By Barb Arland-Fye
Both Tom and Judy Sunderbruch of Davenport thought that some day they would do mission work in an impoverished country. But Judy, now 70, thought it would be shortly after college graduation and that she’d join the Peace Corps to save the world. That didn’t happen.
So when her 71-year-old husband of nearly 50 years said he wanted to make a mission trip to Haiti this summer, she said: “I’m going with you.”
Neither could have imagined the powerful emotions such an experience would evoke, nor the love they could feel for people they’d met for the first time. They didn’t realize their journey to the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere would instill such a deep sense of gratitude for the life God has blessed them with.
Their journey began last fall, when leaders of an organization called ServeHaiti — which has ties with several parishes in the Davenport Diocese — hosted a fund-raising event in Davenport to assist the people of Gran Bois, Haiti. Among the fundraiser’s organizers were members of the Froeschle clan, some of whom Tom Sunderbruch had gotten to know when he was a teacher and later principal at Assumption High School in Davenport.
During the fundraiser Tom, who is a member of the Scott County Board of Supervisors, approached Froeschle family member Liz McDermott about making a trip to Haiti.
Later, when Liz called and asked Judy if she was OK about Tom going to Haiti, Judy replied, “I think I’m going with him.”
Liz was pleased; Judy is a retired nurse who worked in pediatrics. Her assistance at ServeHaiti’s medical clinic in Gran Bois would be greatly appreciated.
But the main focus of this mission trip — scheduled June 22-29 — was education. ServeHaiti is exploring the feasibility of establishing a secondary/vocational school in the community. Tom, who has a Ph.D. in education and 40 years of educational leadership, would be an asset to the fact-finding mission, Liz said.
“I think we’re all in agreement with starting a vocational school,” she said. “That’s what the people asked for. They want their children to be educated, but they want it to be affordable and for their children to have the skills they can use in the future.”
That’s a doable goal, but it won’t happen overnight, Tom says, because of the extreme poverty and primitive conditions resulting from it.
“It’s survival in the mountains. The people wake up in the morning and their goal is to survive the day,” Tom observes. Yet they smile and give thanks for any bit of generosity.
The rooster crowed at 4:45 a.m. each morning in Gran Bois and within a half-hour Tom was up and drinking Haitian coffee and bonding with six abandoned children who sleep each night at the medical clinic.
“Dr. Leo (the clinic’s medical director) would come out and we’d hold the kids and we’d play with them,” Tom says. “That’s what they wanted, just to be held and loved.”
Then a line would form quietly outside the clinic, as patients arrived and waited patiently to be treated for serious illnesses or injuries.
“I never heard anyone say, ‘It’s my turn,’” said Judy, who assisted Jennifer Hildebrand, also a nurse, in the clinic. Hildebrand, a volunteer from Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire, specializes in wound treatment; Judy was impressed with her skills.
While Judy tended to patients, Tom cleaned rooms, painted walls, built shelves and performed other tasks in addition to his fact-finding work.
Liz, a member of Our Lady of the River and the ServeHaiti board, was impressed with the Sunderbruchs’ tenacity on a mission trip that is strenuous.
“Their affection for each other was wonderful; they watched out for each other. They totally immersed themselves in the experience,” Liz says.
Every evening, to end their day, the group of nine volunteers gathered for a time of reflection. On the last night, Tom had just given his reflection when someone in the group talked about the love the Haitians had shown them.
The discussion evoked feelings of love mingled with pain for Tom and Judy, who were about to mark the 31st anniversary of the death of their second-oldest child, Tommy. Tom told how a single-car accident had claimed the lives of three of their relatives — 15-year-old Tommy, brother-in-law Norm Ash, and nephew Johnny O’Donnell.
“The emotion I felt for the Haitian people was intensified by the incredible coincidence that our trip would end on the anniversary of our son’s death,” Tom said.
The Haitians are a people of faith, the couple discovered. And faith sustains the Sunderbruchs as they remember their son and the Haitians who touched their lives so deeply.