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From Halifax to Laos
(and Stops In-between)

Michael Wolfe has spent several years working overseas in relief and development; on the way, he also found “
Love at the Speed of Email’



Michael Wolfe with his wife, Lisa McKay, and their son, Dominic, on a hilltop in Luang Prabang, a city in northern Laos. (All photos courtesy of Michael Wolfe)

Growing up on a farm in the Halifax area, with both sets of grandparents and plenty of cousins close by, Michael Wolfe could hardly have imagined the lifestyle his son Dominic, already has led.

Michael did not fly in a plane until he was a college student.


“By the time of his first birthday, Dominic will have flown more than 60,000 kilometers,” Michael said in an e-mail interview. “That’s the equivalent of flying around the world (at the Equator) one and a half times.”


Dominic lives with his mother and father, Michael Wolfe and Lisa McKay, in the southeast Asian country of Laos, far from any extended family members. That’s because Michael works as zonal manager for World Vision International, a relief and development agency that has been active globally for more than 50 years. 


It is a position in which Wolfe manages about 100 staff members who work in more than 200 villages in eight districts of northern Laos, a nation located near Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.


‘‘Outworking’’ his Christian beliefs. At Halifax Area High School, Wolfe – son of Tom and Rosemary Wolfe, now of Fairfax, Va. – participated in various clubs and activities and set a goal to graduate as class valedictorian. In 1994, he did just that.


“It felt like a big accomplishment at the time,” Wolfe said. “Now, looking back, I wish I could talk to my teenage self and encourage him to learn for the sake of learning and not mostly for the sake of achieving.”


Wolfe then earned a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Allentown-based Lehigh University, where courses sparked his interest in international development.


Michael Wolfe presents a wrench to officials of the Phoukhoun District in northern Laos as a symbol of ownership transfer of the completed gravity-fed water system.

“I also became more interested in issues of justice as outworkings of Christian belief,” he said.

After graduating college, Wolfe visited projects in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica while participating in a study on sustainable development and environmental stewardship. After working a few years in Atlanta, Ga. at an engineering consulting firm, he earned a Master’s degree in engineering development technologies at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

In 2003 and 2004, Wolfe worked for the non-profit humanitarian organization Shelter for Life International as a program engineer and project manager in the central Asian nation of Tajikstan. He then moved to Uganda in eastern Africa as a water and sanitation coordinator for a similar agency, Action Against Hunger.


In Uganda, a photographer for National Geographic magazine followed Wolfe for a few days to do a story on aid workers. That article, eventually was combined with one on the response to hurricane Katrina. “Hope in Hell” appeared in the magazine’s December 2005 edition and included Wolfe’s photo.

Wolfe’s next position was in Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India, as district construction manager for the tsunami response effort with World Vision. He went on to work as the organization’s water and sanitation technical advisor in the region including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.


From 2009 to 2010, Wolfe served as an independent technical consultant performing assessments and evaluations of water and sanitation projects in Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Indonesia and Malawi before assuming his current posting with World Vision in Laos in 2010.


As zonal manager, Wolfe oversees personnel who serve children and communities through improvements to food security, economic development, maternal and child health, education and local leadership.


“Most of our staff are field workers with some technical background in health, education or agriculture,” he said.


Typical activities might include constructing a gravity-fed water system in a village and establishing revolving animal banks. For instance, World Vision provides three pigs to a household. After a specified time, usually one to three years, that household gives three pigs to another household and keeps any remaining animals.


Michael Wolfe inspects a recently-completed gravity-fed water system in the Viengkham District of northern Laos.

 “In this way, the animal fund is ‘revolving’ and growing throughout the community,” Wolfe said.

World Vision also assists with construction of primary schools, teacher training and immunization campaigns in rural villages. Personnel offer health education campaigns on topics such as breastfeeding, hygiene and nutrition.


Wolfe budgets 20 percent of his time for travel, meeting with district government officials to ensure proper understanding of projects.


‘‘Love at the speed of email.’’ In 2007 a friend of Wolfe’s, a magazine acquisitions editor, learned  about a single woman named Lisa McKay through her writings. The friend suggested Wolfe contact McKay because she and Wolfe led similar lifestyles. 


McKay, a trained psychologist, traveled internationally to lead workshops on stress, trauma and
resilience for humanitarian relief and development workers.


 McKay’s blog piqued Wolfe’s interest.


“Her essays – reading them was like a breath of fresh air to my spirit,” he said. “I laughed, I commiserated, I felt moved, I felt challenged. After reading her essays I wanted to get to know her better.’’


During a period of three months, while she lived in Los Angeles and he lived in Papua New Guinea, they got acquainted by email.


“During this time, we didn’t speak to each other at all,” Wolfe said, “So the foundation of our relationship was built entirely via email.”


The two exchanged 13,000 words the first week as McKay learned that Wolfe grew up on a small farm with a German-Puritanesque work ethic that remained with him.


Wolfe learned that McKay, a forensic psychologist, grew up on five continents since her father worked for World Bank; for this reason, she told him, she  really is not sure how to reply when people ask where she is from.


He also learned that McKay had written a novel, ‘‘My Hands Came Away Red,’’ centered on the story of a youth group caught in local conflict while on a mission trip to Indonesia.


The two met for the first time at an airport in Brisbane, Australia Jan. 21, 2008. They married a year later. 


McKay (she retained her maiden name) now has captured the story of their romance in her second book, ‘‘Love at the Speed of Email.’’


Challenges and opportunities. Dominic was born in August 2011. With a characteristic touch of humor, his mother blogs about the joys and challenges of motherhood and life in Laos at


“There are great things about living in Laos, and there are also difficulties,” Wolfe said.

At five months old, Dominic broke his femur and had to be flown out of Laos to Bangkok, Thailand, to receive proper medical care.


“It took us about 30 hours to get to Bangkok after the accident,” Wolfe said, “(It was) one of our greatest fears as parents playing out right before our eyes.”


However, there also are unique opportunities. For instance, Michael and Lisa encourage their house helper to speak to Dominic in Lao, the native tongue of the Laotian people.


“Lao is a tonal language, which means that the way you inflect your voice changes the meaning of the word,” Wolfe said. “This is different from English, and it is very difficult for native English speakers to properly hear and pronounce the different tones. Maybe exposing Dominic to Lao will enable him to hear things that most people can not.”


According to Wolfe, he and McKay are grateful to have the opportunity to live in and serve one of the world’s least developed countries – at least most of the time. While they are settled in Laos for now, they don’t know what the distant future may hold.


“We’re thankful that we have a bunch of ‘blue passports’ and that we have the freedom to pack up and live somewhere else,” Wolfe said. “We’ve already put those blue passports to good use in the past. And I hope we’ll continue to put them to good use in years to come.”


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