Former Iowans among newest group of ‘Living Treasures’ in New Mexico

Whitehills made career of giving back

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Ben and Carolyn Whitehill were recently named “Living Treasures” in New Mexico. Ben is a former Marshalltown resident.

Editor’s Note: Ben Whitehill is the cousin of Bill (Bev) Whitehill from Marshalltown. Ben grew up in Marshalltown and met his wife, Carolyn, while attending Grinnell College. This story is reprinted with permission from The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper in Santa Fe, N.M., where Ben and Carolyn Whitehill now reside.

When Ben and Carolyn Whitehill first embarked on a missionary trip to Hong Kong more than 50 years ago, as newlyweds and new parents, they began a lifetime of service work that eventually brought them to Santa Fe. They have spent more than three decades here advocating for the sick and the disabled, and volunteering in a public school and prison.

“I think we both grew up in families where it was just sort of understood that we had an obligation to give back and help other people,” Ben Whitehill, 86, said in a recent interview.

The Whitehills, named among four new Santa Fe Living Treasures, will be recognized during a celebration Sunday for their contributions to the community.

The couple said they met over a box of spilled peanut brittle at Grinnell College in Iowa. He went on to earn a medical degree and she earned a master’s in social work.

“When we finished our schooling, we tried to decide what to do next,” Ben Whitehill said. “We had a strong Christian faith and wanted to give back in that way, and discussed various places [where] the likes of us were needed.”

So they enrolled in a Cantonese language program at Yale University and then flew more than halfway around the world.

Their missionary work in Hong Kong lasted more than a decade. They raised their two daughters near a refugee village there while Ben Whitehill worked as a doctor at a hospital for tuberculosis patients. The nearby village was home to more than 10,000 people who had fled China’s communist regime and widespread famine, they said.

During that time, said Carolyn Whitehill, who is now 84, she worked as a teacher and developed an interest in helping people with special needs.

When the family returned to the U.S. in 1975, they wanted to continue making a difference.

“When we came back from Hong Kong,” Ben Whitehill said, “we decided then and there that even though we were no longer missionaries, we would like to have our lives be meaningful.”

Ben Whitehill took a job with the U.S. Public Health Service and became a doctor at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Later, he worked at the federal prison in Atlanta. That post ultimately led the Whitehills to Santa Fe.

In 1983, Ben became the clinical director at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital and Carolyn took a job with Easter Seals El Mirador, a nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities.

At that time, New Mexico was the only state in the nation that wasn’t accepting federal money to fund disability benefits in the public school system, she said. This allowed the state to keep disabled children out of public schools. Carolyn Whitehill joined a group of advocates who lobbied the Legislature in 1984 to adopt the federal program and integrate students with disabilities.

“I felt part of history in the making,” she said, adding that her work at El Mirador “was important. It was a time when people had been put away in the institutions.” Young people were placed in nursing homes with elderly people, she said. El Mirador was working to “get them into group homes and to get them out in the community, so they could be visible and enjoy all the lovely things that other people in New Mexico can enjoy. … It was very exciting and very fulfilling.”

The couple retired in 1993. But the past two decades have been anything but quiet for them.

They volunteer at Salazar Elementary School, helping teachers in the classroom.

“My time at Salazar with the children has been the most important to me,” Carolyn Whitehill said. “There is just nothing like the thrill of working with an emerging reader when he says, ‘I figured it out.’ “

The highlight of their week, Ben Whitehill said, is on Sundays evenings following services at the United Church of Christ in Santa Fe, when they volunteer with a Christian fellowship group for inmates, holding discussions and singing hymns.

Over the years, they have taught Sunday school classes at their church, assembled disaster kits for the nonprofit Church World Service and cooked for the St. Elizabeth Shelter, as well as Kitchen Angels.

They also started an organization called Bread for the Journey, which helps provide funding for those who have ideas for community improvements and “need just a little money to get it going.”

“It is one of the most satisfying things, and it is very quiet,” Carolyn Whitehill said.

The couple’s world travels have continued. They have taken several monthslong sojourns back to Hong Kong for volunteer work, and they have traveled to Ecuador and Honduras, offering medical services.

Ben Whitehill said his days of international travel may be coming to an end.

“Obviously, we are slowing down some,” he said.

But they are not finished with their service to Santa Fe. He said: “There are still things that can be done if we are listening and responsive.”