Life Shift, With Gratitude
Nancy Wesson finds new life in third and fourth acts
By Drew Myron
At 64, Nancy Wesson changed her life. While her friends were easing into the languid years of later life, Nancy wasn’t financially or emotionally ready to retire. Instead of slowing down, she packed her house, closed her business, and moved to Uganda in August 2011.
Filled with a desire for a totally immersive experience, Nancy joined the Peace Corps. She had spent years building a series of successful careers as an audiologist, a feng shui expert and a professional organizer. Suddenly, she was making friends in mud huts in Uganda.
Established in 1961 by President John Kennedy, the Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the U.S. government with a mission to provide international social and economic development assistance. Since its inception, more than 240,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in more than 140 countries.
Most volunteers are 25 to 30 years old. Nancy was assigned to Gulu. The city in the northern region of Uganda has long been mired in the ravages of generational war.
“On the surface, the people were generous, kind, welcoming,” Nancy says. “But under the surface, there was always this collective pain.”
In preparation for the adventure, Nancy received cultural and language training, including lessons in Acholi—one of Uganda’s 65 languages and what many consider the most complex to learn.
Though she was initially concerned, Nancy’s advanced age turned out to be an asset. In Uganda, life expectancy is 62 years.
“Age is revered, and I was special,” says Nancy, who was frequently called “Auntie” or “Mama” as an endearment of respect. “I was taken seriously. I didn’t have the credibility issues that the younger volunteers had.”
Maturity also was an emotional advantage.
“I had lots of life experience to pull from,” Nancy says. “I had more coping skills and more resources. I’d lived 30 years longer than most of the Peace Corps volunteers.”
Nancy’s major project was creating a children’s library. The role stirred memories and appreciation for her mother, who worked as a librarian years ago.
The days were tough, the nights long and fatigue became familiar. Even the simplest task—from transportation to rainstorms to mailing a letter—was difficult.
The more difficult projects, such as launching a literacy program, required great patience and tenacity.
Still, Nancy says the sense of satisfaction ran strong. That satisfaction was not only from a job well done but from a fresh sense of self.
“I hate the term ‘found yourself,’ but for me the Peace Corps experience stripped all the veneer,” she says. “As a woman, so much of life is presentation. I was stripped of all that. I was stripped down to the essential me, and discovered I liked me.
“I got to see life through a new lens, through gratitude, compassion and stepping away from judgment. You think you’re going over there to help, but you always learn more than you give.”
A Peace Corps term of service is two years and three months. Nancy stayed on a bit longer, then eased her re-entry by traveling to Mexico in February 2014.
She returned to the United States six months later, when her visa expired. The return was not smooth.
“I came back with no house, no job, no car,” she says. “I stayed with friends. I lost my vocabulary. I had to rebuild familiarity.”
Still, she returned with gratitude.
“I used every skill I had from my life experience,” she says. “To discover that— at a time when you’re being pushed out of the workplace and feeling less valued—is life affirming. My Peace Corps experience shifted paradigms for me, my family, my friendships, everything.”
Though she was now on familiar ground, Nancy didn’t want to repeat old patterns. She decided she would not return to Austin, Texas, where she had built a successful business as a feng shui consultant. She would not return to her childhood roots in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Nancy craved family, so she moved to Oregon in September 2014 to be near her son Brett and his wife, Kim.
Nancy initially lived in Cannon Beach, but when the couple announced a baby was on the way, she headed east. In 2018, she moved to Maupin, where she is helping raise her grandson, Colton.
Her son Travis recently moved to Maupin, too.
“This is the first time since 1998 that we’ve all lived near each other,” Nancy says. “It’s so special to have all of us coming to one spot so we could have that family unit.”
Nancy is now enjoying her “fourth act” as a grandmother. The days are full and busy, the nights are quiet contemplation.
In 2021, 10 years after she joined the Peace Corps, Nancy wrote and published “I Miss the Rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a Third Act.”
“The book is inspirational,” says Valerie Stephenson, director of Southern Wasco County Library in Maupin. “Everyone here is raving about it.”
Nancy works as a library assistant. This year, the two women are producing a series of self-development events.
“Nancy is really an amazing woman and willing to try new things and take on new adventures,” Valerie says. “She’s great. Everyone loves her.”
The book—and life—“is about being absolutely present and in the moment, and being absolutely filled with gratitude,” Nancy says.