Never Give Up
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking things up and gently throwing them into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”
“Throwing starfish back into the ocean,” the youth replied. “The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”
—Original story by Loren Eiseley, as related by Nancy Koerner
These days, nancy koerner keeps herself busy. She is an author, a public speaker, a columnist, an advocate, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and an employee at a downtown Naples art gallery. At various times in her life, she’s also been a hippie artisan, a traveling musician, a trailblazer, a resident of the Central American rainforest and a victim of heart-wrenching domestic abuse. While some of these roles have been the result of enduring strength and ambition, others have been terrible side effects. Nonetheless, Koerner’s story is ultimately one of triumph—
for herself and for countless other women she’s helped along the way.
“When I was a little girl, I always knew that my life was going to be really different than other people’s. I wanted to be a cowgirl, Tarzan, an artist, all these things,” she says. “And I became a lot of them.”
Paradox in Paradise
At the age of 23, after dropping out of college and moving around from Key West to California, Koerner, along with her new husband and their infant son, packed their lives into a 1959 Ford Stepvan and journeyed south on an adventure that eventually would become the basis of her roman à clef, Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise.
They landed in Belize, an ecological paradise that appealed to the young couple for its anti-establishment counterculture miles from the polluted, post-Vietnam War turmoil in the United States at that time. “We didn’t want to be a part of that,” she says. “The next phase in the early ’70s was to get back to the land, and we went there to raise our kids in a clean environment. They grew up on rainwater and fresh foods we grew ourselves, fruits off the trees. It was a very healthy lifestyle.”
Their would-be utopia, however, turned dim as Koerner’s marriage began to deteriorate. Isolated in a third-world country far from home, she fell victim to increasingly violent physical and mental abuse at the hands of her husband, but she hesitated to leave in fear that she would lose her son and daughter, who was born in Belize. The downward spiral continued.
Eventually, after enduring years of her brutal marriage, Koerner orchestrated a secret escape to the U.S. with her daughter. In order for her plan to work, however, she was forced to leave her son with his father, who had custody of both children. “That was the most difficult thing I ever did, to escape,” she recalls. “I had to pay for my daughter with my son. I couldn’t even talk about it 10 years ago. I couldn’t say that out loud.”
Healing the Hurt
When Koerner and her daughter arrived in the U.S., it was 1989, and they settled down in Pennsylvania, where Koerner was raised. But after a few years, they ventured back to Florida, where Koerner’s parents were living in Fort Myers. It was then she decided to reach out to The Shelter for Abused Women & Children, a nonprofit organization based in Naples that provides programs and services for domestic abuse victims and survivors. Initially, she wanted to meet the staff there and establish a professional relationship, as she had already written her book and was interested in seeing how she could help their cause. But her reaction when she arrived surprised her. It had, after all, been 18 years since she had escaped from her own abusive circumstances.
“I started getting teary-eyed,” she recalls. “I started to think that this is where I would have gone if I had had a place to come to. I didn’t have any blood and bruises to show, but I set up counseling, and I went there—no charge—for the entire year. I went to group and one-on-one, and I got better.
“Writing the book was a real catharsis for me, but it was a double-edged sword, too. You’re standing up in the spotlight as the author, and then you’re up in the spotlight as an abuse victim with people looking at you wondering, ‘What did you do to deserve that?’ You don’t know what kind of stuff people are thinking when they’re looking at you in that context. [Counseling] helped me deal with things I had shoved under the rug that I never realized were there.”
Turning It Around
Koerner’s mission now, she says simply, is to raise up other women—to allow them to recognize their bad situations, regain their autonomy and find their own redemption. It’s an ideal she has carried with her even while embroiled in her own anguish in Belize, where she endeavored to help the native women lead better lives. From her earliest days there, she made her own crusade to provide them with birth control in an effort to combat the lack of professional medical attention and an astonishingly high infant mortality rate. It was not uncommon for women in tiny Belizean villages to give birth to 10 to 20 children—and bury half of them, a testament to the region’s overwhelming poverty. Koerner has written about the dangerous implications of nearly continuous pregnancy for these women for Examiner.com, for which she writes regular columns relating to domestic violence.
During her time in Belize, she estimates she procured birth control for about a dozen girls. In her book, she tells the story of a woman named Lupita, who, without birth control, likely would have become a “stereotypical barefoot-and-pregnant village girl.”
Koerner reconnected with Lupita on Facebook about a year ago. “We were emailing back and forth and reminiscing,” she says. “I asked her how much [the birth control] really impacted her life. She said, ‘My sisters did end up barefoot and pregnant in the village. But I got to go to Texas. I got to go to school. I got my CPA. I had one child, and I had him in my late 20s. I had a life because of you.’”
For those she doesn’t encounter personally, Koerner still ventures to help by donating a portion of all direct-from-the-author book sales to The Shelter for Abused Women & Children. She also speaks to various audiences—particularly women—about the importance of empowerment, both based on her personal experiences and those of women throughout history, beginning in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian cultures and continuing to present-day. Her message is especially powerful considering how closely she’s lived it.
“When I do my speaking engagements, I get a tremendous response—people are emotional, sometimes crying; sometimes they say it struck a chord within them,” she says. “I also get women who say, ‘I need help.’ It’s a really great feeling to be able to make a difference, even if it’s just one here, one there.”
A Happy Ending
Koerner is a testament to her own willpower. Now married to her husband, Ken, of five years, she works at her daughter’s Gallery O on Fifth Avenue South in Naples, which is the only U.S. retailer for the authentic exotic wood furniture and handicrafts that Koerner’s son, who still lives in Belize, produces. She is also working on another book, tentatively titled The Age of Never, based on the life of her friend and mentor, Jack Wood, who helped her get back on track after escaping from her abusive ex-husband. Perhaps the most exciting prospect is that of a potential movie adaptation of Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise, which has garnered interest from three different film producers, including one from Paramount Pictures.
Koerner’s life has been somewhat of a paradox, she says. “But if I had it to do over, with all the joy and pain, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Beauty happens at the same time as great ugliness. People need to be aware and take advantage of every experience. Never give up; never give in.”
For more about Koerner’s story, visit belizesurvivor.com.