Caryle Cammisa’s life had big adventures. She rode a camel in Jordan, went on safari in Kenya and toured a medieval castle in Transylvania. She worked in foreign service and raised her daughter, Natalie, around the world by herself.
After retiring to Tampa, she volunteered with multiple organizations, including the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters.
Cammisa also lived for 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 to be angry or to have regrets and she didn’t,” said friend Rachel Cintron. “She really, at every opportunity, would always talk about how grateful she was.”
Throughout her life and into her death, Cammisa maintained a sense of wonder with the world.
She died Oct. 4 at 66 of cancer.
With, not for
Cammisa’s first international trip was to Ireland, in middle school, with her grandmother. Cammisa, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, lived in the international dorms in grad school. There, she met her husband, who was from Greece.
Cammisa started her career as a social worker, but after a divorce, she worked in Poland and later joined the foreign service, working with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She and daughter Natalie lived in Georgia, Romania, Kenya, Bangladesh, Yemen and Jordan.
Cintron, who also worked for USAID, first met Cammisa at a dog park in Nairobi, Kenya. The two eventually became friends, and when Cintron’s daughter was born and her husband was overseas, Cammisa was there through the labor and delivery and after, visiting the new mother and baby.
“She would take my newborn and lay her on her lap,” Cintron remembered. Cammisa would sing and talk. “For me, as a new mom, it was very revealing to me. Look how she’s talking to her and not at her and not about her.”
It was how Cammisa worked, too — with, not for.
Cammisa was attuned to the local voices that many overlooked, Cintron said. That 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,” said Natalie Cammisa.
That extended, too, to cancer. Throughout the last 17 years of her life, Cammisa took part in medical trials and studied what was happening to her body. She also talked openly with the people in her life about her death.
But even in her final days, her focus was on living.
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The next adventure
Walter Smith got to know Cammisa when she started volunteering with the Sierra Club. It didn’t take long before a friendship developed over long phone calls, a shared love of travel and an appreciation for laughter.
Cammisa was graceful, said Smith, and diplomatic. She was also real.
“She could get down with the best of them,” he said. “She could talk with anybody.”
That included captivating audiences when she spoke. Smith named the Sierra Club’s environmental justice think tanks after his friend. The two shared a love of jazz, and near the end of her life, got together for a show in St. Petersburg.
When he arrived, Cammisa pulled a chair close and patted it for him to sit.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I feel …” she paused, “great.”
After the show, everyone started to leave.
“She got up and she walked down those stairs instead of going to the elevator,” Smith said.
His friend looked at him, waved and blew a kiss.
“That’s how strong she was.”
The traveler and devoted volunteer who marveled at the world and sought knowledge and connection throughout her life offered one last act of service after her death. She donated her body to science, said Cintron, once again “doing something for the greater good.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.