Bruce and Joanie Parker not only serve as Meal-a-Day directors, but they helped start the Meal-a-Day of the Americas chapter get on its feet.
To explain the history, Meal-a-Day had been run entirely out of the UK. Then the charity decided to ‘decentralize’, retaining the running of Meal-a-Day for Eastern Europe and Africa, while encouraging Australian brethren to form an “Asia Pacific” branch, and North American Brethren to form a “Latin America and the Caribbean” branch. Bruce says, “The results, by the way, have been doubled contributions and much more focused attention to the partners/ programs supported.”
Steve Johnson was traveling in Africa with one of the UK Meal-a-Day Directors, Gordon Dawes, on a video project, when Gordon revealed the ‘decentralization’ strategy. He said another American brother, Casey Opitz, had been inquiring whether there was some way to help Meal-a-Day. Gordon asked Steve if he knew of any others who might be interested, and he did! Bruce and Joanie Parker, who were about to retire, both spoke Spanish, and they both have a love for travel and a heart for this good work. So, Steve, Casey (treasurer), Joanie (secretary) and Bruce (chairperson) became the first Meal-a-Day of the Americas committee. Along the way, they have added others, had some turn-over, but now also include sister Lori Rayner and sister Becky Elliott from Canada, as well as brother Luke Barrett and sister Kellie Gelineau, both from the West Coast.
Bruce said, “We began working with a few projects initiated earlier by the UK brethren, and used recommendations from these contacts and UK brother John Burton, who was a professor of engineering for many years in Colombia. These have expanded our work to over 20 partners in 9 countries.”
The fund-raising efforts have been slowly reaching more and more North American ecclesias and individual Brothers and Sisters, who are generously supporting these ‘good works in the name of Jesus’.
When asked to describe some of the non-profits and NGOs that work with Meal-a-Day, Bruce said, “Many of our partners are absolutely staggeringly hard-working and committed to the service of the least among us… the poorest, sickest, most vulnerable and neglected. We are continually amazed at the kindness of the poor to other poor.”
Bruce continued, “Not every potential partner has the integrity we require, resulting in ending some of these relationships. We find problems by visiting each project every two years. Our committee holds ourselves to a high standard: posting our professionally reviewed finance results online, supporting our own expenses, holding administrative costs to a minimum so each dollar donated gives the maximum impact for the end beneficiaries. Most 3rd world charitable projects fail within 5 years, so we REALLY focus on sustainability and training, to assure that won’t be the case with our efforts.”
“Where we’ve been able to partner with local Christadelphians on education and other efforts, there is an additional sense of reward. We try to create opportunities for Christadelphian young people to get involved hands-on in good works, both domestically (disaster recovery, for example) and internationally (home construction).”
When asked what drives them to serve others so much in their lives, Bruce replied, “We are convinced that God has prepared us for this service, giving us the will and the abilities needed. We love to visit our partners and see the good being done for the ‘least, last and lost among us’. We are convinced that supporting these 3rd world efforts is good for our North American community.”
Joanie said, “One of the things I like most about our involvement in Meal-a-Day is having personal relationships with our partners. We’ve often been invited for meals in their homes, even stayed with a couple of them overnight. Several of them have become personal friends.”
She continued, “Beyond the personal relationships we’ve developed with partners, we’ve also enjoyed the blessing of fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ while traveling in Colombia. We always plan an extra couple of days during our Meal-a-Day visits to spend time with these dear brethren who live isolated from other Christadelphians.”
Bruce said there are several qualities that he looks for in projects to help fund:
- We want to see that their potential partners have their own ‘skin in the game’, sometimes financially, but mostly through huge donations of their time.
- We want partners who come recommended by some one they already have an established relationship with, and who have a track record of successfully completing projects.
- We want to support at least 10% of their proposal, but seldom much more than 50%… that is, they want to help, but not to create dependence.
- The project needs to be needed by the recipients, making a real difference at a basic level (health, education, safety, etc.). It needs to be sustainable long-term. It needs to be well thought out, with clear milestones and a solid budget.
About half of the Meal-a-Day partners speak fairly good English, and the rest speak Spanish only, so Bruce mentioned that they need more young Spanish speaking Christadelphians to take on this work. Bruce and Joanie communicate by email and attachments (proposals, budgets). They get to visit their active partners every other year, and visit their ongoing projects. This takes them to remote, primitive and sometimes dangerous places, but this is essential, in their opinion, to maintain the high level of relationship needed for success in these projects that Meal-a-Day supports.
Joanie and Bruce studied Spanish beginning about 1998 at night school in the USA. They really learned more when they joined Ken and Cindy Wubbels in Guadalajara Mexico for several years of mission efforts. Bruce’s employer provided extensive tutoring. Also, about 10 years ago they spent a few months with a CBMA mission in Quito Ecuador, and they’ve traveled at different times in 15 Spanish-speaking countries.
Joanie said, “Learning Spanish initially was difficult for me. While we started with university courses here in the states, we found we were in way over our heads when arriving in Mexico to help with mission work. Thankfully, there was a good language school there, which we both attended. But even then, we found that the best way to learn is immersion in the culture. Since we now spend at least 3 weeks in Latin America each year, we’ve been able to keep up our proficiency, but Bruce is way better than me. And, that’s so important. How could we communicate otherwise with some of our partners and the recipients?”
On the topic of the necessity for knowing Spanish, Joanie said, “I have a strong, emotional memory of a meeting we had with some upset recipients of a project that had many problems. (Thankfully, Meal-a-Day has worked hard with those responsible for the mistakes and made sure the problems are now fixed). But, without understanding the language, we may never have discovered the extent of the problem. In that case, as well, Bruce’s engineering background was crucial to get to the bottom of the issue.”
Recollecting past trips, Bruce said, “A few years ago Steve Johnson and I went to a remote village in the Amazon basin. Remote in this case meant many hours via a flight to a grass landing strip, then a 4×4, and then a boat. We reviewed the potable water project… river contaminated by oil-drilling, fresh-water well drilled, solar-powered pump, distribution piping and elevated pressure tank. Then as darkness fell, Steve took a picture that I still cherish… of a local assistant pastor and I having a Bible class based on the promises to Abraham, by flashlight, since no electricity was available. People are interested in who is helping them (Christadelphians) and why.”
Several times Bruce and Joanie have visited a project funded by Australian Meal-a-Day in India, which serves HIV, TB, and disabled patients and orphans. The couple who do this work have wanted to know more about Christadelphians and this past May drove nearly 10 hours overnight to attend 2 days of a Bible School, leaving with a very favorable impression, especially of the youth and the women who were so knowledgeable of scripture and so interested in God.
Joanie recollected about past Meal-a-Day trips, “I could tell story after story of the touching experiences we’ve had. One set of pictures is easily brought to the front of my mind. Claudia, the counselor we support, works with displaced women and their families in Colombia. Each time we visit, the recipients of her work plan a celebration in our honor. These very poor families always plan a small lunch for us—each contributing what they can (probably having to sacrifice at home for a bit to make up for their contribution). I’ll never forget two skits that were performed to show us what they were learning in her classes. Each had been planned without the other group knowing their theme. Sadly, each one focused on what alcohol had done in their home and how the families were effected—and how much better their homes were without the indulgence.”
Joanie continued, “Another touching event was driving into a suburb of Lima to see a school for children who had never been given the opportunity to start their education – instead their families had them on the streets selling gum, etc. As we arrived, all we could see was gray… the simple shacks were built on the remains of an old mine of some sort. Nothing was growing, just dust everywhere. Our taxi driver was only willing to take us there in the morning, as the place was very dangerous the rest of the day and through the night. But the children – those whose parents had been willing for them to take a few hours out of their day from work to begin an education – how precious they were. I can still see them bent over their notebooks, writing their alphabet, doing simple sums, etc.”
Grateful NGO’s make all of the exhaustive work that Bruce and Joanie do worth it. Bruce said, “Claudia is a trained counselor in Villavincencia, Colombia. She was serving families with the wealth to hire her, but had a desire to serve people displaced from the plains and forced into the poorest fringes of their city. We were already helping her husband, Mauricio, do wonderful engineering projects helping in so many ways. Claudia asked us to help her with her dream. She is now many years into serving these desperately needy families. Often, Dad was murdered by the narcotraficantes (drug dealers) for their land, and Mom had to flee with the children and only what they could carry. Claudia helps them learn to function again with dignity, helps the children learn to deal with the challenges of being ‘teens in their often violent world, helps the women form support groups that are transforming their lives. Claudia thanks the Christadelphians of North America in tears, each time we meet.”
Joanie said, “Tears come to mind when I’m asked about the grateful response from some of the recipients of Meal-a-Day projects. I remember one woman talking about how counseling had helped her get through difficulties and as she spoke the tears flowed. From the same project, a mother and daughter spoke of the help they’d received as they stood in front of their make-shift dwelling (just tarps) and the tears wouldn’t stop.”
Seeing positive change as a result of the work Meal-a-Day does helps drive Bruce and Joanie. She shared, “I love the testimonies of the change that has occurred because of a project. One woman told us that her two-year old was finally naughty—he now had the energy to act out because of the protein in his diet due to the goat project we sponsored. Many have shared that dysentery is no longer a problem in their home because they now have potable water. One village told us that the teachers from the far away town used to come and stay for only two nights (teaching three days) because there was no electricity and little to do at night without lights, TV, internet, etc. With the electricity from a wind turbine, staying was more comfortable and the children were now receiving a full week of classes.”
On the topic of working together as a husband and wife team, Bruce said, “As in all aspects of our lives, we provide a balance and a reality check for each other. Traveling together avoids certain temptations. Our different backgrounds (engineering & management vs. teaching and motherhood) are very useful when combined. It is good to have both Brothers and Sisters on this committee (as is true in the UK and Australia). Often the women see to the heart of situations of need more quickly, more wisely. Some of our Sisters have medical training, which is very valuable. Men and women naturally think differently, and the combination is a real plus for this work.”
Bruce said that his past work experience has been applicable to Meal-a-Day project direction in several ways. The Spanish they’ve learned is essential. Bruce’s technical abilities help screen technical projects and make sure they are properly completed. Joanie’s teaching and child-rearing experience is useful in reviewing projects aimed at education, children, nutrition, etc. Not only Bruce and Joanie, but Meal-a-Day director Casey Opitz is using his financial background, Steve Johnson is using his video production abilities, and Lori Rayner her business acumen. It is natural that a team would have a variety of strengths, making the whole group stronger collectively.
Joanie said, “When I retired, I could keep busy with helping my ailing mother-in-law, watching grandchildren, keeping house, visiting sisters in Christ during the day, etc. But what was Bruce going to do when he retired some years later? We go to India for about 3 months every 18 to help there. That wouldn’t keep us busy enough. So, in addition, God has blessed us with this work with Meal-a-Day. Bruce being the Chairman is a busy job—keeping in contact with all our partners, planning our board meetings and setting up our trips. The trips themselves, besides being part of the work to make sure the projects are being carried out appropriately, also provide us an opportunity to enjoy parts of the world we’d probably never see otherwise.”
Bruce and Joanie feel blessed beyond measure with 3 sons (Mathew, Joshua, Jacob), their wives (Jessica, Kate, Kristen) and 5 grandchildren (Eli, Soraya, Arwen, Finch, Mikaya). Being retired allows extra family time—priceless!