working in conjunction with nurses at regional hospitals, Rennie helped form support groups for local people with HIV/AIDS in an attempt to educate them and others on the disease and how to live and deal with the disease.

"It started out where we would just talk to one or two people at a time and then the groups grew bigger and bigger," says Rennie. "We would give nutritional talks on herbal treatments since the people donít have access to the Ďcocktailí (prescription) drugs like we have here in the United States. We would teach people different skills - such as farmers who would eventually become too weak to farm, we would train them how to make and sell cloth so they could earn a living when they eventually could no longer farm."

In addition to encouraging a higher moral standard for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, Rennie also worked with schools to teach gender awareness and youth development. She admits as an American one of the hardest things to see within African culture was the mistreatment of women. In her "life skills" sessions Rennie tried to teach girls and women that they did have a voice and were capable of doing things they could be proud of and be a valuable asset to society. "Seeing the way the women were treated was very, very hard," she explains. "But things are getting better there and the women are learning to have more of a voice."

Among the many things Rennie accomplished during her stay in Africa, one project stands out - the building of a community library.

Upon returning home for the holidays in 2001, Rennie recalls a flurry of activity from family and friends as to what they could do or donate to help the villagers of Bunso. "I thought one of the most painful things for me to see there was that the children had no books or notebooks and I wondered how in the world could the teachers teach like that? So when I came home and everyone asked Ďwhat do you see them needing?í I said I wanted to give them books and I wanted to build a library."

Upon getting hold of this notion, Rennie laughs as she says her mother Gail and family friend Jane Mitchell ran with the idea. After hosting book drives and asking for donations, the books began to pile up, but she soon realized that shipping the books would be an obstacle due to cost. But as fate would have it, a stranger to Rennie, but acquaintance of Mitchellís, who owned and operated a shipping company, offered to help. He donated a shipping container and told the women if they could fill the entire container, he would ship the entire load at no cost.

Ecstatic with this act of kindness, Gail Rennie and Mitchell hosted book drive after book drive and sought out donations for the Bunso library. After months of hard work, the multitude of books the women had collected still only filled half of the shipping container. Determined to fill the container, Rennie offered the idea that many of the villagers would love to have bicycles as well. And so Gail and Mitchell collected bicycles.

Once the endeavor was complete, the container was shipped to Bunso packed full of some 9,200 books and 104 donated bicycles. "When that truck pulled into town with that load of all those things, it was quite a sight to see," Rennie exclaimed proudly.

To help in the library project, the village of Bunso donated an old building in which to house the library. Through financial donations that were made during the book drives and fund-raisers, the building was renovated and now stands as the only community library within a 30-mile radius of the village.

As her time in Africa drew to a close, the village of Bunso asked to bestow upon Rennie one of its highest honors - they wished to make her royalty.

Earning the title of "Queen Mother," Rennieís royal name became "Na Na Efua Serwah" and she was given her own stool as a sign of authority and was asked to take an oath to protect and look out for the village in times of rain or shine.

"Becoming Queen Mother was a great honor that they had asked to bestow on me many times before I planned to leave Africa," Rennie explains. "But in the end they agreed to do it when the time came closer for me to leave. I chose to do it that way because I never wanted to be treated differently and I just wanted the community to see me as a commoner."

Now home in Brookfield for a short stay, Rennie admits she misses her life in Africa. Although she has closed her service in the Peace Corps for now, she says there may be a possibility later in life to open those doors again.

For now Rennie is planning to embark on new paths - she hopes to one day have a family of her own and is planning to attend a graduate program in International Public Health at Emory University in Georgia.

When asked where her path leads from here, Rennie says sheís in the process of deciding that now. One thing is certain, though, she says, the priceless experience gained in Africa will never be far from her memory.

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Story Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ghana; Ecotourism



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