Fostoria Woman Joined Peace Corps at Age 70
(Written by Jeannie Wiley Wolf, Staff Writer for The Courier. Story originally published Nov. 14, 2016.)
FOSTORIA – Sharon Milligan is not taking her retirement sitting down.
Milligan, who spent 44 years at the University of Findlay, has packed a lot into the five years since she retired. She served two and a half years in the Peace Corps teaching English to fifth-graders in South Africa. She also volunteered three summers in Yosemite National Park.
“What drives me to continue learning and have adventures? It didn’t take long for me to realize that retirement is boring,” the Fostoria woman said. “One of my favorite sayings is ‘the best is yet to come,’ so I am learning to enjoy the present and plan for future adventures.”
A 1961 Fostoria High School graduate, Milligan earned her undergraduate degree from Otterbein University and a master’s degree from Ohio University.
She was hired as a health and physical education instructor at UF in 1967. She also served as a coach for women’s volleyball, basketball, softball, tennis and field hockey. Milligan later taught in the College of Health Professions as the wellness director and supervised student teachers through the college of education. She retired in 2011.
“All in all, it was a wonderful job for me, but I’m happy to be retired,” Milligan said.
In 2013, at the age of 70, she was accepted into the Peace Corps. “That had always been in the back of my mind, something that I wanted to do,” she said. “But I knew to go I would have to quit teaching. I didn’t quit. I just stuck it out until I could retire, then I went off.”
Milligan taught at a public Christian school in a small village called Tafelkop in South Africa’s Limpopo province.
“We had to make lesson plans up It was a very structured class. We had reading for comprehension and oral language and grammar and writing. Those were basic things that I had to teach,” she said.
She said the people speak a language called Sepedi. English is the first additional language they learn, beginning in kindergarten.
“And now these little children have to learn a second additional language, Afrikaans, because the white population speaks Afrikaans mostly. The black population in this township speak Sepedi, and everyone relies on English as the business language,” Milligan explained.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, the children say the Lord’s Prayer in Sepedi. But Thursday is English day for all the children, she said.
Milligan had 35 students in her class. She said it was especially hard to come to terms with the food insecurity there.
“We had to have lunch at 9:45 because they came to school without breakfast and they were hungry,” she said. “The brought just little plastic bowls, no utensils, and they would get a scoop of rice and a scoop of beans.”
Other basic meals included pap, which is like porridge; pilchards, similar to sardines; cooked cabbage, carrots and butternut squash.
“I started a little school garden. They planted red beets, tomatoes, spinach, carrots. We pulled about five red beets that grew. We didn’t have a big patch of anything, but everybody got a carrot at least,” said Milligan.
She said the students actually stole vegetables from the garden after school and in the evenings. Milligan went to the store and bought extra beets and spinach which were cooked for the students.
“They wanted seconds and thirds of spinach and red beets,” she said. “Imagine that happening in the United States. I can’t believe how hungry these kids are, how much they’re thinking this is a big treat,” she said. “IT’s as if the kids in America were dipping out ice cream and pizza. These kids are just so hungry.”
Milligan took on several secondary projects while she was in South Africa, including helping add to the school library. Friends and people connected with the Mazza Museum and the Dulcimer Gatherin’ donated more than 1,200 books to ship to South Africa. Nondace Campbell, retired director of the reading center, and Vicki Stuckert spearheaded the book collection, while Kerry Teeple, deputy director at the Mazza Museum, helped prepare the books to be mailed to New Orleans.
“Some of my other volunteer friends were getting things like paperback romance novels, just a book is a book, but not appropriate for elementary school,” said Milligan. “I got wonderful, appropriate, kindergarten-through-seventh-grade books.”
Milligan worked with the Nelson Mandela Library Books Project which shipped the books on a container freighter to South Africa. It took six months for the books to arrive.
We opened one box a day. The kids loved the pop-up books,” she said.
Campbell also suggested that Milligan and the students write an alphabet book for their school. The theme they followed was what was special at Matsepe School. Once they came up with ideas for each letter, the students had to write about one of them and draw a picture. The book was published by UF. Another project Milligan worked on was getting Operation Christmas Child gifts to the school children. The process took more than a year, she said.
“One cargo ship loaded with these had been sent to Egypt and had been rejected. They didn’t clear customs so they were sent to Durban (South Africa) and then that bunch got stolen,” she said.
“It was a nightmare to try and get them, but I was just so determined that I wanted to see the kids on the receiving end of it.”
At one point during a visit home, she called the national headquarters and invited Franklin Graham to come visit the school. Graham is president and chief executive officer of Samaritan’s Purse; Operation Christmas Child is an outreach mission of the organization.
“I thought, ‘we’ll go big.’ Well, he didn’t come, of course, but I got the attention of the special request chairperson, and he put her in contact with the country director. Between the three of us I was able to get the boxes,” she said.
Milligan said the children had never had an experience like that before.
“Imagine, these kids never get presents,” she said. “The teachers helped distribute the boxes, then they cut the tape on them. Then we had the countdown. They were told not to open them until the countdown. There was a lot of screaming.”
The contents of the boxes are not all the same, so many of the children started trading items.
“They couldn’t believe everything in the box was for them,” Milligan said. “This is the project I’m most proud of.”
She said the Peace Corps was a good experience. Of the 52 in her group, 27 actually went to South Africa. Only 20 completed the two-year mission.
During her time in South Africa, Milligan learned to appreciate all she has.
“The Peace Corps experience deepened my appreciation for everything that we take for granted as U.S. citizens. I have never been hungry. I’m always overfed. I’ve never experienced poverty or been displaced from my home by the government. We’ve always had safe drinking water and electricity,” she said. “We take freedom of voting as a given, where to live is a given. But in the village where I lived in the Peace Corps, almost all of them had been displaced.”
“If I had to say two years of my life that were special, it was those two years,” she said.
Milligan also volunteered three summers at Yosemite National Park in California, working in visitor information and assisting with park rangers.
“In that capacity I helped people plan their time in Yosemite, suggesting trails to hike, directing visitors where to rent rafts and bicycles, informing them about the junior ranger programs, evening campfire programs, theater productions and Sierra Club programs,” she said. “The most often (asked) questions we answered were things like where to eat, shower, find restrooms and the nearest filling stations.”
She lived in the Lower Pines Campground with 20 other volunteers so there was always someone to hike with on days off.
“This Aug. 25 was the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, so I was there to enjoy the celebration in the most beautiful park. I really do think its heaven on Earth, an amazing American treasure,” she said.
Milligan said she gets more out of volunteering than she gives.
“I see volunteering as a ‘win-win’ opportunity. My mother was my role model, as she made volunteering a way of life,” she said.
Her mother, Lois Annabelle Milligan, delivered Meals on Wheels, and Milligan and her older brother, Frank, sometimes went along.
“We did it because we thought it was cool because the hospital gave us free meals afterwards, so I’d go along with her for a free meal and do some leg work for her,” she said.
Her mother was also a breast cancer survivor and later volunteered for “Reach for Recovery,” an organization that visits cancer patients.
Milligan’s next volunteering experience will be working at a sorting center for Operation Christmas Child.
“I’ve done that already once with my brother. We went to Charlotte (North Carolina). But right now, two of my friends out in Southern California that I worked with this past summer, said they’re having a sorting center in Southern California. They said, ‘If you have to fly to Charlotte, why don’t you fly to Southern California and we’ll have a nice visit.’”
Milligan’s advice to others is simple: “Enjoy today. That is all we have. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau… live deliberately, so that when you come to die, (you’ll not) discover that you have not lived.”