Enduring All Things
76-year-old Betty Fulop overcomes difficult past to go back to school – and Panama
By Molly Morris
Each year hundreds of University students participate in spring break campaigns, serving communities in many states and countries.
Betty Fulop of Athol, Idaho, was one of 16 students who traveled to Panama this spring. Like many of her fellow campaigners, Fulop is compelled to work with the elderly, poor and abused. Unlike the other students, Fulop already has experience in all three of those areas.
Fulop, known as "Miss Betty" to her classmates and professors, was born Jan. 10, 1932. She is the only full-time University student who can claim five children, 15 grandchildren, and "five-and-a-half great-grandchildren." The sixth is due this summer.
She has become well known to many students since coming to the University in fall 2007. She walks to and from her apartment and classes every day with the rest of the student body and can be found studying in the library or student center.
Fulop's journey to the University has been a long one. Her life has not been easy. She was abused at age 5 and married the first of three abusive husbands at age 17. Fulop has experienced life on welfare and has seen two of her children spend time living on the streets. She has been widowed since 2000.
"I've been very poor, not knowing where my next meal would come from," she says. "I've always had these dreams, though, and I've had to go through a lot of preparation to reach those dreams. Some of that preparation has been suffering."
Fulop says she always loved school and wanted to learn more. With her family cheering her on, she enrolled in North Idaho College three years ago and then transferred to Harding.
"My children think it's wonderful, and they're all rooting for me," she says. "They were very proud of me when I told them I aced all my classes last semester."
Fulop began attending a church of Christ in Wisconsin in 1960 after her father, son and sister got involved with the congregation. She was baptized in 1976 and heard about the University through her involvement in the church.
"I thought it sounded like a great Christian school," she says. "I decided if I ever went back to school, I'd want to go to Harding."
Now in her third consecutive year of college, Fulop has completed a total of 11 semesters. When she began at the University, she already had 85 course credits from other colleges. She changed her major from psychology to general studies last year and also took on vocational ministry as a second major. Fulop will graduate in 2010. Her goal is to work with abused women, which is part of the reason she decided to go to Panama this spring.
"I always wanted to go on a campaign," she says. "At first I wanted to go to Philadelphia because I knew that group was going to do a lot of work with poor people. But when it was full, I found out that the group going to Panama would work with poor people there, too." Several generous churches and individuals helped fund her trip.
"God sent me to Panama for a reason," Fulop says. "Philadelphia was full for a reason. Maybe I wouldn't have done as well with the down-and-outers there."
Fulop traveled with the group to several locations in Panama where students helped paint churches and visited people in each town. They hosted a gospel meeting in each community. Four campaigners spoke Spanish and translated for the English speakers.
Fulop says the group was welcomed in each town, especially smaller, rural places like Coclecito. "They were greatly encouraged and deeply appreciative. They don't get much encouragement because they're way out in the country."
In the city of Santa Marta, the group provided clothes, toys and school supplies. Fulop brought more clothes to give away than she brought to wear. In one town, a small bag containing her change of clothes was mistaken for a donation bag. For her trouble locating her belongings, a church leader named Solomon gave Fulop a Panama hat.
"He said he would be honored if I took it," Fulop says. "I'd been hoping to buy one for myself, but I thought I would have trouble finding one small enough. The one he gave me fit perfectly. That's how God decided I was going to get a hat: I wasn't going to have to pay for it, but I was going to have to suffer for it."
By all accounts, Fulop was a trooper when it came to surviving tough treks. Junior Raul Alvarado led the campaign to his home country. "She was an inspiration for all of us," he says. "When we were in Coclecito and Santa Marta, it was tough for us to walk up and down all the hills, but she would walk with us and do everything we did. She was in good shape and never complained about being tired. She was amazing."
Fulop knew when to break a sweat and when to take a break. One afternoon the group went for a swim after a hard day's work. "While they were burning on the beach, I took a nap," she says.
In Coclecito, the group helped stack heavy cement blocks and sandbags. Fulop knew she would struggle with the weight, so she asked the others to save just the last two for her to move.
"The Panamanians thought it was really something that I had the courage and stamina and was healthy enough to go with this young group," she says.
For Fulop, that "young group" was a source of great encouragement. "We did a lot of laughing and a lot of singing together," she says. "It was uplifting and spiritually strengthening." The hymn "Love One Another" became the group's theme, and members sang it at nearly every church meeting.
"It was just thrilling to hear all these voices singing," Fulop says. "It vibrated in these little church buildings with good acoustics. Little things like that were just so encouraging. Sometimes I didn't even sing with them, I just sat back and watched and listened to their exuberance and joy."
Life in Panama agreed with Fulop. "It's a laid-back culture," she says. "At my age, I'm not in a hurry to do things, so I fit right in."
She enjoyed getting to know other campaigners. "I felt their acceptance and respect in a big way," she says. "That is a big thing for me as most of my young life I was neglected and later was not really noticed by schoolmates or adults."
Despite language barriers, Fulop also befriended many locals. In addition to Solomon, who gave her the Panama hat, she got to know a woman named Elisa. "I kept forgetting that we didn't speak the same language," she says, recalling the first time she met her new friend. "I kept talking away to her in English, and she would just smile back. Then I would stop and say, 'I forgot! You can't understand any of this!'"
Fulop plans to return to Panama next spring. "It means so much more to go where I've been already," she says. "Going once was just like laying a foundation. Now I need to build on that."
She says she will do two things differently in preparation for next year's campaign: pack bug spray and study Spanish. "Elisa said she was going to try to learn English, and I told her I would learn some Spanish so that we can renew acquaintances next time."
Fulop is quick to point out that she cannot take credit for her achievements. She believes her life story demonstrates God's grace, and she sees the campaign as an opportunity to show that grace to others.
"God has given me all this energy and desire," Fulop says. "It's him, not me."