13-year-old finds life-long mission

Julie Filby

A girl in Fort Collins who felt she had everything in life was inspired by a newborn baby in Ghana who didn’t have a chance for much of a life at all.

Precious was born eight months ago with a severely deformed hand and foot. She is what’s known as a “spirit child” in her village—a child believed to be possessed by evil spirits because he or she is born with a physical anomaly or as a twin. Spirit children are rejected by their parents, then abandoned or killed.

Sister Stan Terese Mario Mumuni, called simply “Sister Stan,” a Ghanaian national who has worked as a missionary in West Africa for nearly 20 years with the Marian Sisters of Eucharistic Love, dreamed of establishing an orphanage to care for spirit children in Northern Ghana. While fundraising in Fort Collins in 2008 she met an unlikely partner for her venture: then 8-year-old Whitney Buckendorf. Their first meeting was the beginning of a fast friendship.

“I always loved nuns,” Buckendorf, now 13, told the Denver Catholic Register Feb. 18 following her day at St. Joseph School where she is a seventh-grader. “And I was the only kid at the fundraiser. … Sister Stan loves kids, so we talked all evening long.”

Fast forward to last July when Sister Stan returned to Fort Collins for a month-long visit. After several visits to Colorado since ‘08, the Buckendorf family—mom AnnTheresa, dad Larry and brothers Jacob and Derrick—had grown close to Sister Stan; and Whitney in particular.

“She told me all about the orphans: their names, ages, what was wrong with them,” Buckendorf said. “I memorized them all.”

At that point, Sister Stan had started Nazareth’s Home for God’s Children in a rundown house in the village of Sang. To date, she has rescued 50 children, most with disabilities: seven have died from complications and 43 remain in her care.

While in Fort Collins last summer Sister Stan told Whitney the orphanage had children that needed surgeries that couldn’t be done in Ghana, most urgently Precious, born with Amneotic Band Syndrome. She charged Whitney with finding a Colorado hospital to provide the complex surgery pro-bono.

“I was 12 years old,” Buckendorf said. “I thought she was crazy: how am I going to find a hospital to do surgery?”

But that didn’t stop her from getting on the phone. From August through November, she made call after call until at last she connected with the right person: Joan Bothner, M.D., chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.

“I had two orthopedic doctors that had agreed to do the surgery,” Whitney said of surgeons Francis Scott, M.D., and Travis Heare, M.D. “But she was the one that needed to approve that the hospital would pay for it.”

All it took was a photo: one look at Precious and Bothner agreed.

“It only took a week after I got in touch with her,” Whitney said, “after four months of calling.”

Surgery was scheduled for Jan. 22. For four years, Whitney had been raising money for the orphanage by selling baskets and bracelets and through a letter-writing appeal. Classmates at St. Joseph’s also supported her. With the help of art teacher Joan Kinney they made and sold clay pendants raising $900. Family and friends donated $9,500; enough for airfare for Precious and Sister Stan who arrived in Colorado Jan. 12.

During surgery, Precious’ severely deformed left hand that had grown to nearly the size of her head, Whitney said, had to be amputated. A portion of her foot was removed; however, surgery revealed that her heel was in good condition. She should eventually be able to walk with or without prosthesis.

Precious has been released from the hospital and is living with the Buckendorfs until next summer when Sister Stan will return to take her back to Ghana.

“She brings a lot of joy to our house!” Whitney said of her foster sister. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Whitney has no intention of stopping until she has helped more of those she considers her brothers and sisters in Ghana in need of surgeries: 5-year-old Angela whose hips never formed, 4-year-old Godknows who suffers from severe migraines, and 1-year-old Abraham and 8-year-old Nicholas, both born with hydrocephalus.

“This is never going to end,” she said. “Sister gets 10 to 15 kids a year; as more children come, there are more needs to be met.”

Construction on the new orphanage which began December 2012 is expected to be finished this summer. Whitney hopes to travel to Ghana to visit.

“If I’m able to convince a hospital to do a $300,000 surgery, I hope to find a way to convince my dad we can go to Ghana,” she quipped. “He’s thinking 2015.”

For now, she will continue to serve her family in Ghana from here in Colorado.

“I have everything I need: a family, a home … that has always kind of bugged me,” she said. “Since first grade I’ve wanted to be a nun and ‘give it all away’… it’s something I feel in my heart.”

For more information visit http://sisterstanschildren.org or like them on Facebook.

COMING UP: Relationship, not sacrifice is at the heart of Lent

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When we began Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Lord said to us, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13).

During Lent we strive to unite ourselves with Jesus’ experience of conquering temptation in the desert and pursuing the Father’s will, so that we can fully experience the joy and victory of Easter. The Scriptures and Fathers of the Church consistently recommend three forms of penance that help us on this journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But before we can fruitfully carry out these forms of purification, we must rend our hearts. In the Jewish tradition, ripping one’s garments – known as keriah – is done when mourning a relative who has passed away. Today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts if the deceased is one of their parents. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died.

Even more important than this outward expression of grief is returning to God with our whole heart, tearing it away from any unhealthy desires and attachments. In his 2018 message for Lent, Pope Francis offers some insights into the ways people develop unhealthy attachments today by reflecting on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus warns, “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).

The Holy Father echoes Jesus’ warning that there will be many false prophets who lead people astray. One kind of false prophet, which he calls snake charmers, are those “who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others … with momentary pleasures” like dreams of wealth or the belief that they are self-sufficient and don’t need others. Pope Francis also alerts us to “charlatans” – people who offer “easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless.” Their traps include drugs, disposable relationships and the temptation of a “thoroughly ‘virtual’ existence, in which relationships appear quick and straightforward, only to prove meaningless!”

But despite these snares laid by the Devil and his false prophets, God the Father declares through the Prophet Joel that he is “gracious and merciful … slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). God’s mercy and love for us can transform our hearts, if we are willing to open them to him and deepen our relationship, especially through the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

When it comes to prayer, pursuing a deeper relationship with God means going beyond our first inclination, which is to make ourselves the focus of our prayer and to even boast of our accomplishments. Instead, we should ask God to help us know him better, to experience a greater intimacy with each person of the Trinity. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, calls this kind of prayer “mental prayer.” “In my opinion,” she said, “mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

If we pray in this way, then our fasting and almsgiving will naturally flow from us as acts of love for Christ in others, rather than being a set of tasks or Lenten requirements to fulfill. Our hearts will be rent, and not merely our garments.

Fasting is another way for us to draw closer to God. Saint Augustine observed this when he wrote, “Fasting purifies the soul. It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit. It makes the heart contrite and humble, (and) scatters the clouds of desire … .” By denying our appetites and giving up distractions, we can more clearly hear God’s voice and place ourselves at his service.

The final practice of Lent that conforms our hearts more to Jesus’ Sacred Heart is almsgiving. Pope Francis notes in his Lenten message that almsgiving “sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone.”

This other-centered approach will help us to draw closer to the heart of Christ, particularly if we follow the advice of Saint Mother Teresa. “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,” she was known to say.

As we seek to rend our hearts this Lent in preparation for Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter, let us remember that God desires to draw each of us closer to him. He is waiting for us to seek him out so that he can pour out his mercy, love and kindness upon us.