Kaye Thompson, MSW '80 (Social Work)

Volunteering worth the wait for Thompson

It took her three decades to do it, but Kaye Thompson finally landed “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

“I first applied to Peace Corps in 1973,” Thompson says. “But I was screened out because I had a boyfriend. I think they thought I wasn’t fully committed.”

Instead, Thompson went into a successful practice as a therapist working with state and county agencies around the Sacramento region. But she never forgot her early interest.

“It was always in the back of my mind,” she says. “Then I reached a stage in my life when I said, ‘Okay, this is it, I’m ready for something else.’”

In 2008, Thompson was assigned to a health clinic in Peka, Lesotho. The small mountain kingdom in the middle of South Africa has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. Thompson was charged with conducting outreach efforts related to the disease, but faced significant hurdles.

“The plan was for you to go out to other villages. But there are no roads,” Thompson says. “And there was no money for cars or gas.”

Instead she set out to develop a program for dealing with a virtually ignored outcome of the HIV/AIDS crisis: coping with loss.

“The most meaningful thing I did was using my background and skills in mental health to help people deal with grief,” she says. “Everyone I dealt with had lost someone—to ‘tuberculosis’ or ‘pneumonia’—no one dies of ‘AIDS,’” Thompson says ruefully. “The stigma is so great.”

She brought together health workers to talk about how they deal with grief and then incorporated her findings into an eight-week training course. That led to a second program for orphans and displaced children. Thompson trained more than a hundred people how to help children cope with grief and even wrote a children’s book about grieving.

“They’re not used to thinking about grief. After someone died they would just go to school,” she says. “They didn’t know how to talk about it.”

While in Lesotho, Thompson also worked closely with the African Library Project, which connects volunteer book drives in the United States with schools that need libraries.  Thompson says they started nine libraries and brought in thousands of books. “It was amazing.”

Her Peace Corps tour ended in 2010 and she quickly made arrangements for her next assignment: a contract with the relief and advocacy agency The Center for Victims of Torture, this time based in Cameroon.

While there she conducted therapy sessions with people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder—villagers who had been the target of intertribal conflicts, prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. She also developed a curriculum from scratch for The Center for Victims of Torture staff, none of whom had received therapy training.

Thompson credits the opportunities she had while a student at Sac State with helping her throughout her career. “The placements I had, with Napa State Hospital and Eskaton, gave me a good grounding in mental health,” she says.

While her penchant for making a difference beyond the borders of her home state may have got a late start, Thompson is just getting going. Her next stop? Perhaps another tour with Center for the Victims of Torture?

“They have employees in 10 countries around the world, so I’m interested in that,” she says. “Maybe with the International Medical Corps, or maybe Doctors without Borders.

“We’ll see.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 edition of Sac State Magazine.