Opportunity knocked half a world away, and Maggie Kraft answered - twice.
"I'm like a bad penny," Kraft joked from her new office at Area 1 Agency on Aging, which serves Del Norte County. "I just keep showing up."
Until February 2011, Kraft served as department director of Eureka and Fortuna Adult Day Health Services and the Alzheimer's Day Care and Resource Center for 13 years. She left Humboldt Senior Resource Center to spend 14 months with the Peace Corps as an HIV/AIDS capacity building specialist in Botswana, Africa, and returned to Humboldt County six weeks ago to start a new job as executive director of A1AA.
"I had always regretted that I didn't have a career that had more to do with travel. As time went by, ever so quickly, I realized that dreams sometimes remain that way forever," she said from her second floor office across the street from the Eureka Inn."I loved my work and colleagues, but it was time for a change."
Radical change, as it turned out. Botswana is a "middle income" country by international standards and sports the world's second highest incidence of HIV/AIDS. The government is stable, the health care system decent, amenities few, Kraft said. She walked to work three miles each way and couldn't count on air conditioning for respite from the 100-degree days.
"I used to say anything over 80 is wasted heat - and they waste a lot of heat over there," she said. "Between the heat and the walking, I ate and ate and ate and still lost weight. Now, the hardest things to adjust to are the cold and redefining what a normal amount of food to eat is. I'm not walking as far to work and I don't want all that weight back."
Kraft, 50, managed grants and helped various groups in a village of 8,000 to renovate or build office space, connect electricity, start projects, fundraise, and advocate for themselves.
"I'm still working to get a well drilled for a disability group so they can have water on their land to grow vegetables and feed themselves and I'm still trying to help a 2-year-old boy who has club feet," she said. "In Botswana, if you are physically disabled you don't go anywhere. You're stuck at home. You don't go to school. You don't get educated. I am working so that he can run and play with his older siblings, go to school and have a chance in life. There's nothing wrong with his brain."
The boy's mother intercepted Kraft during her walk to work.
"I'd been walking by her house every day for months. She walked over, showed me his feet and said 'Help me. Help my son.' She never asked for money. Just help. What could I do?"
Everything as it turned out. The boy has another few weeks of treatment in South Africa ahead of him and then a small surgery. Kraft is in it for the duration, just as she figures to be at A1AA.
"I did a lot while I was there, in large part because of the circumstances where I was placed," she said. "I didn't expect to leave before the usual two years, but people called about this position and it seemed like it might be a chance to help more people in a place I was always hoping to come back to."
Kraft returns with a different look and mindset. Like the lost pounds, the wild mass of brown hair is gone, shorn in the interest of coolness.
"I learned a lot more about patience and having a plan B, plan C and, sometimes, a plan D," she said. "And I learned a lot about how people take care of each other in different ways with different amounts of resources. I'm hoping that will serve me well here. We Americans take a lot for granted and expect a lot. I don't think that's necessarily bad, but it's not the way the rest of the world is."
Given the worst recession since the Great Depression and another round of state budget cuts, Kraft thinks those expectations make it harder to adapt to a new reality.
"We have to look at collaboration and stop fighting over our piece of the pie, which tends to happen in tough times," she said. "We've got to figure out how to do more with the pie we have or get along with less, but fighting over it doesn't help our constituency."
Kraft knows local seniors and the disabled will take another budget hit in 2012-13.
"We really need to look internally to figure out how to solve our own problems," she said. "There's no bailout coming. Part of A1AA's role is to help the community look at and react to what is happening locally, and to be innovative in how we address the issues."
Formed in 1980, A1AA is a private non-profit agency that administers federal and state funds to provide needed services for people age 60 and older in Del Norte and Humboldt counties.
It is one of 33 such agencies throughout California, and one of hundreds such entities across the nation mandated by the 1965 Older Americans Act to identify and meet the needs of seniors.
Its mission is to provide leadership and guidance in supporting an older person's ability to lead a dignified, safe, healthy and independent life and to provide leadership and resources that support volunteers as they make positive changes in the community.
A1AA serves more than 26,000 residents with the Volunteer Center of the Redwoods and RSVP, the Project for Senior Action advocacy arm, the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program, and information and assistance specialists for caregiving, medication management, housing and other issues.
"I think I've spoken to almost everybody in the past month, trying to get connected to the different pieces of the puzzle and learning what the pressing issues are for each of the organizations we support," she said. "Between the grant cycles, the end of the fiscal year, the start of a new one and one-on-one meetings with staff, I have more than enough to do."
"It's going to take some time to sort everything out, but I'll get there," Kraft said. "My door is open. Come by. We all have aging people in our family and we are aging, too. Tell me what you are seeing and what needs to be addressed. It's in everyone's interest to see our seniors and disabled survive and thrive."
Area 1 Agency on Aging commissions freelance writer Carol Harrison to produce Gray Matters every two weeks.