It seems like Mary Lou Boal never sits still. She works at a job where she is always traveling and finding good travel experiences for others. Being around her is a positive experience. Her words are uplifting and she has an easy laugh that puts people at ease.
Mary Lou is a compassionate lady who gets things done for those in need. She reaches out to her community, her state and also in another place, she says, that is “forgotten by the world.”
Madisonville is her long-time home, but it’s really only a nice “parking place” for Mary Lou, who is now in her early 70s. She helps her customers find enjoyable travel experiences through her Total Travel Service agency and has personally taken people on tours to 75 countries since starting her business in 1982.
A country called Cambodia in distant Asia has especially captured Mary Lou Boal’s imagination and ignited a fire inside her to be a friend to a few of the 14 million people there. She has worked heroically to bring aid and comfort to the people of this war-torn, poor nation that had many of its citizens killed or maimed by the horrible Khymer Rouge government leaders of the 1970s, who planted millions of explosive land mines. Reports are that one in 350 of Cambodia’s citizens have suffered the loss of a leg or arm. It’s a problem that still lingers today, about 40 years after the inhumane landmines were set in the ground.
Mary Lou played an important role in placing more than a 1000 wheelchairs in Cambodia to support those suffering from the explosions. She has also supported a children’s hospital there. Both projects most clearly define what means most to her. Working through an organization called Free Wheelchairs Mission (freewheelchairsmission.org), Mary Lou spoke to anyone who would listen to her sad story of the Cambodian people’s misfortune.
She got her business involved, too. Her message to listeners was that the Cambodians are “gentle, polite, and hard-working people who aren’t ones looking for a hand-out, but a hand-up.” She explained further: “While there, I even came across what is known as a ‘butterfly restaurant’, where children are paid to collect and release butterflies for money needed at school,” she said. That impressed her.
The important action of raising money and shipping the wheelchairs to Cambodia was not all she did. She also traveled to the country with her friend, Laura Teague, to make sure that the chairs arrived at the correct destination and were received by the intended individuals.
The two Kentuckians traveled to a place in rural Cambodia where the chairs were to be distributed. There, they enjoyed a feast of joy. “It was from no legs to mobility,” Mary Lou said. “Each wheelchair was designated for a particular person, and as they received them, they were soon up and running and happy. It took so many people to see that these people got their chairs, and my excitement was seeing it through.”
Laura remembers how they sat through an hour of speech-making by officials, then watched as the recipients crawled toward their chairs–moving forward using wooden blocks on their hands. “Many had no legs, one leg, or a leg that didn’t work,” Teague said. “It was an amazing sight to watch.”
Mary Lou first found out about the medical needs of the Cambodians through being shown the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap. The hospital didn’t have enough equipment and only 50 beds. Her heart was touched, and when she returned to her home in Madisonville, she put her business staff to work helping collect items for the hospital to use. “We’ve got to help, girls,” she said to the employees.
Madisonville citizens answered their requests, and soon the hospital received important supplies and money. Today, she encourages others to continue the effort by working through an organization called Friends Without a Border.
The always alert woman has compassion for those in the United States who have experienced catastrophes. In the spring of 1999, Mary Lou led a group called “Helping Hands of Hopkins County, Kentucky,” to answer the call of need in the tornado-ravaged area of Oklahoma. When Hurricane Katrina did its terrible damage in 2005, again she led a community effort to fill a tractor-trailer truck with supplies. She found a volunteer driver, along with making sure a waiting group was there to receive the goods.
Mary Lou is good at watching out for the details in the projects. “I am a good organizer,” she said, “but the Madisonville community has been tremendous in supporting the projects.”
The Rev. Don McLaughlin, Mary Lou’s minister at the Madisonville First Christian Church, described her as “one who has a wonderful heart for mission to help people in need” and “she uses creative ways to find resources and is persistent. Mary Lou’s enthusiasm is contagious. She has a natural personality for helping and her motivation comes from her faith.” Her friend Laura Teague described Mary Lou as “dedicated, energetic, and compassionate…an ‘Energizer Bunny’ who I could not keep up with when we were in Cambodia.”
Mary Lou’s good-hearted ways likely stem from the way she was lovingly taken in as a baby by her father’s sister after her mother died. “I was treated as well as everyone else in the family, with plenty of caring,” she said. She has fond memories of international missionaries, many who were not Americans, having Sunday dinner in her home. “I saw the good treatment and respect shown them, and I can still see the image in my mind today.”
Tom Clinton, the former editor of Madisonville’s local newspaper, said that she “always seems to look on the bright side and she has the energy of a person half her age.”
One might call Mary Lou Boal the “ambassador of caring to the world,” and that name would be well-earned.
Steve Flairty is a life-long Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of three books, a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and two “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes,” collections of stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is available now at many bookstores around the state or from the author.. This piece is an excerpt from that book. Steve is a correspondent for Kentucky Monthly. His column for KyForward appears weekly. Contact him at email@example.com.