Local Heroes

I’ve been wanting to write for some time about my friend Sue Wagner. Sue is one of the very cool and amazing people I have met in my journeys to Namibia and back over the years. I first met her virtually. Sue was hired to teach at MYO about 10 years or so ago. She was a retired teacher and took the job at MYO because she was not yet ready to give up her love of teaching and advising and coaching kids. She reached out to me to introduce herself via email and we stay connected.

On my next trip over we met and furthered our friendship—driven first and foremost about the ongoing conversations around how to help the most kids with the time and resources we had available. Sue had great connections with the older kids and alumni who had graduated from MYO and she began a loose network, using texting mainly, to stay in touch with our alumni.

Namibia operates these days on cheap Chinese made cell phones. Perhaps 1/4 or so of the older kids has a cheap cell phone. Sue sends out messages to those kids she has numbers for and they then forward it to others or relay the message face-to-face to those who do not have phones. It works. Most have no credit for cellular, but they can send and receive texts free via WhatsApp and receive calls–they can only make calls if they are near free wi-fi and then only on WhatsApp.

A few years ago, a 10th grade boy named Patrick committee suicide in Mondesa. He was one of ours. Sue pieced together much of the puzzle and it appears that after Patrick left MYO he never really adjusted to high school. He seems to have missed that sense of community that comes with the experience our kids go through together while at MYO. I am sure that view is overly simplistic, but that was the general sense we came away with after Sue spoke to his mother and some friends.

Sue then started a slightly more formal approach to try to remain connected to alumni. We started a WhatsApp group text and a FaceBook page dedicated just to alumni. We get some traffic, but of course as these kids become teenagers some have less time for these things. But generally speaking, the ones who need support, know they can always get it from Sue.

Sue is firm with the kids, always pushing them to take ownership of their situation and do the hard work required to advance. She is empathetic and supportive and helps where she can, but mostly through giving them advice about how to get through one situation or another. These kids often face circumstances that are very challenging as they desperately strive for some life better than the one they were born to. We often work together to try to find some university money here and there for kids who have no other options.

One of my most successful youth programs in Arandis, all those years ago, was the running club I started. When I left, I had more than 100 boys and girls running with me 3 times a week. From ages 6 or 7 up to 18 or so. When MYO kicked off, I chose tennis because Alta was there and was our first manager—and she was an amazing youth tennis coach. So running fell from our curriculum.

Now, with our tennis program long abandoned due to lack of funds and qualified coaches, Sue has quietly been encouraging more and more kids to join her each Saturday morning for a fun run series along the beach in town. It has slowly gained momentum and many of our kids have run 25 or so times and counting. If I were there, I would love to formally put running back into our full time curriculum, but we just don’t have the full time staff to implement right now. Those are the types of challenges I love and some of my favorite memories from Arandis were our Saturday long runs across the desert. Afterwards, we would all sit in a circle and drink juice and water and just have a casual chat in the easy manner that comes after a hard exercise together. Running is great because it is a lifetime sport, promotes wellness in an increasingly nutritionally deficient world, and best of all, requires little in the way of money or equipment. Tennis became very expensive for us due to court time and increasingly expensive coaches (none who were even in the ballpark of Alta’s quality).

Lately I found that Sue ran the Two Oceans marathon in 1978. Amazing. The Two Oceans is a historic 56km (34 miles) run that starts at sea level in the Atlantic Ocean and ends at sea level in the Indian ocean with a few very high mountain passes in between. I have always been intrigued with that race and still fancy some hope of giving it a go someday. It is a massive challenge and a great story when I read from Sue that she had completed this so long ago.

I’ve included two amazing and beautiful pictures of Sue running the race, as well as one from when I flew to Oakland to see Sue while she was there visiting her daughter and son-in-law. Also, one from last year when we had an alumni event at MYO.


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