Laura Hoffman Wheelock | Passages

Laura Hoffman Wheelock, aged 48, died at home on Orcas Island, Washington, on Monday, July 3, 2017, succumbing to cancer. She leaves behind a grieving immediate family, including Markus Naugle, her life partner for nearly 17 years, and two young children, Nikko Wheelock Naugle and Orion Wheelock Naugle; her parents, Susan Hoffman of Sperryville, VA, and Arthur Wheelock of Washington, DC; her siblings Tobey Wheelock of Boston, VA and Matthew Wheelock of Washington, DC; and an extended family of loved ones, all of whom are deeply affected by the loss of this vibrant, caring and gracious person, who was taken from the world too soon.

Laura’s positive, loving influence on others extended far beyond her family. The genuine warmth and openness with which Laura engaged everyone she met helped her cultivate close friendships at every stage of her life, while also sparking smiles from strangers during even the most casual of interactions. She had a sense of adventure and a generosity of spirit that, combined with her vision and perseverance, motivated her to travel the world, connect with others, and ultimately to create programs that enriched countless lives, largely through the power of service.

Laura’s sense of adventure was evident early. At the age of twelve she flew by herself from her home in Washington DC to The Netherlands so that she could live with friends and attend a Dutch school for the 8th grade. Fluent in Dutch, she became convinced of the importance of learning languages to enhance one’s understanding and ability to connect with different societies and cultures. She followed through with this conviction during her junior year at Stanford University when she lived with a French family in Tours while on a study abroad program. After Stanford she travelled to Guatemala to learn Spanish through homestays with Spanish speaking families and by volunteering for service projects. Throughout her life Laura travelled widely, not only throughout Europe and Central America, but also to Alaska, the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa. Indeed, this love of travel and a desire to explore and understand other cultures was an important shared bond that drew Laura and Markus together. They also enjoyed exploring the back country of national parks throughout the United States and Canada.

Laura was an excellent athlete and had a great love of the outdoors. Before entering Sidwell Friends School she spent a summer hiking through Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School. She was a long-distance runner on the Sidwell track team, and, for a number of years Laura held the school’s mile and two-mile records. Laura also successfully completed the New York City marathon. While in San Francisco, she facilitated ropes course training to empower youth and corporate executives. Later in her life she summited both Mt. Fuji and Mt. Kilimanjaro, the latter with Markus on their trip to Ethiopia and Kenya and Tanzania.

Service has been a focus for Laura since she attended Sidwell Friends, which puts great value on community service. After graduating from Stanford in 1990, she developed a volunteer program for the Oracle Corporation in San Mateo County involving more than 1000 employees in community service, from serving food in soup kitchens to mentoring at-risk youth. In 1996, she worked at The White House providing strategic consulting for corporate giving and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Subsequently, Laura attended the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University, where she earned her Master in Public Policy degree.

Laura and Markus met in 2001, and a year later they moved to Orcas Island, Washington, where they developed programs that would benefit the local community in Eastsound. Their abiding interest in fostering cross-cultural understanding, particularly with their beloved Guatemala, led them in 2005 to create Magic Carpet Rides, a gap-year program that provides students with the opportunity to have homestays with Spanish-speaking families, much like those Laura had once enjoyed herself. Laura and Markus created individual volunteer projects that addressed community needs, such as education, health care and environmental conservation.

Laura and Markus soon moved to Antigua in Guatemala to expand Magic Carpet Rides by offering placement for people of all ages, including families and academic groups interested in living with the Mayan people. Participants in the program have come not only from the United States, but also from Israel, England, and South Africa. Laura and Markus spent a great deal of time in San Juan la Laguna, a small Mayan community on the shores of Lake Atitlan, which was the locus of their homestays and volunteer projects. Their efforts, with the support of many others, have led to improved health and education for the Maya. The “Frugal Traveler” celebrated the success of Magic Carpet Rides in one of his columns in The New York Times.

Laura and Markus’s ideal was to develop well-defined, well-executed volunteer projects, where both the community and the participants could see the results of their work. Laura loved to witness the personal transformations that occurred when both parties had such intercultural experiences and exchanges. Demanding as it was to reach these ideals, Laura also welcomed the challenge and relished how it helped her learn, adapt, and grow as a person.

In San Juan la Laguna, Laura worked closely with Asociación Ati’t Ala’ to develop volunteer projects focused on the environment of Lake Atitlan, and in 2010 she was named Executive Director of Ati’t Ala’, further honing her linguistic ability, given that all business was conducted in Spanish, and finding yet another opportunity to expand her role as a servant in this world. In the three years Laura held the position, she initiated many important projects, both to help mitigate pollution in the lake and to enhance the living standards of the local Maya community through efforts such as helping to provide families with purified water.

While living in Guatemala, Laura and Markus were blessed with the births of two healthy and adorable children. Nikko, who was born in San Juan la Laguna in 2010, attended a bi-lingual school, quickly embraced the local culture and was much beloved by both the Maya and Ladinos. To Laura’s and Markus’ great joy, Orion was born in Antigua in 2014, an event that many considered a miracle given Laura was already more than three years into her journey with cancer. Their trust and openness in starting a family in Guatemala intensified their bond with the community and people that they served. The boys became the central focus in Laura’s and Markus’ lives, with Laura delighting in her role as a loving, nurturing and thoughtful mother. Two years later the family returned to Orcas Island when Markus was named Regional Director of the SeaDoc Society, a marine conservation non-profit focused on the Salish Sea. Their service work in Guatemala continues through the support of a country manager.

When Laura discovered that she had cancer in the spring of 2011, she resolved to treat the disease naturally through myriad approaches, including a carefully considered diet and traditional Mayan medicine. She not only worked on her physical health, but also fully embraced the idea of healing through spiritual and emotional practices. She remained optimistic that she would produce a full recovery so that she could continue to nourish her family and friends with love and kindness while pursuing her life’s mission to help others.

Although Laura’s life ended far too soon, her legacy will live on forever through the warmth and care that she shared with her many friends, family members, and acquaintances. May we all learn from and be inspired by the courage and unbowed positivity that Laura sustained until the end – meeting the world with smiles, words of encouragement, and thanks for all – despite the tremendous pain caused by the cancer. We love you, Laura, we admire your courage, and we are humbled by your example. You are with us always.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to an educational fund for Nikko and Orion through: The Ugift Code for Nikko is 25R-95N: the Ugift Code for Orion is W0V-933.

A gathering to honor and celebrate Laura’s life will be held at The Meeting Room at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. at 2 pm on July 29. Free parking is available in the school’s garage. Sidwell Friends is located at 3825 Wisconsin Ave. A celebration of Laura’s life will take place later this summer on Orcas Island. More information is forthcoming.

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