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: Catholic Charities joins with St. Raphael Counseling to increase services

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Two Catholic counseling agencies serving the Denver Archdiocese have united to expand services to the community, officials said. The change was effective May 1.

St. Raphael Counseling, founded in 2009, has partnered with Catholic Charities’ Sacred Heart Counseling (formerly Regina Caeli Clinical Services), which was established in 2011. The two are now one ministry under Catholic Charities of Denver sharing the name St. Raphael Counseling.

Licensed clinical psychologist Jim Langley, co-founder of St. Raphael’s, will serve as director.

“Frankly, it seemed kind of silly for two entities to be doing the same thing from the same pool of resources,” Langley told the Denver Catholic.  “I reached out to [Catholic Charities] … to see about removing obstacles. It really must have been from the Lord because there weren’t any big obstacles.”

The combined resources mean clients seeking care aligned with Catholic values will now have access to more therapists and locations: a total of 18 clinicians at 11 offices and six schools across the Front Range region, including Denver, Littleton and northern Colorado.

In the coming months, St. Raphael’s will accept more insurances and will introduce diagnostic testing for behavioral and learning disorders and Autism to families at affordable cost, Langley said.

“We are excited to welcome the team of psychologists from St. Raphael Counseling to Catholic Charities,” said Amparo García, interim president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Denver. “Under Dr. Langley’s guidance, and with his expertise and business acumen, the team has built a trusted and professional counseling service that is faithful to the Church and compassionate to those in need.

“We are optimistic that offering expanded services in a combined organization will provide an added benefit to the community.”

St. Raphael’s offers individuals, couples and families clinical counseling services for issues ranging from depression and anxiety to grief and addiction. It also offers marriage preparation, school counseling, psychological evaluations for seminary applicants, and counseling for priests and religious. It provides outreach and education through presentations and retreats that integrate psychology and spirituality.

St. Raphael’s is named after the Archangel Raphael, who in the Old Testament Book of Tobit is sent by God to help the young man Tobias confront nature and evil. Raphael helps to bring healing to Tobias’ family. Of Hebrew origin, Raphael means “God heals.”

“The name was chosen very deliberately,” Langley said. “We [as therapists] are only instruments of God’s healing, God’s medicine; it’s ultimately God who heals.

“One of the ways the Lord has given us as a path to holiness is through our own brokenness,” he added. “We all have emotional wounds and the healing of these wounds helps us to become the saints God made us to be.

“We work with individuals and families to help them face their woundedness, their brokenness. We do it in a way that is supportive of their Catholic values and can leverage all the awesome, beautiful things about Catholic spirituality that can help us grow as people.”

The recent suicides of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade show that no one is immune from depression and suicidal thoughts, Langley said.

“Even St. Therese [of Lisieux] said there were moments when she was tempted by the medicine bottle on the nightstand,” he noted about the saint who was named a Doctor of the Church in 1997. “We think of her as being a joyful saint, yet she too struggled immensely with depression.

“If people are struggling, they need help,” Langley said. “But counseling isn’t just for people with big issues. It’s also for those who have normal issues and are trying to have a healthy family life.

“There’s nobody who doesn’t need support and good human relationships.”

RAPHAEL COUNSELING

Visit: straphaelcounseling.com

Phone: 720-377-1359