On Saturday, Jo Paddock-Betts leaves for her third trip to Bosnia-Hercegovina. She and her husband, Jim, will carry duffel bags full of humanitarian aid destined for the elderly of Medugorje, a place she describes as "a little tiny hovel of a town."
Typical scenes there include three seniors living on one man's pension of $50 a month. The pension pays for rent and utilities but not for food. Seniors must walk three-quarters of a mile a day to carry water from a stream, along paths where buried land mines from ethnic conflict are marked with yellow tape.
Paddock-Betts, 50, is a hairdresser who has owned and operated the Little Mermaid Salon in Douglas for 16 years. She made her first trip to Medugorje in May 1997.
"That first time, I was on a religious pilgrimage. The original draw for me was that the Virgin Mary had allegedly appeared to six children there on a daily basis for 20 years," Paddock-Betts said.
About six months before her departure, she read a book called "The Pilgrimage" by the Rev. Father Sevet. "The mountainous setting reminded me so much of Juneau. And in the back of the book there was a single line that said, 'Profits from this book are going to war orphans in Medugorje.' It just struck my heart."
Betts realized she was allowed 140 pounds of luggage. She began collecting clothes and money for the orphans.
When she arrived, she found that many of the clothes were too big for the children at the orphanage. Administrators suggested she take them to Sister Muriel Geiser.
"Sister Geiser was working on her own to get food and supplies to senior citizens. When I brought her the clothing, I said, 'I'll be here 14 nights; can I help you?''' The sister took her on her rounds to Mostar and Sarajevo.
"It was a life-changing experience," said Paddock-Betts, a 30-year resident of Alaska. "I had never seen anything that remotely resembled a war-torn area bombed-out buildings and torn-up roads."
Paddock-Betts was hooked. In 1999, she had just earned a degree in communications from the University of Alaska Southeast after seven years.
"I gathered people from the Cathedral of the Nativity and faculty and students. I wrote to Sister Muriel and asked what she needed," she said.
On that second trip, she and a friend from Seattle took nine duffel bags of supplies including insulin syringes and Tylenol.
For her third trip, Paddock-Betts is again concentrating on the needs of senior citizen refugees living in buildings without electricity or water.
"A senior who is bedridden being taken care of by another senior is a typical scene," she said. So they are taking supplies such as senior diapers, incontinence pads and arthritis cream.
Sister Muriel, 76, an American from Boston, told Betts on her first visit, "When we serve the senior citizens, we serve Serbs, Croats and Muslims. They are all God's people and we will treat them accordingly."
Paddock-Betts saw some improvement in living conditions for the general population between her visits of 1997 and 1999. Some buildings were being built and others repaired, she said.
"Most people live pretty comfortably, but there is still a need for refugees who fled to Zagreb and northern areas and have walked the 300 miles back. They have little plots where they grow potatoes, leeks and rosemary. Conditions are tough for senior citizens." The Red Cross does not operate in this area, she added.
Sister Muriel visits 60 families a week, taking food. The cost to feed a family for a month there is $45. Residents who wish to donate may call Paddock-Betts at 364-3236 or 780-8637.
"Sister Muriel has put in 17 years of tireless effort, and she now has tax-exempt status. Now that people can write it off, people are much more generous," Paddock-Betts said.
Sister Muriel gets some donations for food from Operation Rice Bowl, a global church organization. Operation Rice Bowl also sends volunteers to put on new roofs and install wood stoves. For more about her work, see the Web site listed at Hot Links at www.juneauempire.com.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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