Redefining the Idea of Mission Work

The Children of Love Foundation in La Paz, Honduras focuses on relationships and creating a family with Americans.

Ulises and Katy playing soccer at the Foundation (photo by Mallory Lehenbauer).

The word “mission trip” tastes bitter as it rolls off my tongue while explaining to my professors and peers where I will be spending my Thanksgiving break.

Every year for Thanksgiving, my husband and I travel to La Paz, Honduras to visit and stay at the Children of Love Foundation. The experience and passion I have for the Foundation does not leave a bad taste, but the American perception and ideas of mission work seem lucid and self-serving to me.

As I prepared to venture on my fifth trip to the foundation, I questioned why it gave me such a bitter taste and if we were truly helping the people of La Paz on our week long visits. Is helping people why we go?

In full disclosure, I am extremely intertwined in the foundation. The past three trips I have led teams of 15 or more for week long visits over Thanksgiving. I collect supplies and funds year-round, and I email and Skype the children throughout the year. All this aside, I wanted to explore the ideas of mission work and try to fully understand the foundation and its role in my life as well as many others who visit and support the Children of Love Foundation.

The Children of Love Foundation is primarily an orphanage that houses, feeds, and provides education for approximately 20 children every day of the year.

“The Children of Love Foundation works to provide faith, hope and guidance for all children,” according to their mission statement. “The emphasis is on mentoring children who have been orphaned and/or require the guidance and support of a caring adult who will teach them right from wrong, respect for others and the importance of an education.”

Community members of La Paz pray over Mama Doris and for the Foundation at the Thanksgiving day event. (Photo by Mallory Lehenbauer)

Doris Patalano founded the Children of Love Foundation. She was born and raised in Honduras and moved to the United States when she turned 18. She went back to Honduras in 1993 and began taking in orphaned children, over 20 years later the foundation exists, housing 20 children, a church congregation, and has now moved to helping people beyond its own walls.

“These children are my children,” Doris says gently touching eight-year-old Cristal on the head. The children and everyone lovingly refers to Doris as “Mama Doris” or just “Mama.”

Mama Doris with Alejandra and Denia at the Foundation.

After your first day at the Foundation it becomes obvious that Mama is truly in charge. When she walks by, the children straighten their backs, smile, and appear to be working intensely on whatever is in front of them.

On this particular visit, Karen was the newest member of the Children of Love. Mama Doris explains Karen was found tied to a tree in the rural part of La Paz. Her grandmother accidentally dropped boiling water down Karen’s head and back and then blamed Karen for the accident. Karen is eight years old and has never been to school. On top of her head you can see scabbing and scars beginning to form.

Karen riding her bike with Daniella, a full time employee of the Children of Love Foundation (photo by Mallory Lehenbauer).

Americans who visit the foundation are referred to as “tías” (aunts) and “tíos” (uncles) and are treated authentically so.

Once Tía Deanna learned of Karen’s story, she was determined to teach Karen to write her own name. Tía Deanna gathered paper and crayons and within an hour, Karen was beautifully written in big colorful letters.

I was sitting with Mama Doris when Karen ran in.

“MAMA, MAMA!”

Karen proudly displayed her giant piece of paper with big broken letters written straight down the middle, K-A-R-E-N. Everyone in the room had tears in their eyes, Karen’s smile stretched across her entire face.

Karen flaunting her new haircut which helps to hide the wounds still visible on her head (photo by Mallory Lehenbauer).

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Oviedo, Florida became involved in 2004, Raquel Sanborn was on one of the first trips to visit the foundation.

“The Children of Love has created a tradition in La Paz,” she said. “This is important, the foundation has created a culture. There was a cook who told me that her mother cooked at the foundation and now she is cooking too. Now she brings her children, she was proud.”

The trip I lead, which also started my work with the foundation, is Operation Barefoot. During this week each year we feed around 400 people on Thanksgiving day, baptize children and other community members, as well as wash feet and give hundreds of pairs of shoes to those in need.

This Operation Barefoot was different than previous years. The children and employees of the foundation no longer needed us there, but wanted us there.

“[The children] give love to us and the community gives love as well,” Raquel said. “The whole town that knew about the Americans were waiting for the Americans. That is huge for them. This to them is a tradition.”

Thomas Simerville talking with Junior (photo by Mallory Lehenbauer).

This tradition has become bigger than simply giving away shoes and supplies.

“The Children of Love Foundation requires a long-term commitment,” said Billy Canale, who visited the foundation in 2013. “It requires investing in the lives of the kids, whether they are there for the long run or a short amount of time. You have to invest in their lives, you can’t just show up once a year.”

Billy works full time in ministry for Young Life in North Mississippi, but his trip to Honduras was his first experience with a week long mission trip.

“I didn’t know what to expect, kind of blind going in,” he said. “I think my perception of week-long service project type trips that the church goes are more of service projects and it ended up being more relational.”

Billy and Raquel agree that the children are heavily impacted by the presence of the Americans.

“We always impact the children,” Raquel explains how they eagerly await our visit. “They all sleep with Mama Doris on sleeping bags and they give us their bed for a week. They are all eager to learn English because they want to communicate better.”

The impact goes both ways.

“They were open to let me be part of their life and they shared what was on their mind openly,” Raquel said. “They want to belong to something bigger beyond the walls of the Foundation.”

The impact on me has been obvious the last five years. There are children I have watched grow and learn, but I still can’t help but question how I, as an educated white female American can go beyond financial and superficial aid to the children of the foundation. I want it to be more than shoes.

Natalie Duda washes the feet and puts shoes on a child from the community.

“Whether we realize it or not, generally we think our way of life is better than others,” Billy explained while discussing how American culture and ideas impacted his week at the foundation. ”A big surprise for me in Honduras was how the pace of life is so different there. Their pace of life is so much slower, but here everything is so rushed everything is about productivity and how efficient you are. For me going to a place where that is not what defines success was really weird. It’s almost unsettling how fast we move here.”

Becoming a part of their culture is half the battle.

“If you look back on your one day in Honduras, it may not be looked at as the most productive day, but for the Hondurans it was super productive and a lot happened,” Billy said. “That was a beautiful thing, being forced to slow down.”

Staying at the foundation can be uncomfortable. Our first several days there we were without clean water. Several years ago, St. Luke’s fundraised and purchased a water filter for use in the kitchen, to ensure clean water. This filter had been disconnected and set to the side, because it had become clogged and stopped working. This was frustrating upon arrival and became the first thing on our agenda for the week.

The Hondurans barely missed the filter. 15 of the 17 Americans on our trip began taking Imodium by Wednesday. We really missed the water filter.

David Duda and David Norvell with the cleaned and fixed water filter on Day 4 of the trip.

Once we arrived back in the United States, I asked everyone on our trip if they would be returning to the foundation, every single American said yes.

“These children openly demonstrated their love and appreciation for the attention and gifts we shared with them,” said Sarah Rosado, a first-time visitor to the foundation. She said she was surprised at how quickly she developed relationships with the kids.

Billy’s idea of mission work and the foundation doesn’t fit the typical mold. “I think as Christians we are called to be on mission every day, it does a disservice to what we do as Christians to try to boil down your mission to one week out of the year going somewhere to help people.”

“I think anybody can go do a service project, you don’t have to be a Christian to go do a service project, but I think my perspective of mission trips before Honduras was that it was just a service project for them, but after Honduras I realized it was more about people and relationships. I think that is more so a mission trip than a service project. It’s about being with kids and spending time with them, not about building a house and leaving.”

The shoes, supplies, and water filter are all beneficial to the foundation, but what seems more beneficial are the moments where Karen learns to spell her name, where Ariel plays soccer for hours with Tío David, and where Denis hugs Tío Jake with tears in his eyes and says “I love you” in English.

“Every night we sang with the kids before they went to bed, those moments for me were really sweet,” Billy said. “Seeing the kids be united and the language barrier being broken down by simple songs in Spanish. Those little moments at night when everyone calms down is what the week is really about.”

Next year, I will tell my peers and employer that I am spending Thanksgiving week with my 20 favorite nieces and nephews.

Jake and I with all of the children in the foundation on the last day there.