13-year-old finds life-long mission

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: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.