From Jersey to Juba

A Cherry Hill native becomes active in charitable activities around the world funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

Leesa Kaplan-Nunes, right, while serving as an election observer last fall in Southern Sudan.
Courtesy of Leesa Kaplan-Nunes.

Leesa Kaplan-Nunes has lived and worked in so many countries that she no longer associates the concept of home with a specific place. “It’s more like a feeling,” says the Cherry Hill native. “But I still get homesick sometimes. That’s when it helps to have a stash of bagels.”

Kaplan-Nunes’s latest base of operations is Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she manages an at-risk youth program funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The 52-year-old has devoted her life to helping people around the world improve their lives through education. Previously, she worked in Southern Sudan, where she supported U.S. government-funded education activities and served as an observer for the April 2010 elections.

After living far from the beaten path for nearly a decade, Kaplan-Nunes has grown accustomed to challenging conditions. “Sudan’s been decimated by civil war over the past 50 years. Very little exists and systems are nascent,” she says. “I lived in Juba, the capital city of Southern Sudan, in a 40 foot by 8 foot shipping container on a secure compound. It’s like living in a houseboat. But you get used to it and learn to have fun.”

Personal safety is always a concern. “Before I went to Sudan, I was required to attend security training. You learn how to take care of someone if they’re hurt, how to shoot an AK-47, how to ram a car—that was fun. Fortunately, I never had to use what I learned.”

Is there a downside to the lifestyle? “It’s hard not being closer to family,” Kaplan-Nunes says. “I have relatives in Jersey, El Salvador, Maryland and California, and friends all over the world. But, thanks to Skype and cell phones, we can stay connected.”

And what’s the first thing she does when she’s back in the States? “Seeing my family and friends tops the list. And I gorge on Tostitos with lime, pumpernickel bagels and corned beef sandwiches.”

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