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Native's home is halfway around the globe

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by JILL GORIN FROST

Story courtesy of The Greensburg Record Herald

Since Stacey Offner (Williams) graduated from Green County High School in 1996, she has traveled to more than 25 countries, worked for ExxonMobil and now Chevron, conducted numerous environmental projects like planting trees, cleaning up contaminated water and creating safe places for endangered species to live, taught a Thailand village how to make their own natural gas for cooking and boiling water (they collect cow dung and rotting fruit into a concrete container and pipe the gas they produce to a burner), adopted two sons from Russia and made a home with her family in Atyrau, Kazakhstan.

It's quite a whirlwind for the girl who grew up near Hudgins and was the first person in her family to ever graduate from high school, but Stacey was bred for hard work and determination. It also helps that two Green County educators encouraged her.

“I didn't know if I would go to college, but Ms. Melissa Bright and Mrs. Linda Montgomery made me consider it,” she says. “I didn't know how to choose a major, so I asked various universities what was the hardest undergraduate major. They all said chemical engineering. I thought I would start there and change if it was too hard, but my mom (Barbara Cundiff) taught me to never give up, and I didn't.”

After graduating from the University of Mississippi, Stacey began traveling internationally and enjoyed learning about other cultures. Working in Russia, she saw poverty and heard about the large numbers of orphaned children and the conditions they were put in, which broke her heart and planted a seed that would change her life years later when she and husband Judson adopted two boys from Russia, Mason, now 6 and Cameron, 8.

“They appreciate every little thing about life and we started to see the world through their eyes,” she said. “They had never ridden in a car, flown in an airplane, been to Wal-Mart, gotten a new pair of shoes, swung in a hammock or eaten ice cream. Things we take for granted had new meaning as we experienced it for the first time with our boys. Even four years later, they approach the world in awe.”

Stacey says after the adoption, they wanted to live in a part of the world near Russia. They also longed for a slower pace of life than the states. They've now been in Atyrau three years and Stacey works on a $20 billion project for Chevron to expand oil production. Her job is to ensure the project is carried out with minimal impact to the environment and surrounding communities. Atyrau, she says, is a welcoming town that reminds her of home.

“There are only 85 families in our little camp and everyone knows your business!” she said. “Our kids can ride their bikes around without fear and parents help take care of each other's kids. It's a very strong, small community.”

That attention, although she appreciates it now, was something Stacey didn't really enjoy when she was growing up.

“I lived in Hodgenville for 11 years then we moved to Greensburg in the country. It seemed such a long drive to everywhere. I couldn’t wait to get out of Kentucky, which is probably why I chose Ole Miss,” she said. “I started appreciating where I grew up after my freshman year of college. There's nowhere as beautiful as Kentucky. I missed everyone smiling and waving hello when you passed in the car.”

She now recognizes that growing up in a small town made her who she is today.

“I smile at everyone, even if they don't smile back. I take care of people, even if I don't know their names. I offer help, even if people are too proud to take it. I praise God, even if they believe in another god. I can talk to anyone about anything, even if they don't speak English,” she says. “It's these things that have made me successful at work and in life.”

It's this type of life that has taught Stacey, even though she's on the other side of the globe, it really is a small world. It became even more apparent when a new family moved in two houses down and a man said to her, “I heard you are from Kentucky. My family comes from Kentucky. My grandparents were from a really small town. You wouldn't know it. It's called Greensburg.”

“I thought he was joking,” she says, “but he wasn't. His parents moved away from Kentucky, but he spent his summers in Greensburg visiting his grandparents Carl and Ora Carter Chaudoin. We reminisced about the swinging bridge, Ski and good home cooked food.”

Those memories are ones she gets to re-live when she travels back to Kentucky.

“I don't get back often, about every three years,” she says, “but I think about it a lot. Every night, I tell my two boys a story that starts with, 'Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in...' and they both shout 'Kentucky!' Then I tell them about growing up there.”

Offner met her husband Judson Offner in college. Judson, who hails from New Orleans, is a descendant of Kentucky first governor.

She is the daughter of David and Barbara Cundiff and granddaughter of Nina Cundiff of Hodgenville.