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Utah woman shuns work to aid others

If there was any doubt that Katie Walther was going to commit the rest of her life to humanitarian work, it was laid to rest during a showdown with her employer. An administrative nurse at the time, she requested more vacation time to travel to a Third World country on a medical mission. Her boss, weary of her frequent leaves of absence for such duty, gave her an ultimatum.

"If you leave, we'll replace you," she was told.

"OK, replace me," she replied.

That was in 2010, and she hasn't had a steady job since then. She survives on savings and a certain frugality – she drives a 12-year-old Hyundai with 140,000 miles on it – so she can indulge her passion for service. She has made nine trips to Haiti, three trips to Guatemala and one to Mexico. She also has served on the USS Cleveland in Papua New Guinea and six weeks on the USNS Mercy hospital ship in Indonesia.

"I trusted God that this was the right thing," says Walther.

Walther is a tiny, 60-year-old, white-haired woman who lives in Pleasant Grove. She could still be working a full-time job or retire and kick up her feet in her large house or visit real vacation resorts. Instead, she travels to Third World countries – at her own expense to live a Spartan existence. No showers or cold showers for weeks at a time. The same local food every meal. Unbearable heat and humidity. No air conditioning. Arms and legs peppered with mosquito bites, despite sleeping under netting. The never-ending line of sick children. Long hot rides on bumpy roads. Hauling supplies to various remote villages, setting them up, then tearing them down again at the end of the day. Climbing out of bed early every morning. Sleeping in a room with 10 other women and one bathroom. Living in a fenced-in compound with an armed guard. No TV for entertainment. No cellphones. Contaminated water supplies. Spotty electricity.

"People ask, why do this?" she says. "First, you're motivated to help people. Then you realize you like yourself better when you do this. Why go back? We slip so fast. We go back to our old way of things so quickly when we get home. I can stand under showers for as long as I want."

Serving frequently under the auspices of Healing Hands for Haiti, she is a team leader of dietitians, doctors, nurses and pharmacists. She has been traveling to Haiti since 2005. She was glued to the TV in her Utah home when the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, following the news reports around the clock.

"She was calling me multiple times a day crying, upset about the death toll, the lack of help and provisions," says Walther's daughter, Liberty. "I said, 'Mom, why aren't you there? Clearly, you want to go.' She told me there would be too many obstacles to getting into the country. I said, 'Mom just go.' … She went to Haiti two weeks later. It took major devastation for her to realize how much she loved that country. It really broke her heart."

It continues to be heartbreaking work. Much of her work in Haiti is with children who have disabilities. There are entire orphanages filled with them. Such children are refused medical attention by native doctors and abandoned by families and society.

"They are really disenfranchised," says Walther. "They can't go to school or receive medical care, and they rarely can have a job. I've seen kids who can't go to school because they have scoliosis. Or because they have a limp or a club foot or use a cane, crutch or wheelchair. You're ostracized if you lost a limb, whether it was from an accident, a birth defect or cancer. And the earthquake increased the number of amputees."

Last fall she heard the story of an orphan who was refused medical attention by four doctors because she had cerebral palsy. She was seeking medical attention for a fever, not the disability. She was taken back to an orphanage and died.

"Maybe it's because they don't have the resources or they think they're not worth saving because they're weak," says Walther. "I don't know what it is. "

Walther, who came to Utah in 2005, learned to love service while serving in the military. She attended the University of Maryland on an Army nursing scholarship and after graduation served six years active duty, followed by 16 years in the reserves, including a four-month stint in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. Recently, her military connections and humanitarian work won her invitations to serve on board the Mercy and the Cleveland as a civilian volunteer doing outreach clinics in Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste.

"The Army trained me to this idea of serving and serving a global population," she says.

Her latest project: She is gathering a group of teenagers to serve in Guatemala through an organization called Humanitize Expeditions. "The world doesn't need more charities," she says. "It needs more people to help the charities that exist." For two weeks this summer, teenagers will give up modern comforts – cell phones included – to teach and feed impoverished children and prepare a medical clinic.

"It's a real work project, not a vacation," says Walther. "We're really needed there. I believe this will help many of these kids pick a career or catch the service bug. And for someone who goes even just one time it will change the way they look at what they do have. That child will come back knowing the difference between their needs and their wants. This is paying for an experience, not a thing."

Walther also teaches service to some 50 kids through her Service With Smiles program in Pleasant Grove. Besides learning skills useful for service, they make hygiene kits and other aids for Haiti, Kenya, Korea, Honduras and American Indian reservations.

"My motivation is to allow Americans to see how much they have to give," she says.

Let Liberty have the last word on her mother: "She is drawn to humanitarian work because of the incredible sense of mission it provides, which is exhilarating for her. She thrives on the urgency and purpose she feels as she recruits volunteers, books flights, gathers donations, packs and weighs her luggage always trying to cram in one more toy or medical supply. She is thrilled each time she is selected for a new humanitarian program."