Roy Parsons
Home | Gutsy Leaders | Stories of Gutsy Leaders | Roy Parsons
Roy Parsons

Generous Donor & 3-Time OAT Traveler

Roy & Katie Parsons in HawaiiIt was a day that made history at the Sonafluca School in the San Carlos province of Costa Rica: an OAT traveler, inspired by the time he spent with the children and faculty, offered to personally match all gifts to Sonafluca, up to a total of $5000—a gesture that triggered a chain reaction of giving that ultimately raised $16,275. At the time, the benefactor asked to remain anonymous … but he has since realized that sharing his story might encourage others to give back, too.

His name is Roy Parsons, a three-time OAT traveler from Newport Coast, California. And for he and his late wife, Katie, giving back has always been a way of life.

A promise, and a proposal

Roy first met Katie Parsons in 1951, when they both attended Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He was a junior and she was a freshman—and from her very first day, Katie was intrigued by Roy, who drove up to the school with wild, curly hair and a brand-new Ford convertible. They began to go out a few weeks later, though Katie had reservations about getting too serious. Roy, she learned, was a rice farmer's son—and next in line to take over the business when his father retired. Katie, on the other hand, had made a spiritual promise to someday do missionary work overseas.

Roy was aware of her plans—and while he wasn't completely sold on the idea of going overseas, he told her that he'd be willing to do so someday, should the opportunity present itself. This willingness was enough for Katie, and when Roy proposed on Independence Day in 1952, Katie happily accepted. They were married on December 28, 1952, at Katie's home church in Los Angeles.

A dream takes flight

Roy with MAF President ParrottAfter their marriage, Roy and Katie set their sights on joining Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). MAF was founded in 1945 to help missionary workers reach remote locales that were previously accessible only by foot. To this day, MAF pilots play a crucial role in disaster response, medical assistance, and the transportation of workers and supplies for community development projects. At the time, the president of MAF happened to be a member of Katie's church—yet despite this connection, the couple didn't immediately get the answer they were looking for. Yes, Roy had his aircraft mechanic's license, which was one of the candidacy requirements. But he was about 30 pounds heavier than the ideal candidate, which meant his planes wouldn't be able to carry enough cargo. He was also well shy of the 300 required flying hours.

Undeterred, Roy and Katie persevered until all requirements were met, including the flying hours, which they logged in Roy's father's Cessna. Once again, they contacted MAF. And this time came the response: "How soon can you come in for candidacy?"

The candidacy was a time for MAF to get acquainted with the couple before officially accepting them and sending them on assignment. Roy and Katie dutifully pitched in wherever they were needed, from taking care of farmland to cleaning the offices. Eventually, they were offered their first assignment in Ecuador, and it was decided that they would go to Spanish language school in Costa Rica after helping Roy's family with the annual rice harvest.

Roy & Katie, 1955As it turned out, however, their MAF plans would be put on hold yet again: Katie was going to have a baby. While MAF wasn't nearly as thrilled with the news as Roy and Katie were, they permitted the couple to forgo language school so that Katie could deliver the baby at home. When the Parsons finally began their assignment in Ecuador in 1958, they did so with a new family member in tow: three-month-old Royson, who they named after his father and grandfather.

Around the world … and back again

The family lived at the edge of the jungle about 160 miles from Quito. There was a little town up the road with a few stores housed in wooden shacks without windows. This was the only place to do any shopping, and the local people emerged from the jungle every morning with items to trade for what they needed—baskets laden with tropical fruits or live chickens held tightly by the feet. While Roy piloted flights, Katie performed various MAF duties on the ground, including bookkeeping and working with local families.

In 1962, the family moved from Ecuador to the deserts of Guyana, where they helped to start up a new MAF program. It was here, while Roy was flying for half of each month in Guyana and the other half in neighboring Suriname, that Katie realized she was pregnant once again. With food in poor supply and no reliable physician nearby, they knew that they would have to find a hospital—so when the missionaries in Suriname requested that Roy pilot flights there for a full month in 1962, he took Katie and Royson with him. There, they found a Dutch doctor who helped Katie carry the baby to term. Their second son, Bruce, was born in November—just in time for the family to return to the U.S. for the holidays, followed by a year-long furlough.

Roy & Katie, 1953The family returned to Suriname in 1963, and it became the place Katie cherished most of all during their many years overseas. Where their homes in Ecuador and Guyana had had no cities to speak of, in Suriname they had real stores to shop at … and even groceries and restaurants. The Dutch colonists were excellent farmers who knew how to pasteurize—which meant fresh butter, cream, and ice cream. There was a school in town for Royson, who had begun kindergarten back in the U.S. during their furlough. Because two other missionary pilots had flown into Suriname to join them, Roy no longer needed to fly every day, which gave him time to enjoy life on the ground.

They stayed in Suriname quite happily for four years, until 1968, when MAF had a bigger job in mind for Roy: the organization was looking to decentralize operations, which meant assigning separate Vice Presidents to oversee South America, Central America, Indonesia, and Africa—and despite his prior experience in the Americas, Africa was where Roy was needed.

It was a hard decision, considering how happy they'd been in Suriname, but Roy accepted the challenge. He often traveled for weeks at a time, managing operations on seven different bases—which was quite a change from the single bases the family had become accustomed to. Katie, meanwhile, dealt with new complications in bookkeeping, working with multiple currencies and creating reports for operations all over Africa. Life wasn't easy, particularly for Katie and the boys with Roy being gone so frequently, but they grew accustomed to the circumstances and learned to make it work.

Eventually, though, the schedule took a toll on Roy, who realized that his sons were growing fast and he wasn't spending as much time with them as he'd like. He also realized that he'd been quite successful at his duties in Africa: operations were going smoothly, the finances and bookkeeping were in order, and people were happy. Unfortunately, Katie was happy, too, and she wasn't convinced that it was time to leave the Congo just yet … but she came to accept Roy's decision when he made arrangements to retire from MAF and return to the United States. After 16 years overseas, it was time to get used to living in a world where women wore makeup and families could afford five-bedroom houses—even if the Parsons' was a "fixer-upper." Between 1984 and 1986, Roy briefly returned to MAF to oversee Africa operations and start up a program for famine relief in Mali, but life for the Parsons otherwise took on a sense of normalcy—even though, to them, it felt like anything but.

A journey's end

Roy & Katie in the Galapagos, 2007Small wonder, then, that Roy and Katie became avid travelers after Roy's retirement—only this time, their journeys were for pleasure. In 2007, they discovered Overseas Adventure Travel, and visited Peru, Ecuador, Australia, and New Zealand with the company. They climbed Machu Picchu, cruised the Galapagos, and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef. Closer to home, they explored California in their RV.

Eventually, the local RV trips were the only ones that Katie was able to handle. She was diagnosed with a blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which is manageable at best, but ultimately incurable. Roy and Katie bravely fought the disease with medications and frequent blood transfusions, all the while praying that a cure would be found. On May 17, 2010, Katie passed away peacefully with Roy at her side.

Roy honored Katie's memory in the same way she had spent so much of her life: by bettering the lives of those less fortunate. Years earlier, they had funded the construction of a school for so-called "untouchable" children in India through Operation Mobilization. Upon Katie's passing, Roy funded some of that school's additional needs, and he also joined friends and family in making an additional gift in Katie's name to the Christian Missions Charitable Trust orphanage in Chenai, India (formerly Madras).

Meeting his match

Like many travelers with OAT who explore the world later in life, Roy was eventually ready to take that first trip on his own. And it was this journey that brought him to the Sonafluca School in Costa Rica.

Although it was a Sunday, a group of students and their parents greeted the OAT bus, with each student taking a traveler by the hand and leading their guest on a tour of the property. During this tour, Roy was impressed to see that the school had a computer room—but he learned that it wasn't doing the students much good, as neither the school nor the government could afford to pay a computer teacher's salary.

Roy & Katie in New Zealand, 2007This weighed heavily on Roy's mind, since he knew that without learning computers, young people these days aren't likely to go very far—in school or in life. So he decided to do something about it. Knowing that many would-be givers can be motivated by the offer of a matching gift, Roy pulled his Trip Leader, Eduardo Caravaca, aside, and offered to match any donation made to the Sonafluca School through January 31, 2011, up to a total of $5000.

By the time Eduardo made an announcement on the tour bus about the anonymous donation, fellow travelers Romaine Conner and her husband had already decided that they'd like to do something for the Sonafluca School—they just hadn't decided what yet. When they learned about the matching offer, they told Eduardo that they'd match Roy's $5000 … and raise him to $8000. Roy quietly increased his  contribution to $8000 as well. All told, Roy's generous gesture blossomed into an extraordinary total of $16,275 for the Sonafluca School.

Sharing inspiration

The Conners can't speak highly enough about their fellow benefactor. "He's a terrific guy with a big heart," says Mr. Conner, who has always shared Roy's passion for giving. "We had both wanted to stay anonymous, but during the trip, I was sure I'd figured it out. So one night when we were sitting at a table together, I told him, 'I have a feeling you're the other guy.'"

It came as no surprise that he was right.

And while we may have blown Roy's cover even further, we hope he succeeds in inspiring others by allowing us to share his story—and Katie's story, too. They have certainly inspired everyone at Grand Circle Foundation … but we have a feeling that's just the beginning.

This story was featured in our January 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.