Imagine you and your spouse have chosen to get rid of all your belongings and work as missionaries in a Brazilian slum for 51/2 years.
Now imagine that you're taking your four children, ages 2 to 8, with you.
That's what Joe and Denise Sandman did in 2003.
”When Nathan was 2, we thought, "If we're ever going to go overseas, now's the time to do it.'“
So the Sandmans, who had been members of the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Kentucky for 10 years, applied to the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful in Ossining, N.Y.
”They sensed a call to do this as a family,“ said the Rev. Tom Farrell of the Newman Center. ”They asked, "Is it feasible? Can it be done?' We helped them discern this call and introduced them to Maryknoll.“
On Sunday, Newman Center parishioners honored the Sandmans with a ”shower,“ where the family received furniture, appliances, gift cards, money and other gifts too numerous to mention.
”We decided we would help them get re-established and had a tremendous response,“ Farrell said. ”People who were downsizing offered roomfuls of furniture. We had multiple washer-dryer offers. One couple offered the use of their home.
”People gave cleaning supplies, linens, all the things an engaged couple get when they're setting up a home. In this case, it's a family with children.“
A mission for mission
Joe and Denise Sandman met while serving in the Peace Corps on Montserrat, a small Caribbean island.
”We said (then) once we have kids, we'd like to do this as a family,“ said Joe, 46.
Fast-forward to early 2003, after the Sandmans ”left our house, quit our jobs, sold all of our stuff. It was a big leap of faith,“ said Denise, 44.
Their first prolonged stop in Brazil was in Brasilia, where Joe and Denise spent months in a Portuguese language school and placed their children in a school where only Portuguese — Brazil's official language — was spoken.
Then the Sandmans moved to Joao Pessoa, a city of 600,000 at the easternmost point of the country. There they moved into a windowless brick house with concrete floors in a tiny farming community on the outskirts of the city.
”We had a horse and chickens and raised our own pigs,“ Joe said. ”I'd like to tell you we had dirt floors and no electricity, but no.“
Still, the family had to pump its own water and dry the laundry on outdoor clotheslines.
”Our only conveniences were a landline phone, a washing machine and a computer,“ Joe said. ”But just because of those three things, we were considered much better off“ than our neighbors.
Denise added, ”I learned to be really grateful that I could take my kids to the doctor and get medicine.“
Joe and Denise worked in one of Joao Pessoa's slums, inhabited by about 30,000 people. Joe's project was twofold: He taught architectural drafting to high school-age students, and then built the projects he and his students had designed.
”They were things like additions onto stores,“ he said. During the five years, he and the students completed eight projects.
Denise worked with an early childhood and nutrition program for youngsters ranging from pre-natal through 6 years. In the afternoons, nurses and dentists would provide services to the residents.
Those programs were held in a community center that had been started by a Maryknoll nun. Because the center was in need of repairs, Denise wrote grants to Maryknoll to fund them.
She also wrote grants for nutritional supplements and snacks for the children.
”One of the things that drew the children to the center was that a snack was provided,“ Joe said. ”Sometimes, that snack was the only meal the child would get that day.“
As an offshoot of the nutrition program, Denise established a women's co-op. ”They made dolls and embroidery and food to sell,“ she said. One of the grants she wrote paid for materials for the items women in the co-op were making.
When the Sandmans arrived in Joao Pessoa, they shopped for a motor vehicle, the only requirement being ”that it had to have six seat belts,“ Denise said.
They settled on a 1991 Brazilian version of a Chevy Tahoe, which they said ”started 45 percent of the time and had no radio or air conditioning.“
Driving through Brazilian states meant having to stop at checkpoints manned by the nation's military. The couple's oldest child, Rachel, was their spokeswoman.
”I was the translator at police stops,“ Rachel said. Portuguese came more easily to her than it did to her parents, ”probably because I was younger and because I spent most of my time with the Brazilian people.“
The four children — Rachel, now 14; Sara, 12; Emma 10; and Nathan, 9 — went to private schools ”where they had computers,“ Rachel said. ”In the public schools, they were lucky if they had books for the entire class.“
Denise said, ”The kids straddled two different worlds, not only the United States and Brazil but the rich and the poor.“ Slum children had an illiteracy rate of 20 percent, she said.
”That's because they had to leave school to support their families,“ Rachel said.
The Sandmans are now house-hunting, and Joe is seeking a job as an architect while Denise, a physical therapist, hopes to take some time to set up their home and get the children established in school. They've been staying with friends since returning to Lexington more than a week ago.
One of the gifts Sunday was a year's tuition for the children at Saints Peter & Paul schools, courtesy of a diocesan grant and money raised by Farrell.
Farrell said the Sandmans stand as an example for other people.
”What the Sandmans have done is something other people wanted to do but never did,“ he said. ”Or young people who say, "This is something I want to do someday,' so it's inspirational.“
Joe compared the family's mission to Brazil to swinging from a trapeze. ”You can't hang on to two trapezes at once. You have to let go. Letting go is the metaphor for the whole experience for me in Brazil. It happened every day there, that radical sense of trust.“
Denise said that before they left, she and Joe compiled a list of reasons why they should do this and another list of reasons why they shouldn't.
”There was a long list of reasons not to go,“ she said. ”The only reason to go is that it's the right thing to do. From this humbling experience, you really learn who you are.“