Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis

"My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."

Catherine Stanley, project manager for Operation Mercy

Kathryn Davis Fellow, 2011

Guessing it would be a logical place to begin her volunteer efforts in Kazakhstan, Catherine decided to visit a state-run orphanage. She was completely unprepared for what she saw there. Filthy, stunted children with shaved heads and open sores—barefoot and dressed in thin rags in the middle of winter. They had no clothing or soap, let alone learning materials. Their caregivers were anything but. Worst of all was their psychological state.

“What struck me more than the physical conditions was that they had no expressions on their faces,” she remembers. “Children should be rambunctious and naughty, but they were unresponsive.” Not surprising, since most had been confined and neglected from birth.

Seeking a meaningful experience after college, Catherine Stanley had signed on with Operation Mercy, a Swedish nongovernmental organization that challenges volunteers to build their own initiatives in underserved areas of the globe. Operation Mercy placed her on the desert steppe of Kazakhstan, a post-Soviet state with social problems as bleak as its winters. There, with the nation’s orphaned children, Catherine found her calling.

Over the course of 12 years, the Aktobe Orphanages Program she founded progressed from distributing blankets and clothes to improving the education system in orphanages so that children have alternatives to an adult life of drugs, crime, and prostitution. In 2011, she was awarded a Kathryn Davis Fellowship to attend the Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian at Middlebury. After a decade of getting by with cobbled-together language skills, she wanted to focus on improving her Russian dramatically, in order to more effectively advocate for children.

Although she admits that life in Kazakhstan could be difficult, with its bleak landscape and host of social problems, Catherine had no intention of leaving “her kids.” But this past fall, the government adopted a policy (following Russia’s example) of barring foreigners from its orphanages. Although her work with children had to end, Catherine is hopeful that a team of local volunteers will carry on with many of her program’s efforts.

She is now in Operation Mercy’s head office in Sweden, helping to manage international projects and developing the organization’s humanitarian relief capacity. She will be dispatched, periodically, to assist with crisis situations throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. She hopes to soon return to the field in Central Asia full time.