One In A Million... a million people live, work and play in upstate New York's Catskills region. These are their life stories... in their own words.
Series produced by Kent Garrett
Photo editing and website design by Ed Kirstein
Ellie Burkett and Dennis Gaboury:
Power to Stand
Ellie Burkett and Dennis Gaboury Transcript:
In the summer you’ll find Ellie Burkett and Dennis Gaboury in Delaware County, New York. In the winter it’s Zimbabwe, Africa, where they are giving people the power to stand.
Here are Ellie Burkett and Dennis Gaboury in their own words:
Ellie: We were living in Baltimore, and we were looking for a place that was very rural within three hours of a major airport. A friend of ours owned land on the other side of the river and said she would sell us five acres. We went up, and we looked at it. Then we went out with a realtor. This is, you know, around Rankin, around with this realtor who had been a marketing executive on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. Now, I didn’t much like her. I asked her what the difference between the two sides of the river was, and she said to me, “Oh, you could never live on the other side of the river. Who would you talk to?”
Since I knew I didn’t want to talk to her, I figured we had to live on this side of the river, and we came and looked on this side of the river. Then we were looking around Phoenicia, but we saw this tiny ad in the New York Times for raw land. We had no idea where Margaretville was, and we thought it was closer to Phoenicia, maybe like Big Indian. So we made an appointment with this realtor. We drove out, and by the time we got to Margaretville we said, too far, way too far. Then she said it was another 20 minutes to the property, and we said, too far, but we had to be polite. We drove and drove and drove, and that afternoon we bought the property because it was raw acreage on the top of a mountain with an unbelievable view.
Dennis: We didn’t know that then. When we bought the property we had only seen the area near the gate at the bottom of the mountain, so we hadn’t climbed the mountain. We didn’t even know that we owned the top of the mountain. Then later after we bought it we discovered we owned the top of the mountain too. So then we decided on that, that’s where we want to build. But really, the charm of it was at the gate, where it was just so quiet and woodsy and nice.
Q – So, I mean, was the decision sort of based on the land and that sort of thing, not so much people or community?
Dennis: No, it was a gut thing.
Q – Well now, tell me about Zimbabwe and the going back and forth. How did that get going? When did you start doing that? I mean, what’s that all about?
Ellie: Well, for many years I mostly wrote books. Every time I got fed up with American publishing, which I do on a very regular basis, we would take what we call a vacation from reality. That consisted of applying for like a Fulbright professorship to teach in the middle of nowhere in some other country. So one iteration of that was a Fulbright professorship in Zimbabwe, and it was a lark.
Dennis: Yeah, at the time we were in Alaska because Ellie got tired of publishing, and there was an opening as the chair of the journalism department there.
Q – In Alaska?
Dennis: In Alaska, in Fairbanks. So we were in Fairbanks, and it was coming to the end of the two years where we had planned to be there. We were only wintering in Alaska. We would summer here. So she applied for another Fulbright. It was Bolivia or Zimbabwe, and we figured Bolivia we could do when we’re 80. Why not just do Zimbabwe now? That’s how we ended up in Zimbabwe.
Ellie: But it was such a lark that, I mean, Dennis always kids that he expected, because of the press coverage in Zimbabwe, that we’d get off at the airport and machete wielding thugs would be greeting us. Instead, this extremely well-spoken, like Oxford kind of English, young man, who was a faculty member, meets us at the airport with a university driver. They take us to the university guesthouse, which is in what we now know is an old Jewish neighborhood called Khumalo. We looked all around, and we’re like, where are we? How could this be Africa? It looked to us like Southern California. We had no intention of doing anything but having a 10-month adventure and leaving, and it got to us.
Q – You say it got to you. I mean, what made you want to stay beyond the 10 months? When you say “got to you,” what do you mean?
Dennis: Everybody that goes to Africa that gives it some time, not just a tourist, it gets in your blood. Well, I started a doll competition, and at that point it was no name. It was a lark. It was just a lark. It was an artist trying to do something fun with the kids. They were making wire toys, wire cars and toys, and I thought, well, let’s have a competition and make some wire toys and some dolls. We’ll do it in this one neighborhood. What I didn’t know is that this woman with this one neighborhood knew every other woman in the whole city, and I ended up doing like 500, 600 kids in this one thing that I just started by myself. I ended up running all over town and getting to know all these people and seeing situations.
Eventually, we had an awards ceremony. I got some businesses involved in it. The kids had fun. They got prizes and all that. I did that for a couple years till I realized that a lot of the women who were running these groups had formed them specifically to take advantage of this competition, because then what they would do, unbeknownst to me, is take all the prizes from the kids when they got home and then sell them.
Ellie: Then what happened after the first year is we brought a bunch of the dolls and wire toys back home.
Q – Back to Delaware County?
Ellie: Yes, back to Delaware County.
Dennis: In Delaware County, I mean, I took them around to like the bank, M&T Bank, and a couple of other places.
Ellie: Wildflowers in Margaretville, R.A.G. Everybody started seeing the dolls and saying, oh, can we buy them?
Dennis: I thought, wow, maybe I could raise money and buy food with this, so that’s what I did is I went back and bought food; so we had more prizes. Then I’d say it was the second or third year that I realized what the women were up to. At that point I had decided I was like skimming a stone over a little pond, and you’ve got this huge area; I was just not touching anyone’s lives in any significant way, so I decided to focus on one neighborhood.
You’d walk down the street that first year and everyone you’d come across, a group of people, they’d all start smiling at you. You’d just smile back. You had a sense of community there that you didn’t have here. You had kids, lots of kids, on the street playing with each other, all ages, from 18 months on up. You had life in all of its glory and gore. You had kids dying. You had adults dying. You had kids with oozing wounds. You had happy kids. You had shoeless kids. It was all that.
Q – Well, tell me the metaphor again. I mean, that was interesting.
Dennis: Well, I think that the metaphor is, as I said, like in the States, you know, think of it like at a funeral. You go to a funeral, and you go to a nice home. They’re laid out nicely. You go to the graveyard, and the dirt is covered because God forbid you see the dirt, let alone peer into the hole. Then you lower it nicely after everyone’s left because you don’t want to see that either. Then you go and have a nice meal.
In Zimbabwe you go to the graveyard, and more often than not the whole neighborhood turns up. They take an axe to cut the hole in the ground. You’re down there digging along with everybody else, and you lower the body, which is sitting in a coffin that’s made out of basically paper. You cover them with dirt, and you touch the dirt. You feel the dirt. You see people around it. You see people collapsing. You see people praying. You see a level of the continuity of life in a sense there that you wouldn’t see here necessarily, and you see the reality of it really, the real stuff.
In America, like I say, you get out of your air-conditioned house onto your nice, wooden deck into your car going to a nice mall which is concreted and then into a nice store. In Zimbabwe you get out of your house. Your feet may not be shoed. You’re walking on ground that may be filled with glass, and yet you’re not going to get cut. You’ll just get dirty. You’ll see kids everywhere running around playing with each other. You’ll see life. It’s dirt. It’s psychological and physical dirt.
Q – Well, what about now, I mean, this whole devil’s advocate sort of, this idea of white colonialism do-gooders. I mean, how do you deal with that? Are you perceived that way sometimes?
Ellie: You know, the woman who care-takes our property, Emily, once said to me that the local belief is that Africans grow corn and that white people grow money. So a virtual stranger will say to us like when we’re leaving to come back here for a while, oh, give me your laptop. Total strangers will ask you for like $5,000. I’m not talking about extortion; I’m just talking like people assuming that you just wouldn’t mind giving them $5,000, and then they get mad at you when you don’t or they’re puzzled. So there is a very ingrained view of white people that’s a little bit difficult to deal with at times.
When we first got there I was teaching at the university, and I understood that it was going to be challenging with my students because they had never met a white person. Think about that concept for a second, never meeting a white person. I kind of thought it was weird, and it was hard for me to figure out how to help them get over the color of my skin.
Q – But I mean, they had a perception from TV and sort of a stereotype.
Ellie: And they had a stereotype, most importantly, from their own historical past. I mean, they weren’t part of that past because the kids that I was working with were all what they would call born-frees. They were born when Zimbabwe was already independent. But there is a stereotype that white people are other, very dramatically other, either other as the devil or other as the angel or some combination.
Q – I mean, how do you deal with it personally though; I mean, sort of in your heart?
Dennis: See, I think that I have met white people in Zimbabwe who are old Rhodesians whose approach to Africans there is colonialist, is master/slave relationship in one form or another on some continuum. But like when I’m over there they’re very deferential to me and often sometimes even sycophantic to me. You can break through that on a very personal, individual level. In general, that goes with the territory.
Now, the minute I say or do anything—for instance, early on someone I had sort of this other program with another group of people, and the director had stolen some money. I went to his mother, and I said, you know, I really hate doing this because he was very important to me, but he stole money; we have to fire him. She accused me—this is a woman who loved me—but the minute I did that she says, “Don’t you understand that African men steal? How dare you come here to our country as a colonialist!” So it can turn on a dime, that deferential, sycophantic kind of stuff.
Q – Well, how did that make you feel, I mean, that particular incident?
Dennis: Well, that was my first experience with that. Then after seven years you come to expect it, so you work around it. What I do is I think that with my kids and with the caregivers that I work with, they know Dennis. They don’t know the white man. Whenever my dealings are with people, they can pick up on whether or not my approach to them is as an equal, and they pick up on that. So you don’t deal with it all the time.
Ellie: You had to kind of operate on faith because it’s Zimbabwe. You know, we’re not affiliated with any like CARE or any big agency. This is just like a little one person decides to do this. We kind of operated on faith that the money would come.
Dennis: So I said, let’s make this building project a training project so you guys get to learn skills along the way. Then I’ll pay you a small amount to get you through while you work on that. So the six of them started; we ended up the project with four. Two of them left in the middle of it. Those four have learned how to weld, lay block, mix cement, put in roofing, put up gum poles for roofing, all the electric, all the solar.
Q – I mean, they have marketable skills. I mean, they’re going to be able to refine their work.
Dennis: They know how to do everything, and these are both two girls and two boys. They now know how to do everything.
Ellie: He trained the first two female construction workers in the entire country.
Q – Really? Wow.
Ellie: They’re both like tiny and 20.
Dennis: Tiny, 20, and are able to push a wheelbarrow full of cement like you wouldn’t believe.
Ellie: Dennis has been back one week, less than a week. When he got to the airport in Bulawayo, the city where we work, the kids all came because they wanted to say goodbye to him. They handed him a bunch of notes. One of the girls, this is a girl whose parents are dead. It’s a child-headed household. She’s the person in charge, and she’s got two younger brothers, one of whom was stabbed this year, the other of whom was beaten by a teacher and lost his hearing. She has to deal with all of this, and this is what she wrote Dennis.
Q – What’d she say?
Dennis: You are a father, a teacher, and a friend. With all the things that you taught me, I say thank you so much. With love and care, many special joys are wished for you and may each day keep bringing more and more of the happy many things. You gave me the power to stand and to be proud of myself.
Ellie: The power to stand and be proud of myself.
Q – Let me ask you now, Ellie, you’re a famous producer/director in the world of Hollywood, so what’s going on with you?
Ellie: Well, I started a project really because of Dennis to make a film about a group of squatters who live at the dump in Bulawayo. What happened is Dennis had noticed when we went to the dump that there were people living there, and he started a project to try to teach his kids that they weren’t the worst off people in the world and that they could help other people. He started taking his older kids to try to help the people who lived in the dump because, I mean, they were squatting in these horrible shacks and trying to pull things out of the dump to make a living. There were lots of children there, and it’s pretty foul. So we started a film, got some money, did a lot of filming, did a trailer, and just then a film about a dump in Brazil came out. It seemed strategically the wrong time to try to continue this project, so we put it on hold.
At the same time that that was on hold, I decided to go back to kind of a long ago fantasy. I’ve written nine books of nonfiction because I’m a trained journalist, but what I read is not nonfiction. What I read is mystery stories. I’m obsessed with mystery stories, especially ones that occur in like exotic locale; okay, so a mystery writer named Eliot Pattison who writes mystery stories that all occur in Tibet. I love them because at the same time it’s a good mystery story, because it’s a wonderful mystery story, you’re also learning about Tibet and the fights with the Chinese. It’s fabulous. So I decided I needed to write a mystery story about Zimbabwe, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through. I have no idea whether it’s any good, but I’ll see.
Q – What’s the plot? I mean, if you could just give us a little hint.
Ellie: Sure. The plot is that the main character is someone very much like me. A lot of it’s based on kind of reality. Maybe that’s because I’m still having trouble with fiction. So it’s an American woman in Zimbabwe teaching at the university, and one of her colleagues, one of the most important journalists in the country, disappears one day. It’s her attempt to find him. I mean, in that sense it’s very much a traditional mystery, and that’s all I’m telling you because if I tell you any more, nobody will ever want to read this mystery story.
I think the other big thing that’s happened to me at least in the past year is three of the boys in the band about which I made the film that won the Oscar, they always wanted to come to university in the United States. There were only three in the band who were finishing high school, and when they finished the first level of high school, because in the British system there are two levels, they wanted to go on.
I helped to arrange for them to get scholarships to good private schools because that’s where they needed to go. One of them is in a wheelchair. One of them is an amputee, and the third is extremely kind of lame from hemophilia and bleeding into his legs as a child. So they finished school, and they got into university. One is at the University of Kansas. One is at Nazareth College in Rochester, and one is at Lynn University in Florida. They arrived almost exactly a year ago, and it was probably one of the great days of my life.