Good steward: One with earth, others

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Margaret Plevak | June 14, 2016

Dona Palmer is an unapologetic steward of the earth.

“We are not the kingpins of everything,” Palmer says of humans in connection to the world. “We must learn from the earth and realize that we are all one and this whole 'web of life' is more than just an expression.”

The environment — and concern for its resources among all people on the planet — has colored everything in her life from work to politics. Palmer grew up on a farm, living close to the land. She joined the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, a religious order named for the patron saint of all creation. As a backpacker, she's taken in the beauty of the national parks. As a longtime teacher, she's introduced hundreds of children to nature.

An injury from a serious auto accident earlier this year resulted in months of rehab, but Palmer remains involved in social and ecological issues, even raising bees at her Delavan home, where she lives with her husband, Tom, and their daughter, Rosa.

Share this slice of life with Dona Palmer:

Farm girl

My father was a soil conservationist in Rockford. Dad was the parent who most instilled a love of the land in me.

I was driving tractors out in the field when I was young. I had two ewes and four lambs for 4-H projects when I was 9 years old. I helped them be born, helped bottle feed them. I'd get up in night and help those mommies have their babies when I was a little kid.

Spiritual ties

Certainly my devotion to the land came from the fact that I was a Franciscan sister for 12 years. I was in the community from 1962 to 1974. It was seeing, just feeling called to do that, to commit myself to something, to the earth and to people in need. The order was located near a wooded area and Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. My first director was a Native American sister, so she told stories and really instilled a love of the land. 

When I left the order, I had a profession that was so perfect for me. I had a love of the arts. I had the deep awareness of the power of women together, of sisters. We're going back for my 50th anniversary this July 25. Only three out of 33 women are still in the order, but there is something when we get together — no matter if we stayed or left — that keeps us so close.     

A natural role

When the sisters needed a primary teacher, they asked if I'd be willing to do that. It was such a natural profession for me. When I was probably 6 or 7, I got locked in a bathroom in a restaurant and I was frightened by that. I spent my life trying to encourage little ones who were afraid or didn't think they could do something to show them they could do it.

I started teaching in 1968 in parochial and Milwaukee public schools in the primary grades. I taught in Iowa for a year. I ended my career out at Reek Elementary School (in the town of Linn). I taught there from 2000 to 2009. My (last) first-grade class is graduating from grade school this year. I retired with the 160th graduating class. And I had the seventh generation of my family in the room.

Cultural lessons

After I left the convent in 1975, that first summer I went to Nicaragua as a public health technician with Amigos de las Americas, giving over 1,100 immunizations for measles and polio. As I traveled the country giving immunizations in huts with only dirt floors, I was extremely touched by the warmth and hospitality of those with so few basic resources.

This was when our government was backing the Contras. I saw granaries that our forces had destroyed and I saw the people who were starving to death, and our daughter was someone who would not have survived had it not been for the fact that she had been adopted. After an attack, the assistant to the social worker would go and bring back any children who were left. And Rosa was one of those children. In 1985 I went back to Nicaragua with a group called Witness for Peace. Tom and I adopted Rosa in 1986. I've gone to Central America seven times. We went back in 2000 with Rosa and three families that had adopted children.

I was profoundly affected by the death of (Archbishop of San Salvador) Oscar Romero and the four church women who were killed in 1980. Because of those deaths, two other women and I were motivated to start the Milwaukee Sanctuary program for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala in 1982.

Travel benefits

I've backpacked in the Northwest primarily, and I've traveled to Europe by myself. I think it's so important to see how other people live and experience their hospitality when you're alone and you don't know their language. I think every young person should travel before they go on to further studies, or do that as part of their further studies, so they see the unity of the world.

Raising bees

I read “This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein, and that was when I decided to get bees started here in Delavan. Rick Sallman and I worked on the ordinance to keep bees in Delavan. Bee colonies in the United States were down more than 40 percent in 2015 when I started raising my hives of “lesson teachers.”

Faith in the future

I worship at Good Earth Church of the Divine in East Troy. It's a marvelous interfaith gathering of people who care about the earth. To be around other people who have big, warm, loving hearts and eyes keeps me going. It's scary to think about my grandchildren's generation and my former students' generation, so I really want to do as much as I can.

Tracking the blessings

I write down five things a day I'm grateful for, and that is really so important to me. It really has made me more positive. It's almost like the quilt I made of my father's shirts and jeans after he died. My daughter sleeps under that quilt.

Teacher appreciation

I met someone at the (Milwaukee Art Museum) who said she was working there part time.

She said, “I go to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I'm going to be an art teacher.”

I said, “I'm so glad. That's so important.”

She said, “You're the first person that's ever told me that.”

I think parents see how hard teaching has gotten because of the lack of support and appreciation from the community. I just take any opportunity I can to say to other teachers, “Thank you for your service.”

Politically aware

As someone with a mother who worked at the polls all her life, I've been involved in politics all my life, too. I wore political buttons on my habit.

The fact that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee concerns me greatly. I think he encourages fear and anger by saying things like “No Muslims should be allowed in this country,” “Mexico is sending us their rapists and murderers,”  “Women are fat pigs,” “The pope is a disgrace.” Certainly if there was one thing I tried to teach, it was respect for one another.

My mother was born the year that women got the right to vote. Women and men will not forget the struggles our ancestors went through to get us the rights we have today. It is the time to rise up and keep those rights and our beautiful planet for our grandchildren.


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