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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
Michelle Bearden

Bearden: Tampa woman plans road trip of lifetime

Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2014 at 03:47 PM

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!

(From “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Suess, 1990)

Road trip, here she comes.

Jan Roberts is just weeks away from what will likely be an adventure of a lifetime.

“So far, 26 states and 48 cities in four months,” she says. “But I’m not locked into that. It’s ever-evolving.”

Ah, the joy of freedom.

That kind of independence comes at a price, though. Last June, Jan lost her soul mate, her husband, Brower, a brilliant entrepreneur who died at age 75 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Then she retired in December from Earth Charter US, a national organization she founded in 1999 that promotes sustainability in education, business and community initiatives.

“Retirement” is a dirty word to this Tampa woman, who loves to laugh, learn and reinvent herself. Closing shop and shutting down is not her thing. There’s always another challenge around the corner.

To paraphrase the good Dr. Seuss: She has brains in her head, she has feet in her shoes, she can steer herself any direction she chooses.

And she’s ready to embark on her newest adventure just days before her 76th birthday, leaving the comfort of her Bayshore Boulevard condominium for a most unusual mission.

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Jan always has been a doer of the nontraditional sense.

It started early. At age 10, she used her father’s manual from Great Britain and founded the Boy Scout Troop for Girls, because it offered a more exciting time than the Brownies.

This bona fide free spirit lived on a sailboat for six years, became a licensed “6-Pack” Coast Guard captain, rappelled down a cliff during an Outward Bound excursion to conquer her fear of heights and flew an office chair attached to an Air Boat propeller engine over the Green Swamp.

Heck, she even called Mikhail Gorbachev’s cell phone to invite the Russian leader to her Earth Charter Community Summit in 2000. (For the record, he didn’t answer, but his right-hand man did, and agreed to speak at the gathering.)

So it’s not surprising that Jan’s road trip has a meaningful purpose.

She’s going as a representative of Operation Bon Appétit, an initiative she started that aims to achieve societal change by providing interactive online forums and resources to volunteers around the country. And what brings these like-minded people together? Dinner parties, of course.

“I think the best ideas are exchanged over a good meal and nice wine,” she says. “Nothing gets the conversation going better than a glass of a fine cabernet.”

So her plan is to go on a treasure hunt, if you will, to find people making a difference in their communities in the areas of social justice, human rights, respect for nature and promoting peace. She will videotape their stories in seven- or 15-minute segments, then upload them to the Operation Bon Appétit website (www.operationbonappetit.org), where the clips will serve as a resource for others who may want to launch a similar program in their cities.

And of course, the idea is that the viewers will watch these videos in a group setting.

“Changing the world, one dinner party at a time,” she says.

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She is not a rich woman, by any means. A start-up company of Brower’s went belly-up several years ago, wiping out their savings and putting them in foreclosure.

Jan now rents a condo owned by one of her three daughters and lives on Social Security.

But she is a resourceful woman. Operation Bon Appétit is an offshoot of her other nonprofit, the Cultural Innovations Agency. Its mission is to engage ordinary people in sustainability and social change through the cultural arts, technology, individual and community initiatives that emphasize conviviality, arts, conversations and actions.

Jan whimsically calls it the “CIA.” And its volunteers, naturally, are called “the operatives.”

Lorna Taylor, the chief executive officer of Premier Eye Care, also happens to be a friend and supporter of Jan’s. Because her CIA is a 501c3, Lorna could provide a grant for the road trip through her company, which supports Earth-friendly projects such as this.

The $2,000 monthly stipend helps with the videotaping equipment, which Jan is frantically trying to master at this point, and other expenses, including gas for her Prius, (of course she would have a Prius) food and the occasional hotel.

The rest of the cost of the trip will come out of her own pocket and from the kindness of strangers. She will be staying on “a lot of couches” from here to Washington, at the homes of “friends of friends” who are opening their doors and dinner tables to this videotaping vagabond.

Jan is overwhelmed by this show of support. She recently hosted a “mapping” dinner party at her home, where fellow CIA operatives stuck push-pins on a wall-sized map on locations where Jan could crash or find a successful project underway. Her list seems to grow daily.

There’s the stunt director who donates food to needy people who can’t leave their homes, and sometimes he has to hop fences, climb walls or run up 20 flights of stairs to reach them. There are water projects, solar initiatives and conservation programs, all started by regular folks. There’s a sustainable winery that relies on old-fashioned production methods that rids the land of invasive plants and creates a better ecosystem.

She has so much exploring to do.

“You would be amazed by what’s happening in this country,” Jan says. “With the online videos, we’ll be able to connect and inspire people who live thousands of miles apart.”

Her friend, Sally Parsons, a nurse at Tampa General Hospital, is confident that no matter what Jan does, it will be smart and successful. Because that’s her track record.

“Jan is compassionate, and she truly cares about humanity. She takes actions that will provoke thought, start, chart or provide options year after year,” she says. “Jan is continually giving the gift of herself.”

Enjoy the adventure and the wine, road warrior. It will make great table conversation when you return.

And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!

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