Transcript Staff Writer

Norman will have to make due without Kara McKee for a while.

The University of Oklahoma senior will spend the upcoming school year at San Francisco de Quito University in Ecuador. The chance to study abroad will leave Norman without one of its busiest young activists, but it presents an opportunity she couldn't pass up.

"The big reason why I'm going to Ecuador is to come back and share what I've learned and to be a stronger community member," she said.

Stronger community member? Is she kidding? This from a person who attends city council meetings "because they're fun." The anthropology and botany double major said she's interested in "seeing how things develop and how decisions are made."

McKee's civic interest and involvement have landed her on Norman Mayor Harold Haralson's ad hoc committee on nuisance houses.

She's also active in the new Norman Sustainability Network, a branch of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, which works to improve environment, economy and equity within the state.

McKee is heavily involved in Green Corn, a progressive and environmentalist group primarily comprised by OU students. She's often found tending a garden behind Earth Natural Foods and Deli, or on land by the OU south campus. The plots are part of the Urban Harvest Community Garden Network.

"When I have a stressful test at school, I come out here and pull weeds," she said at the Earth garden. "It's therapy; it's food."

Regardless of the organization, McKee is a consistent cheerful, yet driving force. Cate Hurst learned as much from a kickball league in which McKee "was one of our more excited members." Hurst, an OU graduate from Tulsa, also recalled her involvement last year with the Cycling Cyclones. McKee mapped out the tour and determined the best roads to take.

"She always has lots of energy," Hurst said during a brief visit to Norman. "She's a doer, that's for sure, who gets people organized to do fun things. She's kind of like an executive; I consider her like a CEO."

A benefit of her absence will be the chance for others to take the reins on various projects.

McKee has worked with a number of others in Green Corn and the Oklahoma Sustainability Network.

"Sometimes, people who want to be leaders want to step forward but don't because I'm here," McKee said. "I'm really excited to see what happens with these programs when I'm gone, because there are a lot of cool people here."

McKee will travel to South America Aug. 20, returning to Norman late the following spring in time to attend the Woody Guthrie Music Festival she wouldn't dare miss.

OU has exchange agreements with about 150 universities. She chose the one in Quito, Ecuador, for three reasons ? to learn of the area's indigenous culture that largely has remained separate from the modern world, to learn how people there co-exist with the land's ecosystem, and because of the country's passion for singing.

Or, as McKee put it, "My big three passions are people, plants and music. A professor told me Ecuador is the singingest country he's ever been to, and music has been a big part of my life since I was a girl in church."

McKee will take only Spanish classes during the first semester, then spend the next semester at a biodiversity station in the rain forest.

Throughout the year, she will learn how people there garden and use plants.

She will come back and graduate, probably in 2007.

"It's not yet well-defined," she said of her career plans. "(Ecuador) is a subterfuge that will spin out some of the fluff. But I know I love Oklahoma. I want to be here helping to connect and empower the people of Oklahoma."

James S. Tyree 366-3539 jtyree@normantranscript.com

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