Witten, a Colorado native, is a University of Colorado Medical School graduate with a degree in internal medicine. She also has a master’s degree in public health and specialty training in tropical medicine.
After completing her medical training, she and husband Wray Witten moved to the continent of Africa where she began working as a doctor for the Sudan government. Witten would eventually become one of only four doctors for an entire Ethiopian state of four million people.
“If you go anywhere and you’re well trained, if you have a good education, and if you’re willing to work with people as your boss – not telling people what to do – but work with an interesting team, you can find work anywhere,” Witten said.
She was later asked by the World Health Organization to quit her job as a doctor to work with a team of three biologists who were the malaria control program of the state. Two of those biologists would later be the parents of her 10 adopted Ethiopian grandchildren, whom she and her husband go visit every summer.
After 12 years in Ethiopia, the Wittens decided to move back to Colorado, only to discover that they couldn’t bear the harsh winters after living in an African climate for so many years.
This drove the Wittens to seek a home in the South. In 2008, the Wittens chose to make Athens their new winter home, although meeting new people proved to be harder than they imagined.
Witten began picking up trash, which was quickly recognized by the homeless people in her neighborhood. They interpreted her community service as an alternative to going to jail, but once they realized the act was voluntary, this gave her some street credibility in the neighborhood.
The main complaint Witten had about Athens was that she only noticed black and white people coexisting at the library or the grocery store. Her goal was to create a common place for homeless people in her neighborhood and the rest of the Athens community.
With the blessing from deacons of Hill First Baptist Church, Witten chose a plot of land on the church’s grounds to create that common place, now known as the Handmade Garden.
Witten attributes much of the garden’s success to garden co-founder, Tommy Lewis Chester, a man who has been homeless for 28 years. Living in Africa and Colorado her whole life, Witten was unfamiliar with how to plant in Georgia’s climate. Chester has played an integral role in lending advice and gardening skills to cultivate the garden’s success.
Before spearheading the community project in 2008, the condition of the ravine made it difficult to imagine the full potential of the garden.
“When we first started, it was a jungle down there,” said Chester. “Thirty tons of kudzu vines that we took out the garden. Just me and Wray and Karen.”
Little did they know at the time, the garden would eventually be recognized by the Athens community, earning the 2013 Alec Little Environmental Award from the Athens Land Trust and the 2010 Preservation Award for Excellence in Community Revitalization from the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.
The garden fulfilled its main purpose as a common place for students and professors to interact with the homeless people in the Reese Historic District, and the food planted in the produce garden is also a means of survival for the vagrants in the neighborhood.
The garden was created has been completely maintained by the donation of time and resources from volunteers and the Athens Land Trust.
Gregoryian Willocks, Williams Farm Manager and an Athens Land Trust staff member, endorses Witten as the best volunteer she has ever worked with and that she can “outpace those twice as young.”
“We have honored Karen and Wray by naming the Athens Land Trust's volunteer of the year award after them,” Willocks said.
Witten’s volunteer efforts have touched lives for decades, on multiple continents and in multiple fashions, and she doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.
“If you don’t have a very affluent lifestyle, and you’re willing to work without pay, you can do the most amazing things,” said Witten. “It makes your life a lot broader, and I think, a lot more interesting.”