Home Page Home Page Events Events Photos Photos Diocese of Ogdensburg Home Page  
Follow Us on Facebook

Archives Celebrating Mission of Hope anniversary

November 15, 2023

By Shan Moore
Contributing Writer

It was Eliza Hoenig Nielsen’s 17th birthday, and a Nicaraguan child shyly presented her with a gift – a well-worn doll that the North Country Mission of Hope (MOH) volunteer knew must have been the girl’s own treasured toy.

“There were tears galore,” remembered Father John R. Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Lake Placid, who has never forgotten that birthday party. “Those are the kinds of moments that happened (on mission). When you taste it and experience it, that’s what changes you.”

Eliza was a German exchange student when she joined that MOH trip to Nicaragua – and still has that doll – and was among many volunteers, past and present, who relived their experiences at a recent event marking MOH’s 25th anniversary at its headquarters in the Town of Peru.

It was as much a family reunion as a celebration, with MOH supporters coming from several states, including nuns from Dominican Sisters of Hope in New England to honor MOH Executive Director Emeritas Sister Debbie Blow, whose devoted leadership was feted that day, too.

“The pulse of the whole gathering is who we are as a mission,” said MOH Treasurer Kathy Eppler.
Team effort

Hurricane Mitch’s fury devastated Nicaragua in 1998, prompting Sister Debbie, then Seton’s campus minister, along with longtime friend Eve McGill and Nicaraguan native Yamilette Flores, to found North Country Mission of Hope.

Sister Debbie retired last year, and her successor, Deacon James Carlin, surprised her by unveiling a new sign on the building, proclaiming it the “Sister Debbie Blow, OP Operations Center and Warehouse.”

“This is not what I did,” the Dominican Sister of Hope told those gathered. “You can have a dream, you can believe in hope, you can believe in justice and relationships. But if you don’t have people who believe in it with you, who are willing to toil every day, who are willing to give of themselves … it stays a dream.”

She recalled the challenges of the early years in Nicaragua, when the roads were barely passable, the only connection to the outside world was a single payphone, when it was a struggle to get much-needed medications and supplies into the country …

“We were bold, and we were courageous,” she said. “From day one, … we welcomed all people – we believed that we needed to be a microcosm of what the human family was all about.”

Mission of Hope puts donations, grants and money brought in by fundraisers into programs addressing a spectrum of needs – in education, health care, community and ecological sustainability.

The mission started by assisting one school in Nicaragua; now, more than 20 benefit from its meal program, and student sponsorship tops 700.

MOH provides assistance to four orphanages, a disability center, hospitals, community centers, women’s shelters, rehab facilities and more. In 2010, MOH opened NiCasa, its own compound, which houses the medical clinic and other services, thanks to a donation from the George and Shirley Moore Foundation.

“From the beginning, it was about empowerment,” Sister Debbie said of the mission’s aims. “We do nothing right if we don’t empower the people to make decisions for themselves.”

MOH established a sewing co-op so women could earn a living making school uniforms. It involved locals, including women, in building home shelters. It began a program of planting the fast-growing and multi-use moringa tree, community and school gardens, among many other practices targeting sustainability and empowerment. A board of local membership in Nicaragua was established to give the people a voice in MOH decision making.

That focus on empowerment paid off in a big way when, in 2018, mission trips were halted due to political unrest in the Central American country. Programs there continue with operations, including vital medical clinics and meal programs, handled on the ground by Administrator Mauricio Flores and Assistant Administrator Magaly Velasquez.

MOH continues to meet North Country needs as well and give assistance around the world, including in Ukraine.
So blessed

And from the start, there was a mutually beneficial focus – the many participating students would work to improve the lives of the poor, while that experience would open the hearts of the young people and awaken them to realities of those without the advantages they themselves had.

It did, indeed, accomplish that, said Abigail (St. Louis) Turner, who was 16 the first time she went on mission, in 2014.

“I saw how blessed we are,” she said, holding her 14-month-old son, Dawson. “It opened my eyes to see what I could do to fix things.”

She joined MOH’s Student Leadership board that year and now serves on the Leadership Team.

A nurse, she knows her mission experience “really drove home the idea” of a career in health care.

“So many people went into nursing and social work,” said Eve McGill. “It changed lives.”

Giving back
The first time Sharalyn Nachbauer’s daughter Olivia went on mission, she didn’t want to return home.

“There’s still too much to do,” Sharalyn remembered Olivia saying.

Now 25, Olivia is an environmental engineer.

“Her love is water filtration,” said Sharalyn, who is MOH Leadership Team president. On mission, “she realized how much it changed people’s lives.”

Also at the celebration was Kathy Eppler’s son Jeremy, whose mission experience led him to serve with both Americorps and the Peace Corps. He now works for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, presently administering a grant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also serves on the MOH Leadership Team.

“There are so many stories like his with kids that went on to join organizations like the Peace Corps and careers, like medical, to give back,” his mother said. “One of the greatest things the mission (and Sister Debbie) has done is to create a ripple effect.

“So many have been made more aware of the need, of different cultures, and chosen paths to try to make a difference.”

North Country Catholic North Country Catholic is
honored by Catholic Press
Association of US & Canada

Copyright © Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg. All rights reserved.