Irises Help Bring Woman To The Rim Country

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Barbara Gustafson is the new director of the Rim Country Literacy Program. Gustafson took over the position after Payson Town Councilor Su Connell stepped down as director Jan. 15.

In a roundabout way, it was the irises’ fault. Before Barbara Gustafson spotted them during an unplanned stop in town many years ago, she was not contemplating moving to Payson. But the irises created the possibility, and without seeing them, she never would have ultimately become Rim Country Literacy Program’s new director, as she did this month.

In 1994, while driving home from Shadow Rim Ranch Camp for Girl Scouts near Payson, Gustafson stopped to use the rest room. She planted her feet outside and it felt like home. Then she spotted the irises. Those flowers were the only ones she’d been able to grow at her home in Phoenix. For Gustafson, the sign was clear — she moved to Payson.

Freshly divorced, Gustafson felt free.

You might call it the breadcrumb theory. Not everybody abides by the theory, for which a healthy dose of mysticism and courage is required, but the results can be quite enjoyable for those who do.

Like Hansel and Gretel searching for crumbs as they travel the trail, people who believe in the theory see the occasional breadcrumbs as signs that guide their lives.

For Gustafson the irises marked the first crumb.

Gustafson had embraced her newfound freedom as a single woman, but she feared during the first year that her new life would suddenly vanish, that the cute house where she lived her nice single life would disappear. She suffered emotional abuse during her marriage, an experience that led her to volunteer with the Time Out Shelter, the local resource for women experiencing domestic violence.

“It takes a long time for a woman to leave a marriage,” Gustafson said. “A man could do it in a minute.” Women, she says, are more devoted to the institution, even if not to the man.

But with six children and a husband making a comfortable salary, Gustafson waited until the kids grew to run away.

In the late ’90s, the next breadcrumb fell into her path. Gustafson was set to decline an opportunity to volunteer with the Franciscans in Oceanside, Calif.

Then, at morning Mass, a reading from Isaiah instructed, “this is the way, take it,” recalled Gustafson. So she did. She volunteered at the monastery for two years, and categorizes the time as the most valuable part of her adult life because it allowed her space to think and adjust.

Gustafson returned to Payson in 2000. Within the next year or so, she began volunteering for Rim Literacy, putting her master’s in adult education to use. She has also volunteered at the Rim Country Museum and the library.

Su Connell, also a Payson town councilor, stepped down as director for Rim Literacy on Jan. 15, and board secretary Marie Miller said Gustafson emerged as the obvious choice. “She has the skills needed,” said Miller. Plus, Gustafson had already worked with the organization for years, proving her dedication and understanding of the mission.

Just like with the Franciscans, Gustafson initially resisted the call. She felt guilty taking the job from a younger person, especially considering the difficulty people encounter when job searching in this economy.

Then, the day after Gustafson’s initial refusal, she saw the same Isaiah verse that led her to accept the California monastery adventure.

The breadcrumbs were irresistible.

“Without those signs, I wouldn’t have felt right,” said Gustafson. “There were no irises.”

Gustafson looks forward to devoting her time for developing Rim Literacy’s programs, which include providing adults with free instruction in math, reading, writing, and the English language.

Connell has her hands full on the town council with huge issues like the potential Arizona State University campus coming to town, passing home rule, and generally helping to steer the town through these turbulent economic times.

Gustafson said she looks forward to offering her fresh energy and perspective to the organization, though no immediate changes are planned.

Rim Literacy is looking for volunteer tutors and office receptionists.

So, if you happen to see an iris, you’ll know where to head.

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