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.”