By Keysha Drexel
Skip Taylor will be more than 7,000 miles away from his home, his family – and his favorite foods – this Thanksgiving.
But the Vestavia Hills resident and Homewood native said he has a lot to be thankful for this year.
Since April, Taylor has been serving as a development consultant with the U.S. Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, a country in Central Asia.
“I’ve never been away from the U.S. – from my family – this long,” Taylor said in a phone interview from Talas, Kyrgyzstan, last week. “It’s made me realize that I am incredibly blessed to have been born in the U.S., raised in Homewood and to have lived all of my life in the Over the Mountain area.”
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked and mountainous country that was once a part of the Soviet Union and later, Russia. About 80 percent of the people living there are Muslim.
So that means that that while most Over the Mountain residents are dreaming of turkey and dressing for Thanksgiving, Taylor is trying to figure out a way to get his hands on that most Southern of staples – pork.
“There’s no pork here. There is no pork here,” Taylor said. “For an Alabama boy who’s used to getting great barbecue whenever he wants it, it has been tough.”
But despite the lack of culinary comforts and the fact that he misses his family back home, Taylor said he feels like he will be just where he is supposed to be this Thanksgiving.
In his role with the Peace Corps, Taylor is living and working at the community level. He is an instructor of business development and English for business at Talas State University and works as a development consultant with the Nur Bala Foundation.
The Nur Bala Foundation works with the Kyrgyz Republic’s Ministry of Social Development to help orphans, children with disabilities, at-risk children and vulnerable families.
Taylor said Nur Bala aims to protect the rights of all children within the United Nations’ charter on human rights and the Peace Corps’ Save the Children Initiative.
“The most rewarding part of this has been my work advocating for orphans and special needs kids and teaching at the university,” Taylor said. “I pinch myself sometimes because to be able to do something so close to my heart is a real blessing.”
Back home, Taylor also works with a university to help those with special needs.
He is a job coach with the Turning Points transition program at Samford University. The program works with young people with disabilities to ease their transition into the workforce or higher education.
“To be involved with something that is an extension of what I try to do back home makes me really thankful that I got this assignment,” Taylor said.
But when he first got the word from Peace Corps officials that he was being sent to Kyrgyzstan, Taylor said he was a little taken aback.
“I had to run and look up where in the world Kyrgyzstan even was,” Taylor said. “It was not the assignment I was expecting.”
Taylor has traveled to Africa several times as part of mission trips with his church, Mountaintop Community Church in Vestavia Hills, and said he figured because of his experience in places like Ethiopia and Mozambique, the Peace Corps would send him to Africa.
“I was very humbled when I got the assignment to come to Kyrgyzstan because I had to put aside whatever visions I had of where I was supposed to be and accept that this is where God wanted me now,” Taylor said.
And now after seven months in Kyrgyzstan, Taylor said he’s even more convinced he is serving where he should.
“I find myself grateful, so grateful that I get down on my knees and thank God,” he said. “I would have never chosen to come here, but now if someone asked me to go wherever I wanted to go to serve, I would stay right here.”
Taylor said it is not just his work to help orphans and children in Kyrgyzstan that makes his time there so fulfilling.
“The people here are so warm and hospitable and helpful and some of the most genuinely good people I have ever met,” he said. “I suspect I’ll treasure these relationships and also the friendships with my Peace Corps colleagues and carry them forward with me the rest of my life.”
While the Peace Corps is traditionally thought of as an organization young people get involved with between finishing college and launching their careers, Taylor said the ranks of the Peace Corps team in Kyrgyzstan include more mature folks – like him.
“Look, I’m not the oldest one here,” the 55-year-old said, laughing. “For the last few years, the Peace Corps has been attracting more older volunteers who are bringing their skills and experience to help people all over the world. On my team here now, we have people as old as 75 and a lot, a lot of people in their late 50s and 60s. You’re never too old to help.”
Taylor decided to join the Peace Corps at a time when most of his peers were looking forward to retirement.
“Twenty years ago, I fully intended to be retired and on the golf course at this time of my life,” he said. “But there was something really deep inside me, a calling, and I felt like the Lord was leading me toward something different. I call this my alternative retirement plan.”
While Taylor is serving abroad, he keeps in touch with his family and friends through emails and phone calls and social media. His son, Jeff, is a chemical engineer in Atlanta. Daughter Meredith Mills and son-in-law Will Mills are housesitting at Taylor’s Vestavia Hills home while he’s away.
“I’m extraordinarily blessed that I am able to entrust the kids, without reservation, to handle all of my affairs while I’m living outside the U.S.,” he said.
And while he won’t get to celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving with his family back home, Taylor said he does have some special holiday plans.
He and a few other Peace Corps folks are celebrating Thanksgiving at the home of Peace Corps Country Director Tammie Harris in the nation’s capital city, Bishek. Pamela Spratlin, the U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyz Republic, will also break bread with Taylor and other Peace Corps volunteers during the holiday celebration.
And although Taylor said he’s sure there will be the traditional Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings at the holiday event in Bishek, what he’s really looking forward to is Black Friday.
“And it has nothing to do with shopping at all,” Taylor said. “The day after Thanksgiving, we’re traveling to Almaty, Kazakhstan, probably one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Central Asia, which boasts a Burger King, a Hardee’s and a KFC. I’m going after a bacon cheeseburger.”
Once he’s had his pork and fast food fixes, Taylor said he’ll be ready to get back to Talas and tell his new friends there all about his first Thanksgiving in their country.
But telling stories to his new friends in Talas does require a bit more concentration than spinning a yarn for his friends back home in Alabama, Taylor said.
Taylor said learning the Russian and Kyrgyz languages spoken in Talas has been the most challenging part of his time there.
“It’s reportedly harder for older persons to pick up new languages, and I believe my experience supports that assertion,” he said. “Although I am pleased to report that I currently test at ‘intermediately proficient’ in both Russia and Kyrgyz, what usually happens is that I end up speaking what’s referred to as Kressian, a sort of blend of English, Kyrgyz and Russian. And lots of gestures – I use a lot of gestures.”
But despite any difficulties in mastering the languages spoken in the area, Taylor said he’s learned that there are a few things that defy any language or cultural barrier.
“I think the international language is all about smiles and humor,” he said. “There’s hardly any situation you can’t get through with a smile – and not only here in Kyrgyzstan but in life in general. Smiling and being able to laugh at yourself can go a long way, no matter where you are or where you’re going.”
Help from Home:
Taylor’s OTM Friends Are Collecting Food, Supplies
While Skip Taylor may not be home for the holidays this year, his friends in the Over the Mountain area are working to make sure some part of home finds its way to him in Kyrgyzstan.
Cathy Rezek, who attended Homewood High School with Taylor, is organizing efforts to collect food and supplies for the Peace Corps volunteers serving in the former Soviet republic – and to collect cold weather gear and gifts for the children there.
“This is not only about helping Skip and the other volunteers there, it’s also about helping the orphans and special needs children he works with there,” Rezek said.
Rezek said she is collecting food items that Taylor and other Westerners have a hard time getting their hands on in Kyrgyzstan.
“These are things that either just cannot be purchased there at all or, if they can be found, are really, really expensive,” Rezek said. “The wish list includes things like peanut butter, ground coffee, coffee filters, beef jerky, instant milk, Gatorade mix packets, chewing gum, and Skip is about to die for some pork, so we’ll try to send some Spam, too.”
Rezek said she is also collecting AA batteries and cards of encouragement for the Peace Corps volunteers.
Additionally, Rezek is asking those participating in the drive to donate gloves, mittens, scarves, hats and warm socks to give to the children in Kyrgyzstan.
“It’s already winter over there, and while most kids here in America ask for toys for Christmas, the kids over there ask for clothes to keep them warm for the holidays,” Rezek said.
Rezek said the mittens, scarves, hats and socks will also make great packing material to stuff between all those cans of Spam she plans to ship over to Taylor and the Peace Corps crew in time for Christmas.
“All of us back home are so proud of what Skip is doing over there, and this is just one small way we can help Skip help the children there,” Rezek said.
Rezek said she hopes to have most of the collected items ready to ship to Kyrgyzstan by Nov. 15.
“But I will accept donations as long as they keep coming, and I’ll keep sending them over to Skip even after the holidays,” she said.
For more information on the drive or to schedule a donation pickup, call Rezek at 942-4953.