Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series, titled My Former Life, that explores what jobs area residents had before moving and/or retiring to Aiken.


Reminders of Richard Church's former life decorate his home in Aiken's Gem Lakes neighborhood. Brightly colored paintings of zebras and other exotic animals hang on a wall. Several drums stand next to a fireplace, and carvings of elephants march across a table.


“I worked for 25 years for the United Nations,” said Church, who is the executive director of Aiken County Habitat for Humanity.


Before Church, 71, moved here with his wife and two children in 1996, he lived in places such as Bangladesh, Guyana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. His job was to lead United Nations aid teams in efforts to plan, finance and provide development assistance to the governments of undeveloped countries.


“Every country had a five year plan, and some plans may have been longer depending on what needed to be done,” Church said. “There were a lot of projects in different areas; like agriculture, health, transportation and communications. I was involved in implementing, checking on and following up to make sure that things were being done as they were supposed to be.”


Sometimes the programs overseen by Church involved introducing new irrigation techniques or setting up industrial zones where small businesses could be launched and nurtured.


Examples of other tasks include eradicating disease, providing housing or digging a well to get clean water for a village.


“When I was young and throughout my life, I have always wanted to help people in need, particularly overseas,” Church said. “The United Nations gave me an outlet to be able to change a number of lives for the better. I found a great deal of satisfaction in going to all of those different countries and being a part of them.”


Church has had many adventures, some of them fun and some of them frightening. One of the scariest was the 1994 coup in Gambia.


“There was gunfire and all sorts of chaos,” Church said. “The country became incommunicado. It was a harrowing experience.”


Then there was the morning in Gambia when Church awoke to find himself and his wife covered with tiny orange particles that were everywhere in their residence.


“I thought, ‘This is the end of the world,'” Church said. “We put cloth over our faces so we could breathe without taking it into our lungs. It turned out to be dust from the Sahara. It had been blown way up in the atmosphere, and it had traveled to Gambia, where it was dumped down like volcanic ash.”


Church especially enjoyed observing wildlife up close in Tanzania.


“It was wonderful to be able to take little trips into the country and see animals running loose in the open while you were driving around,” Church said. “There was a park where the lions were in a caged area, and they would open up the gate and let you go in with your car. I didn't realize until then just how huge lions are, and it gave me the healthiest respect for them.”


Church, who is a native of California, also visited Victoria Falls, which is on the Zambezi River at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.


“It was fantastic,” Church said. “You could see the spray from the waterfall from miles away.”


Years later, Church still appreciates the opportunity he had with the United Nations to be a world traveler.


“It wasn't just a working experience; it also was a living experience,” he said. “It gave me a different perspective, and I wonder sometimes why we have the problems that we have in this country when we have so much. I was in places overseas where we had so little, and we accomplished so much more. It's probably something to do with attitude, one way or another.”


Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013.