Missed Connections: 1969 Humanitarian Trip To Africa
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There are times when we can connect surprisingly deeply with a stranger and then never see them again - a missed connection. We've been trying to help some of you connect with the people you're trying to find. And today we take you back to the 1960s. Operation Crossroads Africa took student volunteers from North America to work on community projects in Africa for the summer. In 1969, Helen Chapple was one of those students. And she wrote us to reconnect her with the group that she went with. And she joins us now from Atlanta, Ga.
HELEN CHAPPLE: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Helen, why did you want to find the people that you went with?
CHAPPLE: Well, it's always been a very influential and good memory for me. And it's 50 years this summer - which seems very, very hard to believe - since we were all together. And the experience, for me, really changed my life. I learned about race relations in a way that I couldn't have known before. I was radicalized. As I grew older and formulated myself more, I needed to find a population to advocate for. And I became an advocate for dying patients. And that's been my cause. And it's - I can tie it directly to that summer experience.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, take us back. Tell us what inspired you to join the program back then.
CHAPPLE: I had actually heard about it in high school. And then my boyfriend, the year before I went, spent the summer with Operation Crossroads Africa. And he liked it. So I - not to be bested, I felt that I needed to sign up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what did you do there? Tell me a little bit about the program.
CHAPPLE: We were in Kitwe, Zambia, at the Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation. And we built an open-air discussion hall with a kitchen.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why?
CHAPPLE: It was a project that, I guess, they wanted to be done. But it turned out that Operation Crossroads Africa was very troubled that year. The tensions in the United States were brought with us to Africa. And we had a wonderful group experience, but ours was not typical.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we looked at some of the written correspondence between leaders on the ground in Zambia and Operation Crossroads Africa administrators. It said that some of the people, instead of learning about Zambia, made Zambia a platform to air the racial problems in the United States.
CHAPPLE: Many of the groups had tremendous problems. One group sent their leader home, we learned. And one group, the blacks and the whites didn't get along, so they lived separately. But we were very, very lucky. We worked together well. We traveled together well. We were a force to be reckoned with.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned that there were both African Americans and white Americans.
CHAPPLE: And Canadians as well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it was a mixed group.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How many were you?
CHAPPLE: There were 10.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. Well, we have to tell you that we did find Graham Hinton. He was one of the Canadians...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...On that trip. And he joins us now on the line from Ontario, Canada. Graham...
CHAPPLE: Oh, my goodness.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Do you remember Helen?
GRAHAM HINTON: Yes, I do - very well.
HINTON: Pleasant memories...
HINTON: ...Of Helen.
CHAPPLE: I am amazed. How wonderful to talk with you, Graham.
HINTON: You, too, Helen.
HINTON: I commend you for a life well-lived.
CHAPPLE: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. I'm just so struck that they found you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Graham, tell me a little bit about your experience of this. Was this a meaningful trip for you, too?
HINTON: An incredibly meaningful trip - changed my whole life. Like Helen, I learned a lot about race relations and...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you and Helen are white.
CHAPPLE: Oh, yes.
HINTON: We're white (laughter). One of the closest members of the group to me was Saul Blair from Watts, Los Angeles. And he taught me that being oppressed caused you to see life in a totally different aspect and that I was very privileged being a white Canadian. And I had never spoken to anyone who came from that way of life. It certainly opened my eyes as to the challenges black Americans had ahead of them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say it changed your life, what do you do now?
HINTON: After I graduated from university, I became program director of the Canadian Crossroads International, which was a counterpart of Operation Crossroads Africa. I actually went back to Zambia and saw our project being used for classes. And some of the counterparts that I spent time with - the embrace I got from them and the hospitality was just over the top.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you continue to have this connection with Africa. Well, I've got to tell you both, Graham and Helen, that we have somebody else who's on the line.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Someone that you mentioned - Saul Blair. We found him.
CHAPPLE: Oh, my...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's here from Phoenix, Ariz. And he's been patiently listening to our conversation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Say hi, Saul.
SAUL BLAIR: Hi.
BLAIR: How's everybody doing? (Laughter).
HINTON: Good, Saul. God bless you.
CHAPPLE: Oh, terrific. Yeah.
BLAIR: Same here.
HINTON: Saul, there is - not a month goes by that I don't think about you.
BLAIR: Well, I didn't know I had such an impact.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think, Saul, when you hear that?
BLAIR: Well, first of all, I'm humbled. It's just nice to hear. The one thing that I did hear, which is very, very true - we didn't have the tension that Helen had mentioned in our group. We did have a diversified group. But I think we got along extremely well.
CHAPPLE: We did.
HINTON: Yeah. Hallelujah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Saul, what inspired you to take that trip to Africa?
BLAIR: It's interesting. I was just walking down the hall and going to class at UCLA. And I just happened to see a poster. Naturally, I just had a strong interest of going to Africa. And so the opportunity was there. And I took advantage of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was it striking for you coming from a recently desegregated America to find that apartheid was alive and well on the African continent?
BLAIR: You saw a lot of America in Africa. What I mean by that - the racial tension there that you had in the United States. A couple of times we went somewhere, and it said whites only to go into a restroom. I was appalled. In the U.S., we heard about it, but to see it is a whole different world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask you, Saul, what you do?
BLAIR: Well, I just retired. I was a hospital administrator, primarily working in low-income communities and trying to provide appropriate health care.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like this was a really pivotal trip for all three of you.
CHAPPLE: It was.
BLAIR: Oh, absolutely.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Helen Chapple, Saul Blair, Graham Hinton, thank you all very much.
CHAPPLE: Thank you.
HINTON: Thank you.
BLAIR: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We want to help you find your missed connection - someone who touched your life and then went away. If you have a unique story, tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9217. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.