The Duncan Banner


May 2, 2010

Bringing home cultural applications

TAIWAN — Everybody wants an “app” and sometimes the best applications are those in our direct sight.

So imagine Elizabeth Flanders Pitts’ delight when she traveled abroad to return home with tools she already had in her skill set.

Cultural differences are broad between Oklahoma and Taiwan, but for Pitts, there is one thing that people of both regions have in common.

A desire to help others.

Traveling to another country to find ways to utilize everyday applications has re-energized Pitts, now that she’s returned home.

Pitts, who was fortunate to be chosen by the local Rotary Club to represent this district, along with four other Oklahomans, went with a Group Study Exchange (GSE) team as part of Rotary International.

While she experienced many aspects of Taiwan, from its food and cultures, she also went with a goal in mind as representative of the United Way of Stephens County.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of it, but there is more than one way to do things,” she said.

During her stay in Taiwan, she managed to leave behind a concrete example, her own application of sorts,  of her role as philanthropic leader.

She said a group of Rotarians there had been raising funds but didn’t know how to disburse that money. It had come about after a flood and these Rotarians were wealthier, owners of various large companies, but they wanted to do something good for the victims of the flooding.

“These people were the Titans of industry, from owners of air conditioning companies to furniture companies and TV stations,” she said. “They wanted to help, but didn’t know how to get their money to the right people.”

In conversation, they learned from Pitts that they could donate the funds they had generated to the United Way program in that country.

“I told them United Way can facilitate that and have people who can utilize donations,” she said.

“United Way of Taiwan, that district we visited is consistently in the top five and has a multi-million dollar operating budget. They face the same challenges that we do.”

Pitts said that United Way of Stephens County has a legacy dating to 1955, so it was extremely refreshing to see how others think outside of the box.

“To see the way they do things, they embrace their rich history of tradition and look to the future. It helped me to broaden my  own horizons.”

She said there are two Rotary districts there, with 150 individual clubs. While there, the Oklahoma GSE team was fortunate to meet with a GSE New York team and GSE Australia team. Each day was completely arranged and scheduled. Pitts days started at 6 a.m. and it was usually 11 p.m. before she retired for the night.

Pitts was impressed with everyone’s attitudes.

“They make sure they are positive about everything,” she said.

She visited the Eden Social Welfare Foundation and learned about its state child welfare home.

“Their screening process is similar except everyone lives in an apartment building and they have four to six kids with a mother or father figure. It is a family situation, but they rely on a lot of volunteers. They probably have about 200 a week come and teach classes. The kids we met were so happy as they showed us their rooms, their responsibility charts, art hanging on the walls. It’s different, not necessarily better or worse, but they are huge on the reunification process,” she said.

Foster care is not part of the country’s system.

Eden also deals with mental and physical handicaps, she said, describing how they want to make sure that all people of their region strive for a better quality of life, including finding spouses.

“They find them from other countries, so they have put a support system in place for acclimating them. Sure, they have the immigration issues, but they embrace it and realize they are ‘here’ and do what they can to make sure they are a part of the country,”  she said.

Taiwan has found an interesting way to tackle one of the biggest problems that any country faces — prisoner population and rehabilitation.

“They didn’t take the (approach) of ‘we’re here to punish’ but instead, to make productive citizens of society. I got to see a snapshot of it and it’s something that will stay with me. Again, it’s a different way to do things outside our typical perspective,” she said.

The prison system houses its inmates much different, with 16 inmates in a cell or room, that sleep nearly head to toe but, Pitts said, they are rarely in their cells except to sleep. The entire day is structured with educational and learning advancements, from musical groups to art and more.

“Some can learn to become French chefs. They have a culinary program in place. The Taipei prison is a positive approach, it wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t the most secure place. They do an occupational assessment before they go into prison, so that way while they are inside, they are learning something.”

Pitts said it’s an effort to make sure that when those inmates are released back into society, they have skills that can help them function as productive citizens.

“They don’t just go ‘work out’ while they are in prison.”

Overall, there were many things Pitts saw and brought back with her that left an indelible impression — including the language.

“I never wanted to be the rude American, so I was saying “excuse me” 80 times a day (in their language).”

Bringing the idea of gapping language barriers home with her was such a simple one that she is amazed she had not thought of it before.

“They print their United Way brochures in two languages. I never thought about printing up our materials in English and Spanish,” she said.

It’s almost funny, since Pitts holds a major in English and a minor in Spanish and the program she oversees works extremely hard to reach out to both cultures in Duncan.

The Spanish speaking population of Duncan has been a fast-growing segment of the city for nearly 10 years now. Other Oklahomans on the GSE team were John Lawson of Ardmore, a retired attorney and team leader; Jeff Leyerle of Newcastle, graphic designer; Sheila Crosby of Norman, children's librarian for Moore library; and Ashley Bledsoe of Altus, dental assistant.

With the exception of Lawson, a Rotarian, GSE teams are non-Rotarians.

— Toni Hopper is a reporter for The Duncan Banner. She can be reached at 580-255-5354, Ext. 132 or by e-mail at:

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