by Stacia Friedman
In 2004, Kathryn “Kitsie” Converse lost a bet. “I told friends if Bush won again, I was going to Paris to be a Baguette Lady,” she says. Bush won. And Converse, 63 at the time, left her home in Chestnut Hill and took off for the City of Lights.
“My plan was to stay for six weeks,” said Converse, a divorced empty-nester and retired interior designer. “I hadn’t been to Paris since my 20s, and my French was rusty.”
Converse started painting again, writing, attending lectures and cultural events in what she calls the world’s greatest campus. “I rediscovered myself after 35 years of marriage and kids,” she says. Six weeks turned into six months. Converse decided to make Paris her new home.
She traces her decision to hearing Gloria Steinem speak at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995. Steinem said, “This is what 60 looks like. It’s not a mid-life crisis. It’s mid-life exuberance. You have 30 more years to do what you want. Go!”
“Steinem gave me wings,” said Converse. “She inspired me to take on challenges for charity. I biked across America for Planned Parenthood, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for Breast Cancer Research and hiked 600 miles in Spain for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camp.”
Not content to rest on her laurels — or croissants — Converse accepted yet another challenge in 2008. At 66, she left her third-floor walk-up apartment in Paris to volunteer to teach art at a school in Uganda for three weeks. “I packed up jugs of paint and flew from Paris to Entebbe. My first impression was of orange clay earth and bright-green mountains. The roads were unpaved, and livestock mixed freely with foot traffic, buses, bicycles and vehicles overloaded with produce and people.”
She took a rickety bus that stopped in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, before continuing to a vocational school for orphans in Bududa in the foothills of Mt. Elgon on the Kenyan border. “My students were boys and girls, 14 to 20 years old, who were preparing for careers in sewing, carpentry or teaching nursery school,” said Converse. “They had never had an art class in their lives.” Chickens wandered into the classroom. Not a problem for Converse, who had grown up on a farm in Bucks County.
She gave students paint, brushes and a brief demonstration. The results were astounding. “These youngsters, who had never held a paint brush, created images of incredible beauty,” said Converse.
She was charmed by the sweetness of her students, who spoke English and Swahili. She was also touched by their need. The gross national product per person in Uganda is $510. The average life expectancy is 57. Half of the population is under age 15. Over 7 million are living in poverty. HIV is rampant.
One day, a petite, barefoot, 13-year-old girl pressed a note into Converse’s hand. It read: “Dear My Best Friend in America …” Her name was Victo. Her story was typical. She had lost her mother when she was two. Her father had remarried, and Victo was caring for her abusive stepmother’s five children. To stave off hunger at lunchtime, Victo ran barefoot in the hills.
“I knew she was looking for a sponsor when she passed me that note,” said Converse, who had four adult children of her own and six grandchildren. When it was time for Converse to return to Paris, Victo said, “Do not forget me.” Converse didn’t.
Communicating through emails, Converse arranged for Victo to take a supplementary Saturday class. Not long afterwards, Converse was told that Victo had not shown up for her Saturday class. She had been raped and was pregnant. “It happens all the time,” said Converse. “Ugandans won’t take precautions against HIV, but infected men believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them.”
Victo had kept her pregnancy a secret. “Nobody knew. Just two months before, she won district races and was supposed to compete in the nationals. She didn’t go to the nationals because she didn’t have bus fare to Kampala. When they found out she was pregnant, Victo was kicked out of school. I was devastated. Victo could’ve died in childbirth or contracted HIV.”
Converse knew the pregnancy would end Victo’s education and possibly her life. Unless she took action. “There were hospitals with no equipment, no medicine, no doctors,” said Converse. “Victo was too little, too malnourished, too abused to be abandoned. I told her we’re going to get through this together.”
Converse returned to Uganda and arranged for Victo’s delivery in a decent hospital, paid the doctor’s fee and made sure Victo had a safe place to live with an aunt. She also paid for a nurse to care for Victo’s baby so that she could continue with her studies and her running. “I told her ‘Victo’ is for ‘victory’, not for ‘victim,'” said Converse.
Thanks to Converse’s sponsorship, Victo, now 19, is continuing her education. Her healthy son, Graham, is 4. “She wants to become a lawyer to help other young women succeed and, someday, she hopes to run in the Olympics for her country.”
At 73, with the lithe body and effervescent personality of a woman half her age, Converse is raising funds to build a “dream house” for Victo in Uganda and to send her to college in the U.S. or the U.K. “So far, I have raised $20,000 on the Internet,” said Converse.
It doesn’t always “take a village.” Sometimes, it just takes one person willing to take on the challenge.
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