Friday, October 11, 2019

My Wild and Precious Friend

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
         --From “The Summer Day“ by Mary Oliver (1935 - 2019)

One of the many things I've loved about living in Provence is how it attracts a steady stream of fascinating, accomplished people from all over the world. If you're here for any reasonable amount of time and open to it, you can have the most-wonderful experiences with a whole gamut of humans, with experiences vastly different from your own.

Susie Rheault and her husband Gil Williams are a perfect example. I have no idea how we first met but we bonded instantly. With their kids grown and having families of their own, Susie (now 70) and Gil (81) were splitting their time between Boston, Martha's Vineyard, Provence and Africa. Susie was still working and Gil was theoretically retired (his field was organizational development after many years as an elementary school principal), and together they were involved  in various projects on three continents.

Besides their gentle warmth and general adorableness, one of the many things that drew me to Susie and Gil was their devotion to do-gooding. They seemed to be continuously nurturing a large group of people including friends, family, clients, neighbors, colleagues and more. But the thing that really got me were the stories they told about Tanzania and the work they were doing there with extremely vulnerable children.

The short version is, they had found a small "desperately grim" orphanage that needed help...and they had jumped in.  

If you want the longer version you're in luck because Susie tells the whole remarkable story in her just-published book, My Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir of Africa (Bush Baby Press, September 2019).

psychologist with a specialization in organizational development, Susie has spent her 30-plus year career working globally, with senior execs across the private and public sectors. Since 2007, she'd been a Special Advisor for the Clinton Foundation Health Access Initiative supporting field offices in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland. In each of these countries, she trained local staff to accelerate HIV testing and treatment using a grassroots team-based approach.

The years Susie spent working in sub-Saharan Africa with the Clinton Foundation had made her even more hungry to help others. She had been longing for a long-term project, something where she could see real sustainable results over time.

"I started in Africa in '07," she recalls in a podcast here. "I worked for the Clinton Foundation off and on for the next five years. I'd bounce back and forth on these trips that were pretty exhausting, on flights of 16 hours or so. The more I traveled to other countries, the more I missed Gil who was keeping the home fires burning. And I was...tired of trying to learn a different African language with each visit. I started to say to myself, what if we could find a smaller project where they need us, where we could stay put and see what noodles stick on the wall?"

And then one day in tiny, rural Nshupu, Tanzania, she and Gil stumbled on the Precious Orphan's Childrens Home: two small, very-spare concrete buildings that was home to nine kids, all of whom had been orphaned or abandoned. "There were no toys, no books, no blankets," Susie remembers, "nothing except these kids bouncing around on a bunk bed. We were just stunned. We couldn't believe they were as animated as they were, living under such dire circumstances. There were dirt floors...there was no running water...nothing!"

A local school teacher named William Modest had started the orphanage after having watched his own mother die of AIDS when he was a teen. He and his wife Sarah--also a teacher--were running it single handedly, having given up their other jobs. "All they had for funds were handouts from the local church," Susie continues, "which meant a bag of maize every so often but nothing like a predictable meal plan."  Susie and Gil formed an alliance with William and Sarah in 2011 and launched the Precious Project.

What's been accomplished there in just eight years is astounding and deeply inspiring. "Precious" has grown to include a new home for 21 children, a 10-room primary school, am elementary school with 350 students, a working organic farm, a library, a community/dining hall, a dorm and two women's empowerment groups.

Today William and Sarah manage day-to-day operations, Susie and Gil handle strategic development and a board of directors provides wide-ranging expertise. A dedicated group of roughly 45 employees includes five education administrators, 12 teachers, cooks, childcare providers, bus drivers, a gardener, a librarian, volunteers, "mamas" and more.

It was an uphill battle, to say the least. "We had never run an orphanage, we didn't speak Swahili, and we had never done any fund-raising," Susie says. "But we jumped in with both feet. I was convinced that somehow my experience crisscrossing the continent would inoculate us from making the most egregious mistakes, but of course that wasn't true. It's been a roller coaster of hope and hard learnings! We would be mildly euphoric with a sense of renewed purpose but then, time and again, regularly humbled by the undertow of desperation that poverty engenders."

While it continues as an orphanage, the key focus at the Precious Project is now education. "We see that as highly important work in the world," Susie says, "and it's making a huge difference in the lives of these children, the leaders of tomorrow."

Today Susie and Gil live half the year in Africa, where they work closely with William and Sarah. The rest of the year they're back in Boston with occasional visits to Provence, although having sold their home in St. Remy, they're around much less than they used to be. From what I can tell though, the couple could not be happier.

"It's never too late to live a life of purpose," Susie proclaims. "It's never too late to have adventures and stretch yourself. People who have a deep sense of purpose live longer and live better. This, I guess, is the third chapter of my life and it's been the most deeply rewarding. This is definitely my life's calling.

"Each time we return to Tanzania," she continues, "we see the children we have cared for since 2011 sprouting up and becoming extraordinary people. It's so deeply gratifying...everyone deserves a chance!"

My Wild and Precious Life is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A portion of proceeds goes to the Precious Project.

To learn more about the Precious Project and donate in any amount, click here.

You can also follow Precious on Facebook, see their videos on YouTube and listen to Susie being interviewed here.

To connect with Susie, reach out on LinkedIn or email her directly:


  1. Dear Julie,
    What a beautiful (a word that I don't toss around lightly) and invigorating story. Thank you for posting it.
    David Terry
    Quail Roost Farm
    Rougemont, NC

  2. What an inspirational story. Thank you for sharing t"My Wild and Precious Life."

  3. Dear Julie, thank you for sharing! I have been reading your blog but because of health issues could not write recently...
    Best regards, Maya



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