Irma Turtle led a very different life 22 years ago. She lived on Manhattan’s East Side and spent her days dressed in power suits marketing the products of Fortune 500 companies.
She was at the top of the advertising world, sought after by clients, and named president of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather’s Brazilian office.
Then one day Turtle decided she’d had enough. And quit.
She traded the power suits, Madison Avenue lunches and $85,000 salary for the life of an adventure traveler and then what some would say is a frustrating and penniless existence —that of a humanitarian working in the remote
regions of Africa.
“I never looked back,” she says before taking a sip of tea in her Cave Creek home. “For the longest time there was this neon question mark going off over my head — so what, so what? What am I doing to help the world?”
She created TurtleWill, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of tribal people. With the help of volunteers Turtle provides medical care, funding for schools and drought relief to some of Africa’s poorest countries — Mali, Ethiopia and Niger.
“As soon as I got there I saw that these people had needs I could help with,” says Turtle, who at 61 counts Angelina Jolie and Xena the Warrior Princess among her heroes.
Step through the gate and into Turtle’s front yard and you might wonder whether you’re in Cave Creek or the Sahara Desert.
There’s a mural depicting a camel resting next to a nomad’s tent covering the white walls that enclose her property.
To get to Turtle’s front door you pass under the centerpiece of a Mongolian nomadic house, known as a ger. Turtle says it’s a sacred energy spot that cleanses the souls of all who pass through.
“It’s a spiritual carwash,” says Turtle, who bought the centerpiece while traveling with her adventure travel company, Turtle Tours, in Mongolia. She started the company after quitting her advertising job. The idea was to have a career that ensured she would travel to remote regions at least five times a year.
Her home is full of treasures from those travels. A magical swing sits next to the window (sit on it and it jingles). Bambara marionettes from Mali clutter the fireplace, and Turtle’s most prized possession, a Tuareg sword, hangs on the wall. The sword was a gift from a driver who turned out to be a Tuareg rebel leader (the Tuareg are a nomadic tribe of the Sahara Desert).
“I tried to fire him once,” she says, laughing at the memory. “He was so unruly.”
Turtle put her savings into the tour company, selling some of her art pieces to pay for advertising. Turtle Tours was four years old when the company generated its first profit — $949.
Each year she took groups of people willing to pay thousands to visit exotic places such as Timbuktu or Orissa province in India. Turtle made friends with the locals along the way and endeared herself to the tribal chiefs who would prove invaluable to her charity work.
“They weren’t just objects in a picture,” says Turtle. “I go back and listen to them. I know their names, and I would return and see how they were.”
Turtle saw that these people she visited — the Tuareg and Wodaabe — had simple needs that she could help with. A new well (usually costing $300), or perhaps a roof for the school.
“At first it was just me taking a little money out of my pocket and then it was more things,” says Turtle, who was making $25,000 a year at the time. Eventually she began to mention to her travelers that the local village needed a well or that there was a sick child and the hospital had no medicine. These travelers eagerly offered to pay, and TurtleWill was born.
“I put a column in the back of the (Turtle Tours) catalog and called it TurtleWill Update,” says Turtle. “People started sending checks, and it just started getting bigger and bigger.”
Her home is the nerve center of TurtleWill. From an office filled with pictures from her many trips to Africa and India, Turtle organizes the medical missions and trips. Email makes it easier to communicate with contacts in Africa. She has no staff and does a lot by herself.
Medical missions are the most important part of the work TurtleWill does, she says. “If we get a sniffle we run to Walgreens, and we have a choice of over-thecounter medicines,” says Turtle. “These people have no recourse for medicines. If they do have a clinic nearby, it’s empty of medicine and run by a person with the most limited medical knowledge.”
Turtle talks about her mission in life in a matter-of-fact manner, but the poverty of these tribes cuts into her heart. It’s hard to imagine this well-spoken, slender woman with pale blue eyes charging into the deserts of Africa with volunteers in tow. But the pictures on the walls show otherwise.
Among them is a shot of Turtle with three of her six godchildren, all of whom are named after her and live in Ethiopia. A few pictures over is the photo of a Tuareg man named Mohammed who smiles broadly and holds his hands up to the camera. The hands are significant. Years ago Turtle was leading a river trip through Mali and was forced to stop in Mohammed’s village because of bad weather. His hands were badly deformed and infected.
“They were swollen beyond belief,” says Turtle, who gave Mohammed some antibiotics. One the return trip the group stopped in the same village and Mohammed once again approached them, this time on behalf of his 7-year-old daughter. The girl had had diarrhea for seven days. If Turtle could cure Mohammed’s hands, surely she could help his daughter.
“I had the medicine and I gave it to them,” says Turtle. “That kind of thing was happening all the time. I realized I was a guardian angel for other people.”
Turtle began her life on the other side of the country in a very different time and place. She was born in Boston and raised in an upper-middleclass Jewish household. Her parents, Joseph and Lila Simberg, emphasized education and supported any artistic or cultural pursuit their daughter undertook.
She attended private schools for girls — first Beaver Country Day and then Smith College. These sheltered environments allowed her to tune out the upheaval of the 1960s.
“When I was in junior high, people were marching in the South to end the inequality for black people,” says Turtle. “I heard about it in the newspapers, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was in the eighth grade. The information hurt me so much, that people should be oppressed like that or abused, that I really just tuned out the world.”
At Smith College she was an eccentric art student who shied away from the standard Smith uniform in the 1960s: Pearls and pumps. Turtle opted for black. She painted the walls of her room four colors (the house mother turned her in and Turtle painted it back) and kept a motorcycle at school for about three weeks (her parents found out and made her sell it).
After graduating in 1967 with an art degree, she fumbled around the world for a while, spending a year on a Mexican island drawing. She would have gone to Haiti, but a revolution got in the way.
So Turtle returned to Boston and met her husband, Billy Turtle, an antique store owner. Together they opened an auction house, and Turtle spent her days drawing until the afternoon and then preparing exotic five-course meals.
When her marriage ended, Turtle embarked upon a career in publishing and advertising in New York.
She rose quickly, and was eventually transferred to Brazil by Ogilvy & Mather in the early 1980s.
Her four years in Brazil changed everything.
“You had these beautiful high-rise buildings and in the lot next door there would be a slum,” says Turtle. “There was an incredible disparity between the haves and the have-nots, which happens everywhere, but the fact that the have-nots were living next door was something I couldn’t deal with.”
So Turtle started a project to help the people living in the slums. She proposed that Ogilvy & Mather sponsor a slum, and encouraged rival agencies to follow suit.
“I thought there would be this innate sense of competition and each agency would do a better job,” says Turtle. “That’s when the doors really opened up, the ones I kept closed. I started to look around and realized I could do something.”
A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY
Now Turtle takes travelers on humanitarian missions to the places she once visited for pleasure.
“I’ve rocked many a baby over there and loved every minute of it,” says Glendale resident Carol Carpenter, who spent the last mission counting pills for 10 hours a day in a makeshift clinic.
The organization operates primarily in Mali, Ethiopia and Niger. TurtleWill funds shortterm projects such as building wells and schools, operating medical clinics in remote areas, organizing food cooperatives or buying equipment for sewing co-ops.
“If they need something and she feels like it’s something worthwhile, she can do it right then,” says Roberta Bromberger, a volunteer from California. “Her attitude is ‘We’re in this together.’ ”
Carpenter adds: “She helps people help themselves, and that is so important because then people feel good about themselves.”
TurtleWill spends all the money it raises. There is no endowment, and that makes the organization very disciplined, says TurtleWill treasurer Steve Hirsh. Less than 10 percent of the money raised goes into overhead costs, and none of it ends up in Turtle’s pocket. Her $50,000 annual salary is underwritten by two donors.
“Irma is so careful with her money because she’s one person,” says Hirsh.
Last year TurtleWill provided medical care for 10,000 people on a budget of half a million dollars. Turtle’s work attracted the attention of Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, who donated money to fund a school for the Tuareg.
“That’s what’s different about TurtleWill,” says Hirsh. “If you give TurtleWill money you get the best rate of return on your charitable contribution that you’re ever going to get.”
Hirsh and Bromberger agree that TurtleWill’s success is entwined with Turtle’s charisma.
“She’s very respectful, and I don’t think there’s a condescending bone in her body,” says Bromberger. “I’ve been with people who think that tribal people aren’t very bright or they wouldn’t live the life they live. Irma is not like that at all. She treats them respectfully and she really cares and wants to help them.”
Right now Turtle is thinking about the future. She’s looking forward to slowing down and getting more people involved in TurtleWill. She plans to continue for at least 10 more years.
“Cloning Irma Turtle isn’t going to be easy,” she says, laughing. “I’ll have to put that on my list of things to ask the universe.”
For more information about TurtleWill, call (480) 488-3688 or visit www.turtlewill.org.