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On Island Profile: Candia Petersen

April 19, 2009 — The smiling woman in the crisp white Bermuda shorts, sandals and bright turquoise top just looks like someone you'd like to know.
"It's so weird," Candia Petersen says, shaking her head. "I can't begin to tell you."
She refers to her selection as the Rotary Club St. Thomas II Person of the Year last Wednesday. Being high profile clearly isn't her cup of tea, but with a little prodding, she begins to tell.
Rotary II prides itself on concealing the identity of the person until the last possible minute.
"My son, Bert, was here from New York," she says. "He and my daughter, Barbara, told me they were taking me out to lunch. I told them I couldn't go on Wednesday — that's my day to work at Crown Bay, but they'd taken care of that with my boss."
The surprises continued at the awards luncheon.
"I didn't even know they had that award," Petersen says, "and when Mac started talking, I thought it must be for Bert — he's so well-known, it must be. I don't know how I got in that category."
But it wasn't the nationally renowned and respected oncologist, one of New York Magazine's Top 100 doctors, who has been honored repeatedly for his volunteer work with various Caribbean nations. Nor was it Barbara, St. Thomas-Water Island administrator. It was their mom.
Petersen worked two jobs for two decades as the family breadwinner after her marriage broke up.
She worked at the Social Welfare Department for 11 years, and then at the Territorial Court as a judicial assistant for 12 more years, waitressing in the evenings for 14 years.
Whew! And that's hardly all. There's still her many travels with the Dorcas Edwards Medical Missions, throughout Africa and the Caribbean, to say nothing of her ongoing volunteer work on St. Thomas. Or her nine years volunteering for the American Cancer Society, serving as local chapter president for the last six years.
Actually, if you wander through the community, you are bound to benefit from something Petersen has had a hand in — perhaps a meal at Bethlehem House on a Saturday. Or how about the hot bush tea, dumb bread and cheese on a chilly Christmas morning at Emancipation Garden?
"I was the second of nine children," Petersen says, "so I grew up helping my mother with the younger kids. It's a part of me to share; if you don't share what you have, you are selfish. When you help someone and you see the smile, it just melts your heart. You've done something."
Petersen was talking about the people she met on her first trip to Jamaica as a missionary, but the thought could be her mantra. It's the way she sees the world.
"Everywhere I go, I have a friend," she says.
She has always found ways to make the best of things.
"When my marriage broke up, I had three children to raise — Bert and Barbara and Dale, who was older," Petersen says. "He died in a traffic accident 27 years ago. I didn't know what I was going to do. One paycheck, and a $373 monthly mortgage."
She hesitated before taking one position.
"One day I was offered a job waitressing at Limetree Resort," she says. "Bert always excelled in everything at school, and I didn't want to embarrass my children if their friends would make fun of their mother being a waitress. When I mentioned it, they were doing their homework. Bert didn't look up. 'Mom,' he said, 'it's a job.'"
Petersen worked at Limetree for the next 14 years.
When Barbara's marriage wasn't working, Petersen sold her home on St. Thomas and moved to Illinois to help raise her grandson, Ken, then five years old, before moving back in 1989.
"I missed my home," she says "I enjoy my own space. I missed Ken, but he came home in the summers."
Petersen helped Bert on a medical mission to Jamaica in 2004, then went to Africa.
"We visited people living in mud huts with no running water or electricity," she marvels. "There are 17,000 patients suffering from malaria, and other diseases. It's unbelievable. The people are so friendly; when they greet you, it's like coming home."
On any given Saturday, Petersen and Barbara are cooking, serving and chatting with the folks at the Soup Kitchen of Bethlehem House.
"It' something we love," she says.
Now, about those warming Christmas breakfasts.
"I worked for Smokey Frett at the Legislature for a time," Petersen says, "and I always go to Emancipation Garden for the caroling. One morning it was so cold and I wanted some tea, and I had to walk blocks to get some, so I suggested to Smokey that we provide tea and bread. He liked the idea."
Now it's a traditional part of Christmas morning. Last Christmas, Bert and his mom, sporting Christmas aprons, were busy doling out holiday warmth beneath a tent with hundreds lined up for a warm smile and a cup of hot tea.
Petersen can be seen these days whenever ships are docked at Crown Bay.
"I work in the hospitality booth," she says. "It's so much fun, talking to folks off the ships, making them feel welcome."
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