In sickness and in health, the Tampa woman cultivates wonder

Caryl Kamisa’s life had great adventures. She rode a camel in Jordan, went on safari in Kenya and toured a medieval castle in Transylvania. She worked in the foreign service and raised her daughter Natalie all over the world on her own.

After retiring to Tampa, she volunteered with numerous organizations, including the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters.

Cammisa also lived 17 years with multiple myeloma. She was in and out of treatment, in and out of remission.

“It would have been so easy for her to be resentful or angry or sorry, but she didn’t,” said friend Rachel Cintron. “She really, at every opportunity, would always say how grateful she was.”

Throughout his life and until his death, Kamisa maintained a sense of wonder at the world.

She died on October 4 at the age of 66 from cancer.

Caryl Camisa spent most of his career in foreign service. After retiring, she moved to St. Petersburg, where she was involved in a number of organizations.

Cammisa’s first international trip was to Ireland, in middle school, with her grandmother. Kamisa, who grew up in the Washington area, lived in international dormitories in high school. There she met her husband, who is from Greece.

Kammisa began her career as a social worker, but after her divorce she worked in Poland and later joined the Foreign Service, working with the US Agency for International Development. She and her daughter Natalie have lived in Georgia, Romania, Kenya, Bangladesh, Yemen and Jordan.

Cintron, who also worked for USAID, first met Kammisa at a dog park in Nairobi. The two eventually become friends, and when Cintron’s daughter is born and her husband overseas, Camisa is there during the birth and afterward, visiting the new mother and baby.

“She would take my newborn and put him on her lap,” Cintron recalled. Kamisa would sing and talk. “For me as a new mother, it was very eye-opening for me. See how she speaks to her, not to her and not about her.

That’s how Cammisa worked too – with, not for.

Cammisa was attuned to local voices that many overlooked, Cintron said. This approach was behind Cammisa’s work, which helped bring Sesame Street to Bangladesh.

She was passionate about children, education, the environment and deeply curious about the world itself.

“She just had such a hunger for knowledge and wanted to know everything,” Natalie Camisa said.

This extended to cancer. For the last 17 years of her life, Kammisa participated in medical trials and studied what was happening to her body. She also spoke openly with the people in her life about her death.

But even in her last days she focused on life.

Caryl Camisa, right, and her daughter, Natalie Camisa, have lived and traveled the world together.

[ Courtesy Natalie Cammisa ]

Walter Smith met Cammissa when she began volunteering at the Sierra Club. Before long, a friendship developed through long phone calls, a shared love of travel, and an appreciation for laughter.

Camisa was graceful, Smith said, and diplomatic. She was real too.

“She can handle the best of them,” he said. “She could talk to anyone.”

This includes captivating an audience when she speaks. Smith named the environmental justice think tanks Sierra Club after a friend. They shared a love of jazz and towards the end of her life they got together for a concert in St. Petersburg.

When he arrived, Kamisa pulled a chair close and patted him to sit down.

“How are you?” he asked.

“I feel…” she paused, “great.”

After the show, everyone started to leave.

“She got up and walked down those stairs instead of going to the elevator,” Smith said.

His friend looked at him, waved and blew him a kiss.

“That’s how strong she was.”

The traveler and dedicated volunteer, who marveled at the world and sought knowledge and connection throughout his life, offered a final service after his death. She donated her body to science, Cintron said, again “doing something for the greater good.”

Caryl Camisa has lived all over the world and loved traveling in Italy. She is pictured here in the Vatican.

[ Courtesy Natalie Cammisa ]

Poynter News Researcher Karin Baird contributed to this story.

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