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Vee Harness, the ambassador for the Kiwanis Club of Kuantan, Malaysia, helped create the Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary there. “Everywhere she went she was called The Turtle Lady and still is if she goes back,” her husband said.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Vee Harness, the ambassador for the Kiwanis Club of Kuantan, Malaysia, helped create the Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary there. “Everywhere she went she was called The Turtle Lady and still is if she goes back,” her husband said.

Under the sea
with VEE

‘The Turtle Lady’ helps create sanctuary in Malaysia

By Danielle Komis
dkomis@decaturdaily.com · 340-2447

Amid the Tennessee Valley’s cotton fields, drawling Southern accents and fried apple pies, a Welsh woman named Vee Harness tidies her home high atop a steep hill in Southwest Decatur.

Her thin frame passes by hand-painted eggs from Malaysia in the sunroom, a framed 1986 photograph on the kitchen wall of herself and fellow Welsh police officers, and a watercolor painting in the dining room of a thatched-roof house with water buffalo grazing around it — the view she had from her home in Malaysia. There, she earned her nickname, “The Turtle Lady,” for educating children about endangered sea turtles and creating a turtle refuge.

Vee and her husband, Dave Harness, plant manager at BP in Decatur, moved here a year ago when Dave’s job transferred him.

Vee Harness concedes that she could stay home and drink gin and tonics all day with other British expatriates if she liked. But that easy lifestyle doesn’t suit who she is — a world traveler who’d rather fully breathe in her new community and make a positive difference here.

“If something needs doing, I’ll have a go,” she said, in her lilting accent. “I won’t allow barriers to stand in the way and I think maybe that’s the only saving grace I’ve got.”

She’s a bit modest.

Harness’ life reads like a Who’s Who of Charitable Causes: the co-creator of Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary on the East Coast of Malaysia, ambassador for the Kiwanis Club of Kuantan, Malaysia, and head of an effort at a Malaysian zoo to re-house animals from prison-like cages to environmentally friendly enclosures.

Yet she speaks of her accomplishments and adventures as if she is rehashing just another day.

“So when I scoured the beach at night for turtle eggs on the eastern coast of Malaysia ...” she might say, and you have to ask her to repeat herself so the information can sink in.

Locals like Paula Rigler, president of Junior Achievement of North Central Alabama, quickly took to Harness’ energy and warm spirit after the newcomer joined the JA board recently.

“Her passion is contagious,” Rigler said. “She comes with a different perspective on things and it’s a healthy perspective. Her experiences are so phenomenal.”

National Geographic comes to life

Vee found herself living across the globe in Malaysia a few years after she met Dave Harness — a man from the northeast coast of England — at her parents’ scuba shop. At the time, she was a private investigator.

Eighteen months after the two married, Dave was transferred to a new BP site in a small fishing village in Malaysia near the rainforest.

Vee grew accustomed to shooing water buffalo out of her garden, squashing scorpions with a rolling pin and calming the maid who thought the dishwasher was possessed by dish-eating demons. She had never seen one before.

“It was genuinely like living on a page of National Geographic,” she said, smiling at the memory of her former home.

She chose to live amid the villagers — rather than with other expatriates — and learned the native tongue of the Malay people and met witch doctors or “bomoh” who were said to be able to remove or cast spells. As a white Christian Westerner in a largely Islamic country, she did not exactly blend in, but she was accepted.

“That is very much the flavor of Malaysia,” she said. “(The culture) would wrap its arms around you.”

The Turtle Lady

Vee Harness, left, sets up the hospitality table with Paula Rigler at a bowl-a-thon fundraiser for Junior Achievement in Decatur. “Her passion is contagious,” said Rigler, president of Junior Achievement of North Central Alabama, about Harness. “She comes with a different perspective on things and it’s a healthy perspective. Her experiences are so phenomenal.”
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Vee Harness, left, sets up the hospitality table with Paula Rigler at a bowl-a-thon fundraiser for Junior Achievement in Decatur. “Her passion is contagious,” said Rigler, president of Junior Achievement of North Central Alabama, about Harness. “She comes with a different perspective on things and it’s a healthy perspective. Her experiences are so phenomenal.”
After Dave and his boss at BP grew concerned over the dwindling number of sea turtles on the East Coast of Malaysia, Vee volunteered to create a sanctuary. In a rural part of the country where women are often expected to walk a few paces behind a man, Vee’s leadership role was unusual.

“It was the first time a white woman has ever done anything like that on the East Coast of Malaysia, so I guess I stood out a wee bit,” she said.

Harness traveled to Malaysian schools, teaching children about the threatened turtles, including Prince Fahad of Pahang.

Along with the prince, she became close with the Sultan and Sultanah of Pahang, whom she describes as “touchable royalty.”

When she and Dave moved back to Great Britain for two years, she visited schools there with her turtle curriculum and raised $20,000 for the sanctuary — enough money to run it for four years.

Today, Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary is the largest privately funded sanctuary in Malaysia. The sanctuary serves as a research and educational facility for children and adults. And when Vee comes back to visit, she still is remembered.

“Everywhere she went she was called The Turtle Lady and still is if she goes back,” Dave said.

Yet she refuses for her name to be placed on anything in the sanctuary.

“The turtles don’t know who I am,” she said. “The important people know who I am and that’s the children.”

Her work continues

Today, she has thrown herself into helping the local Junior Achievement chapter. Last weekend, she spent two days volunteering at the group’s annual bowl-a-thon fundraiser and is also compiling a cookbook for the club.

When she chooses a cause, she’s serious about it, she said.

“I would rather do one thing well,” she said. “If I give my commitment, I give it 100 percent.”

Because Dave’s job often transfers him every few years, Vee always has a deadline on the horizon.

“Other people may recognize need for change and do it more slowly,” Dave said. “She does come in a bit like a whirlwind and looks to do something.”

‘Richly blessed’

But because she throws herself into her causes so much, she is left with little time to reflect, she said, glancing around at her décor from around the world.

One day, perhaps she will move back home to Great Britain and have time to reflect on her life less ordinary. For now, it almost seems like a dream.

“I’ve been so richly blessed that I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it,” she said. “I’m still taking it all in. I haven’t gotten the time to sit back and look at it all.”

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