Sherin Bowen Memorial

Saturday, March 28, 2009
A Testimonial by Steve Vetter
President, Partners of the Americas

Barbara Bloch and I am here today on behalf of the Partners of the Americas to recognize the remarkable legacy, the many gifts, of Sherin Rose Bowen and to thank the Bowen family for having shared her with all of us.  Patricia Hill Williams, our chairman of the board, our board and staff, join me acknowledging the special contribution that Sherin made to the Partners of the Americas.

I also want to also recognize all of the Nicaraguan Partners and friends who have traveled from Nicaragua to join us in this Memorial occasion.  You are all so important to us and to Sherin and made so many of her dreams come true.  She would be honored by your presence here today.  (Please stand and be recognized.)

VOLUNTEER LEADERS. Great volunteer leaders have a way of  multiplying themselves, extending their reach beyond themselves.  I have worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer, worked with Vista volunteers, Americorps volunteers, Meals on Wheels volunteers , Big Brothers and Sisters over 40 years and I have never met anyone like Sherin Bowen or seen the impact she has had.  Sherin’s influence goes well beyond her influence on her family, her community, her state of Wisconsin and the country of Nicaragua.  She has inspired so many of us in Partners of the Americas and beyond.  That reaches from Chile and Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, through Nicaragua and back up into almost every state of the Union.  Her reach and her impact has been global, especially in this Western Hemisphere.  It is a remarkable story of how one individual can touch so many others.  My goal today is to try and share some of the lessons of her remarkable life.

CRACK THE CODE.  Partners of the Americas is built on that statement made by John Kennedy many years ago:  Ask not what our country can do for you but what you can do for your country.  He understood the power of people-to-people but I suspect he never imagined what someone like Sherin could accomplish.  What made Sherin, the Bowen Family and the Wisconsin Partners so important to our organization is that you “cracked the code” on figuring out how to mobilize volunteers to serve others better than just about anyone else.  My attraction to Sherin was to try and figure out how so much has been accomplished.  The POA has over 100 chapters, organized into 50 partnerships but few of them have excelled in the ways that the Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners have.  Imagine:  we have 100 chapters all over the hemisphere and you have 100 Centros de Aprendizaje in Nicaragua alone, supported by 28 Partner Cities.  We cannot “bottle her magic” but we can take her essential lessons.  Prior to my arrival, I was fortunate enough to read her autobiography and I recommend it to all of you for so many of the clues about Sherin as a person are found there.  In fact, it may be one of the best stories about voluntary service that I have ever encountered.  The first lesson that I derived is this:  Sherin could have accomplished very little without you; and you could have accomplished very little without her. I also noticed that she paid tribute in her autobiography to Dwight D. Eisenhower and the role that he played in organizing the first White House Summit on People to People programs in the mid 1950s.  No president since Ike has chaired a follow up meeting but Sherin understood the power of people to people in almost revolutionary terms, especially in today’s world in which our standing and respect have fallen so low.   We are working with the new Obama Administration to champion a second summit on the value of people to people programs.

UPON MEETING A SANDANISTA.  My first visit to learn directly from Sherin, Amy, Bob, Lucy and others was informed by the plan to accompany a Nicaraguan Diplomat to the Annual Meeting earlier this year.  We met at O’Hare on a busy Friday afternoon and our flight was canceled, not delayed.  So I called Amy to say that we were going to have to return to DC.  She had this to say, “We have volunteers in every community of Wisconsin. Pick any airport and someone will pick you up.”  I doubted whether the Governor of Wisconsin could offer me such assurances.  But one hour later we were picked up in Appleton and whisked down to Stevens Point by two cheerful volunteers.  Prior to departing, the Nicaraguan diplomat took me aside and had this to say, “I’m a Sandanista.  I am not comfortable in your country and did not ask to be here.  I lost family members in the Contra war and do not support US Foreign Policy.  I just thought you should know that.”  I could only smile and say this, “I can’t imagine any better place for you to be right now than in Wisconsin.”  It took only one day with Sherin, Lucy, Amy to reduce him to disbelief and tears when he noted, “I had no idea that the American people are like this.  I have met more people in Wisconsin that care more about my country than many of my countrymen.  How can you explain this to me? Why would anyone in a small town in Wisconsin care about anyone in a small town in Nicaragua?  I don’t understand this.” I assured him that it had nothing to do with the water or the cheese, although I suspect many of you would argue that point.

LA VOLUNTAD DIVINA:  One of the striking elements of Sherin’s Story is the enthusiasm she brought to the job and the longevity of her commitment.  I served as a PCV for 3 years and then have been active as a volunteer with many other NGO.s  But it is Sherin’s 20 years with Partners that caught my attention, and then her husband Bob’s 20+years and then her daughter Amy’s many years and now her Grandchildren’s years.  How can this be explained?  When I asked her how she had successfully involved her entire family over three generations she had this to say, “Bob and I looked at it this way:  we could spend the same amount of money going to Disney Land for a fantasy vacation or Nicaragua for a reality service vacation.  This was not a difficult decision to make.”  Tasso Lugon, a Board Member of the Partners had more to add:  “In Brazil, we refer to this as the Voluntad Divina or the Divine Will.  To understand this you need to go back to the essence of the word enthusiasm which was built on the concept of  theos which connotes God Force or Divine Will,  hence Voluntad Divina. This special type of energy was rare, he noted, viewed by the Greeks as a gift of their Gods to only a select few.  The Greeks looked for this special quality in their leaders, assuming that the gift allowed them special and direct communication with their various deities.  Why else would so few have it if it were not to be used for such purposes?”  Some of you have referred to Sherin as a “Force of Nature.”  According to Tasso, you are not that far off of his deeper understanding.

HER GIFT TO NICARAGUA AND TO ALL OF US:  Few of us know what to make out of her accident in Nicaragua.  Does this inform us that the risk is not worth it and we should stay home?  I think Sherin would want us to view this as the ultimate gift she had to give to Nicaragua, one that will inspire all of those who knew her and want to emulate her.  I know that many of you will agree that we will honor her memory by carrying on her legacy and leadership.

OUR GIFT TO THE BOWEN FAMILY AND THE WISCONSIN PARTNERS:  THE SHERIN BOWEN FELLOWS.  Upon further reflection, Sherin’s motto of “Working Together We Can Make a Difference” should probably read, “Working and Learning Together We Can Make a Difference” for it was her spirit of open inquiry and her appetite to learn that so distinguishes her, that captures the essential spirit of what any leader needs to inspire and open paths for others where so many appear to be closed.  We hope to partially repay Sherin for this gift by establishing the Sherin Bowen Fellows.  Each year we will select 4 to 8 volunteer leaders who are committed to learning about how to better serve their communities and aspire to make Bowen-like contributions to their communities.  The Bowen Fellows will be able to travel and study either within their partnerships or cross-chapter, depending on the type of needs that they have.  I suspect many of them will want to visit Wisconsin and learn first hand how to develop a top-rate volunteer organization.  I also want you to know that we have been nominated to participate in a public television series called the Heroes of Hope which we hope to base in much of the work of the Nicaragua/Wisconsin Partners.  I cannot imagine a better title for Sherin other than a Hero of Hope.

THE ESSENTIAL LESSONS FROM SHERIN’S LIFE.  A child of the Midwest, Sherin had all of the requisite common sense and practical talent to make things work.  Her determination, discipline was without boundaries.  But it was the mega dose of service to others over the long, long haul that set her apart.  How did she develop this.  Part of the answer is here with us today and we want to recognize and thank her Mother, June.  Her work in the 4H also had a profound impact as did the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Award that she received when she was in her early 50’s that allowed her to chart a new course in her life.  In Nicaragua, we reflected on this and tried to better understand why she and the Wisconsin Chapter has contributed so much.  Ellen Maurer, one of the founders of the learning centers movement, and a powerful leader in her own right, added that the friendship and love of the Nicaraguan counterparts was a big factor.  Sherin commented later, “this is just something we do in Wisconsin.  It would be more difficult NOT to serve.  We need to serve others.”  She then went on to reflect on one trip during the rainy season when she and some of you here today were slipping and slogging around in the mud, enjoying every minute of your work.  It was then that I recalled the essential insight that Robert Frost captured in a poem that had held a riddle for me for so many years:  it is love and need that have to be combined to successfully order our lives for a greater purpose.   The title,  Two Tramps in Mud Time,, may capture better than any other the lore of what attracted Bob and Sherin and their family to work in Nicaragua.  The poem, paraphrased, goes something like this,

“Only when love and need are one….is the deed ever done…for Heaven and Future’s sake.”

I think all of us would agree that all of Sherin’s deeds have been done for Heaven and Future’s sake.  May she rest in Peace.

Steve Vetter
Partners of the Americas