Facing steep obstacles, former Amish find new lives

On a pleasant California afternoon, Naomi Kramer visited the Santa Monica Pier. It's a place of bright lights and cheery noises ... worlds away from her Amish childhood in Missouri.

Earlier that day, she and others told reporters about the complex notion of leaving the Amish and starting a new life. Here's the story I sent to papers:


As a freshman, Naomi Kramer found everything about college
perplexing. That started with the first task – her psychology teacher wanted
everyone to send an E-mail.

“I went to a computer lab to ask them for help … and they
looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “Like, who – at 21 years old –
doesn’t know how to E-mail?”

That was just the start of what she didn’t know. Her
education consisted of eight years in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in
Pennsylvania; she had “very basic math,” no science, limited prospects.

And now? At 28, Kramer – featured Tuesday on PBS’ “American
Experience” -- is a registered nurse with a college degree; she’s a leader of a
program that recently gave its first scholarships to former Amish people. “We
had 12 applications this year; I bawled when I read them.”

All 12 were from women, she said. “I think men do OK with
their construction skills.”

One example is Levi Shetler, also featured in “The Amish:
Shunned,” the PBS film. “I wanted to experience something greater,” he said,
“like go out, drive a vehicle or have fun – be free, basically.” Now he does
construction work and Online marketing.

By comparison, Kramer said, many women ponder nursing, finding
instant obstacles. “There are Amish women who could not complete science
courses because (science) was a foreign language to them.”

Her own upbringing wasn’t one of the most strict. Her family
had indoor plumbing; Shetler’s didn’t. Her parents also gave some leeway for
her reading. They approved the “Little House on the Prairie” books; they
reluctantly allowed the “Sweet Valley High” ones.

Still, schooling was limited. Kramer struggled to get her
high-school-equivalency degree, then for five years she worked as a waitress
while putting herself through Goshen College, in Indiana.

Now she works at the Goshen hospital. Her own parents remain
in the Amish community, but are cordial to her; “they are very nice, I’m
lucky.” She married a man who had left an Amish community with his family. “I’m
very much accepted by his family,” she said.

Others feel more personal strain. “It’s really hard to leave
(my family) behind,” Shetler said.

The people back home try to ignore personal pain, said
Callie Wiser, producer of the PBS film. “The (Amish) survived so long because
they do put their individuality below the good of the community.”

Still, Kramer said, there’s pain on both sides. She talks of
her 16-year-old brother. “He’s very smart. He would have so many opportunities,
but he … doesn’t know what’s out there.”

“The Amish: Shunned,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, PBS,
under the “American Experience” banner

Preceded by a rerun of the second half of “The
Amish,” at 8; check local listings

Info on scholarships and success stories: www.amishscholarship.com