- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

SILOAM SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - As a faculty member at John Brown University, and then dean of its College of Business, Joe Walenciak has led so many mission and study/service trips to Central America that he can hardly keep track. It’s well over 50, he says.

It’s hard to imagine Walenciak without the world travel and service entrepreneurship. But there was a time when he wasn’t into it.

As a young faculty member at the university, Walenciak stayed connected to his lifelong church, First Christian Church of Siloam Springs, as a youth sponsor. In 1988, he drove a gaggle of kids out to Colorado for a Christ in Youth rally where they promoted mission trips. A macho football player spoke publicly about his mission experience in Haiti, and the recollection drove the young man to tears.

Walenciak’s group was moved. They talked about supporting a ministry in Mexico, going there, “but when we came back the enthusiasm of the trip faded,” he remembers.

That winter, a snowy Sunday, one of the teenagers under his charge said she wished she was in Mexico and asked when they would leave for a project. That was the spark he needed.

Walenciak contacted Ninos de Mexico, a ministry in Mexico that the congregation regularly supported from afar. “And they said, ‘Yeah, if you want to come, come,’” he recalls.

“I had a lot of ego and no expertise,” he says. “I was headed down with four high school students to personally save the developing world, armed with a year of high school Spanish. I got down there and thought, ‘What in the world am I doing here?!’”

They arrived in the middle of the night. The nonprofit takes in abandoned and abused children, who were understandably alarmed. He passed a 5-year-old girl in the hallway who could hardly conceal her terror. She flattened her back to the wall to get past him. He didn’t know then that she had witnessed her family’s murder by white men with machetes. But he did realize that speaking Spanish well was more critical than he’d originally imagined.

“I was frustrated that I couldn’t communicate, to say, ‘Don’t be afraid of me. I’m a good guy,’” Walenciak says. “That was a transforming moment. I thought, ‘I’m going to learn more Spanish, come back and talk to this girl.’”

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1QoCjLA ) reports that four years later, Walenciak went to Guatemala, where the country was at war.

Hundreds of villages had been wiped out, some by the police, he says. About 200,000 had been murdered or “disappeared.” Among the victims were street children.

Walenciak was there to visit a ministry that focused on providing care to those homeless kids. He and the program director met two brothers, ages 6 and 8, who had been turned out onto the street that day. While he was getting to know the older boy, the police came and ordered everyone out of the vicinity. Walenciak couldn’t take the children and was conflicted about leaving them behind.

He picked up the napping 6-year-old, took him and his brother a couple of blocks away and promised to return in the morning. The 8-year-old promised not to move.

The next day they were gone, he says.

“There’s something about walking away from a situation like that that fundamentally changes you,” Walenciak says. “You hear this voice inside you, something screaming that somebody has to do something, and you’re somebody. The inner activist awakens and you realize, ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’”

He and two buddies formed Life of Hope ministries in 2005 to serve street children in Central America. They provide 36,000 meals annually, and have provided free medical care to more than 8,000.

“There are issues right here in the States,” Walenciak says. “You don’t need to travel to another country, but for me the story of the good Samaritan says your neighbor is someone whose need you see, and that’s what God was showing me.”

“Even if he didn’t have this ministry,” says Rick Grove, former director of Life of Hope, “he’d be traveling to Guatemala … involved in some fashion … doing stuff, raising support, taking groups, but he also has dedication to education.”

Walenciak is also the dean of Soderquist College of Business at JBU, an inductee of the Students in Free Enterprise Hall of Fame and the 2010 SIFE Sam Walton Fellow of the Year.

For eight years, Walenciak’s students have earned top rankings at SIFE (also known as Enactus) national competitions. The JBU team came in third out of 187 college teams in 2015, and fourth out of more than 200 teams the year before.

In 1989, as part of the Walton International Scholarship program, 60 Central American students joined its campus. Worried that students wouldn’t know enough English to get by, Walenciak began studying Spanish.

“Once he got involved with the Walton students on campus, we in the business division began to see a lot of them want to major in business,” says Doyle Butts, a retired JBU professor. “Joe just saw the value in learning to speak Spanish so he could minister to them. He had compassion for them … and a number of Hispanic students showed up to enroll in our courses.”

He took groups to visit Mexico once or twice a year until the early 2000s. By then that terrified girl, Ofelia, called him “Poppy.” Walenciak had stood in as her dad for her quinceanera, a 15th-birthday Hispanic rite of passage, and helped her go to school to open a hair-styling business.

While he was shopping at the Guatemala City Wal-Mart in 2006, two little girls approached Walenciak and led him to a Guatemalan woman they called Mama Carmen.

Her son had been taken by drug dealers, she said. She had pleaded with God to bring him back and promised to show love to any child who came her way. She started taking in Guatemala’s unwanted kids with cancer, AIDS and epilepsy, those who needed expensive medicines and constant care. Single mothers flocked to her for day care. Authorities dumped the homeless on her doorstep.

Amazingly, Mama Carmen’s son was rescued and returned. He died a few years later of a heart attack, but on his deathbed he made her promise to continue caring for the nearly 100 children in her home.

By the time she met Walenciak, Mama Carmen was stretched to the breaking point. She prayed for an answer and told Walenciak she saw his face and name in a dream the day before they met.

“I thought, ‘If the good Lord is going to inflict nightmares upon this poor woman, I better step up!’” Walenciak says.

He and his volunteers visited her home, which was large but not enough for dozens of kids.

Not long after, an anonymous donor gave Mama Carmen a coffee farm, and Walenciak helped make arrangements for her to sell coffee beans at above-market value. He set up a partnership with local coffee roasters to strengthen and improve her coffee growing process.

This led to the opening of Mama Carmen’s, a coffee shop in Fayetteville that uses beans grown on her farm. It uses her name and image in marketing and donates a percentage of profits to her orphanage.

And it has led to more partnerships with other organizations and churches.

About the time the Mexican ministry closed, Walenciak’s mother passed away. Nursing her through sickness and eventually losing her, along with other circumstances, left him burned out. He took a year sabbatical and moved to Guatemala, where he asked God to rekindle his passion or help him find a new one.

Walenciak taught at a university there but was drawn to the street kid ministry, so he relayed the dire situations back to folks in Arkansas.

“I kept seeing these reports and photos and stories,” Grove says. “Challenging, tough stories of life-and-death situations.”

Those stories inspired Grove to become director of Life of Hope ministries, helping children growing up near the garbage dump in Chimaltenango, just outside Guatemala City. And it inspired others to visit the area.

It grew quickly to six or eight annually. This year 14 visits are planned, he said.

Walenciak’s growing network of connections led to Little Rays of Hope, a school in the neighborhood where children sort and salvage trash from garbage dumps. He helped connect a home for young, abused women to the school, where they could teach once a week. The students grew to 120, who would attend school in the morning and work the dump in the afternoon. Through it, Walenciak watched young women find healing through that teaching experience. He saw street kids learn their own value. They began to aspire to more.

“If the (children) don’t go to school, they think that they’re part of the trash they work with. They grow up believing that. Education changes self-image. There’s a moment in their lives, (and) in my life and your life, where we all said, ‘I could be …’ (and) we aspired.”

“They began to think, ‘I could be a doctor, I could travel the world, I could be a policeman … a teacher.’”

That changing attitude and purpose inspired Walenciak, who continued to take more and more people with him on subsequent trips long after his sabbatical. He took his pastor and the JBU president. Before long, a partnership with Dustin’s Dream Foundation funded The Heart of Love clinic to provide medical and dental care.

One day when Walenciak was visiting a home for abused girls, a little girl named Marjorie asked for a photo. Teasing her, he asked why she would want to be pictured with an “ugly old gringo.” Frustrated and determined, she stuck a finger in his face and said, “In God’s eyes, we’re all beautiful.” Then Walenciak knew he’d accomplished something tangible.

“She found a God who sees her as his beautiful daughter,” Walenciak says. “She needed that. And in her world, her vision for herself was a better future. Then she turns around and wants to give it to these other kids.”

___

Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com

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