On Foreign Soil
Monday, January 9, 2023
Media Contact: Kaitlyn Weldon | Digital Communications Specialist | 405-744-7063 | firstname.lastname@example.org
As the sun rises in Oklahoma, halfway around the world Kelsey Walters is wrapping up her workday with tea and a video chat with family back home.
Walters, a western Oklahoma native and Oklahoma State University alumna, resides in Chisinau, Moldova. The former Soviet Union country is nestled between Romania and war-stricken Ukraine. Since Moldova is a place so unlike home, Walters searched for anything similar when she first arrived.
“Everything is different,” Walters said. “Everything is dark, dreary, cold and muddy.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from OSU in 2007, Walters was unsure of her next move, like many college graduates.
Walters said she began looking at many options post-graduation, but ultimately decided to apply for the Peace Corps. While waiting for a response, she started her master’s degree in international agriculture through OSU. As she worked toward her master’s, Walters received word the Peace Corps had an immediate opening for her.
The Peace Corps was a natural and constant option for Walters, she said. Her cousin was a Peace Corps volunteer, as were several of her OSU professors and her advisor.
Walters said the Peace Corps placement process moved quickly. At the time she was accepted, she was living in Pueblo, New Mexico, working on a project for graduate school. Within the next two months, Walters needed tomove back to Oklahoma, pay bills and somehow prepare to leave the U.S. and her family for two years, she said.
“I don’t think my parents believed I was going,” Walters said. “When I showed them the one-way plane ticket to Washington, D.C., they realized I was serious.”
Walters left for Washington, D.C., in September 2007 for training.
“It was like she was going to save the world,” said Wayne Walters, Kelsey Walters’ father.
His then 23-year-old daughter packed heavily for Moldova. She took a large plastic tote on wheels filled with tools she probably did not use, Wayne Walters said.
In late September 2007, Kelsey Walters first arrived in Moldova, only 15 years after the retreat of the Soviet Union presence. The country was facing a depression. The lack of smiles on the Moldavian faces was so unusual compared to home, she said.
“As a Peace Corps volunteer, you are just trying to find anything that feels like home,” Walters said, “at least until you can develop some appreciation for the new culture.”
On a cold, snow-covered November night, only two months after Walters arrived in Moldova, she met her future husband for the first time.
Once settled at her permanent station, Walters’ host family took her to the local disco. The long, fun night turned into cold, wee morning hours, Walters said. The people she was with planned to sleep where they were — an outdoor bus stop.
While stranded at the bus stop, a car belonging to a family friend, Yuri Sumleanschi, pulled up, Walters said.
“Everyone murmured ‘Oh, that’s Yuri,’ and they straightened up,’” Walters said. “He rolled his window down to ask what we were doing, and my host family said, ‘We have an American! We are showing her around town. This is Kelsey.’
“Yuri comically asked, ‘Does she like the bus stop?’” Walters said.
Sumleanschi gave Walters a ride home that night. They talked about why Walters was in Moldova and how Sumleanschi worked in agriculture. They exchanged numbers at the end of the night.
Six months later, the two went to dinner to talk about Sumleanschi’s harvest and Walters’ projects. It turned out to be a date, she said.
“It was weird, but it all worked out,” Walters said as Samantha, her 3-year-old daughter, climbed into her lap. “He saved me from certain frostbite.”
After the couple married and Walters finished her time in the Peace Corps, she returned to OSU to complete her master’s degree in 2011.
Sumleanschi came with her and took English lessons for three months until he had to return to Moldova to plant sunflowers and corn on the small share of a farm he owned in Moldova.
“We did the distance thing while figuring out what to do,” Walters said.
Sumleanschi and Walters decided staying in Moldova to make farming a full-time job was the best idea for them at that time.
“Starting to farm in the U.S. is difficult,” Walters said. “Unless you have a family with land that is ready to transition to the next generation, it can be tough and expensive.”
Once settled back in Moldova in 2012, Walters and Sumleanschi further expanded their farming operation near the Ukrainian border.
The farm Sumleanschi and Walters bought had greenhouses previously used for tobacco production, she said.
They decided to grow organic specialty vegetables in the greenhouses and keep the employees who worked in them.
There, Walters implemented the plan for community-shared agriculture she worked on during her master’s program.
The CSA plan allowed people to purchase small shares of farms in return for a box of the farm’s products, Walters said. At first, only a few people were interested but as time went on, nearly 70 people became involved in the CSA.
While still growing specialty vegetables, Walters was hired by Keller-Bliesner Engineering, an American company, as a consultant.
“The company was rehabilitating an irrigation system on a 14,000-acre former Soviet Union farm,” said Mike Isaacson, an agricultural engineer with Keller-Bliesner Engineering.
“Walters did primarily administrative things,” Isaacson said. “She coordinated communications and facilitated travel, but she also was our economic voice.”
Walters co-wrote an implementation guide on how to design irrigation layouts for different types of farming operations in Moldova during this project, Isaacson said.
“This was a large accomplishment,” Isaacson said. “I thought it was a phenomenal product.”
After two years of managing the CSA’s greenhouses, packaging, delivery and invoices, Walters closed the CSA in the fall of 2014 to focus on economic consulting, which would allow her to be closer to her infant daughter Evelina.
After wrapping up the Keller-Bliesner Engineering project in 2014, Walters and Isaacson started a business together, KB-Walkoma LLC, Isaacson said.
The firm’s offices in Farmington, New Mexico, and in Chisinau, Moldova, housed multiple engineering and technical staff, Isaacson said.
The company provides conceptual design services, economic feasibility studies, water systems engineering and construction supervision services for rural development projects involving building water infrastructure like pump stations, canals or pipelines.
“We felt like giving people in impoverished areas a job was an important part of our company,” Isaacson said.
A crucial part of KB-Walkoma’s work was transferring data onto maps to make information more accessible, Walters said. At first, KB-Walkoma had two employees on staff who specialized in mapmaking, but each ended up leaving the company, Walters said.
“I realized a map was just a spreadsheet or an infographic,” Walters said. “I decided to learn the technology and fill the role myself.”
In 2018, Walters received an online certificate in geospatial technology from the University of California-Davis. Shortly after, KB-Walkoma’s daughter company in Moldova began the liquidation process.
“Working with Kelsey has been the highlight of my career thus far,” Isaacson said.
Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced them to leave Moldova for Oklahoma, Walters was an economic development consultant for the U.S. Embassy in Moldova.
When the Russia-Ukraine War began, Walters and her daughters moved to her hometown of Canute, Oklahoma. Sumleanschi stayed behind to plant 3,000 acres of sunflowers and corn.
“We weren’t sure what was going to happen in Moldova,” Walters said. “Western Oklahoma is just more stable and safe.”
While in Oklahoma, Walters worked on numerous projects for communities around the area.
In August 2022, the family moved back to Moldova in time for Walters’ 9-year-old daughter, Evelina, to start school. Since returning to Moldova, the family has lived in an apartment in Chisinau.
They spend their weekends at the farm, which is an hour-and-a-half drive from their apartment and Evelina’s school.
Walters works in consulting as a data analyst and cartographer in Moldova as well as works on projects based in western Oklahoma through KB-Walkoma.
Walters hopes to return to western Oklahoma at some point and continue to advocate for rural agriculturists close to home and abroad. “It is rewarding to be able to give back and help in western Oklahoma, even if I am an ocean away,” she said.
Story By: Camryn Bond | Cowboy Journal