Family works to help Third World countries, by Suzan Travis-Robyns

Abby Vrooman looks like a focused, hard-working college student. She isn’t.
The sixteen-year-old Negaunee resident grew up in the Philippines and speaks fluent Tagalog (the official Filippino language). 0604loc1The Philippines is made up of hundreds of different ethnic and tribal groups. Living there gave Abby a thorough education in cultural anthropology.
But her adventure is just beginning. Within the year, Abby will be heading to Africa to assist AIDS orphans.
Abby’s parents, Michael and Denise Vrooman, were missionaries in the Philippines for twenty years. Two years ago, the Vroomans and Abby moved to Marquette County, where Denise grew up. Their son Jeremiah, twenty-four, and adopted son, Eric, twenty-seven, joined them later.
The move made it possible for Abby and Jeremiah to get to know their maternal grandmother and uncles who live in Negaunee.
The Vroomans’ ministry focuses on helping the poorest children in the Third World and includes religious and job training, medical aid, housing and clothing assistance, and food distribution.
The Vroomans’ ministry is Biblically-based non-denominational Christianity. They do not have formal degrees in ministry.
“God ordains people anyway,” Michael said.
The family’s philosophy is to demonstrate the love of God through their actions.
Their lives are their testament. The family took in twelve Filipino youngsters, most of them abandoned teenagers, during their ministry.
“We raised them until they were twenty-one,” Michael said.
“We’re still raising them,” Denise said. “They’re still family.”
Two of the Vroomans foster children now live in the United States. One foster daughter lives downstate, another in Virginia.
Michael’s affinity for children in distress has roots in his own childhood.
He grew up in southern California in a family deeply involved in the drug culture and diametrically opposed to Christianity. Michael took in unsupervised peers and landed in trouble because of drugs himself at seventeen.
He enlisted in the Navy to turn his life around. While docked in Japan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines, Michael worked with a naval chaplain at local orphanages and found his life’s calling.
He and Denise met when he was stateside on education leave from the Navy. They married in Marquette in 1980, and headed to Michael’s next posting in Pearl Harbor (Hawaii).
“When I married Denise, she said, ‘Just don’t ask me to go to a Third World country,’” Michael said with a grin. “I didn’t ask. I let God do that.”
Denise said that when she met Michael, she was a church-goer.
“His influence made me a Christian,” she said.
The couple lived in Hawaii and started a small church. In 1984, Michael, a Navy welder, was injured and discharged from the military with a medical disability.
Profoundly guided by a shared faith, the Vroomans sold all their belongings and purchased three one-way tickets for the Philippines, their three-year-old son Jeremiah in tow.
They settled in Olongapo, a city of 150,000, located sixty miles north of the nation’s capital, Manila.
Michael’s anger at injustice had a lot to do with where they settled—near a garbage dump on the outskirts of Olongapo. Five thousand people lived in the dump and made their homes by tunneling catacombs through the garbage piled thirty feet high.
“I had church leaders tell me, ‘Don’t go there.’ The people smell…they don’t contribute,” Michael said.
He conducted his first church service on top of the trash.
“Now we train our own pastors,” Michael said. “They live the gospel instead of just talking about it. They work for a living instead of just asking for money.”
The Vroomans made their home in a small cement building on the edge of the dump for six years. Videos show what appears to be a peaceful river running through the dump. In fact, it was raw sewage and many children died from playing in the river of sewage.
Denise said it took three years to be accepted by the “junk people,” as their fellow Filipinos called the families and abandoned children who lived in the dump.
“But once they accept you, you are family,” Denise said. “In that sense, the Philippines is a wonderful place to raise children. Filipinos are so family-oriented.”
The Vroomans’ definition of family includes anyone who needs help. On Michael’s disability pension, which was between $300 and $550 a month when they lived in the Philippines, they fed and provided for the needs of their neighbors. The Vroomans usually ate one meal a day but when there wasn’t enough, they fasted, and hoped to eat the next day.
They are just one small family, but like a ray of light, they made a difference.
Michael secured a donation of building materials from the United States Navy, allowing residents of the dump to build simple wooden houses above the garbage.
Unable to find medical assistance for the homeless children in their ministry, Denise obtained the book Where There Is No Doctor, learned first aid and set up a clinic, which still serves seventy children a week. She maintains a medical library and breaks down prescription medicines chemically in an effort to obtain herbal substitutes in places without access to medicine.
She also learned sign language in order to communicate with those who could not hear.
Adults who grew up in the Vrooman’s ministry are now ministering to a new generation of street children. Six churches have grown from the one the Vrooman’s started. One has a congregation that is exclusively children.
Two mission stations serve as jumping-off points for visiting ministry and medical teams from overseas.
In 1991, when Mt. Pinutabo erupted, most of Olongapo, including the dump, was buried beneath a mountain of ash.
The Vroomans took the opportunity to purchase, with donated funds, a building that became available as a result of the United States Navy leaving the Philippines.
“It was a place for street kids to get help with apartments above it,” Abby said.
The Vroomans left one of the world’s wealthiest nations to live among the poorest people in the world. They experienced the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, coup d’etats, typhoons, and floods.
Michael is a charismatic speaker who urges people to live “from the inside out.” “People said, ‘How could you live there?’” Michael said. “We saw a need. How could we not?”
Sometimes the Vroomans had an opportunity to make a big impact. When the United States dismantled its naval base in the Philippines, they were called upon to help distribute $1.5 million in donated goods throughout the Philippines.
But the Vroomans dealt with the poverty in which they were immersed by thinking small.
Denise said she worked herself to the point of exhaustion her first year in the Philippines. Then she changed her thinking.
“I focus on what I can do,” Denise said. “I can hold this child. I can feed this family. And when you get five people helping, it just continues to multiply. You’ll never fix the problems, but you’ll make it easier for those who are living in them.”
Michael said Filipinos have a good grasp on what matters in life because death is so prevalent. He said eighty percent of Filipino parents lose two of their children to malnutrition-related diseases.
Volunteers, including Northern Michigan University students, medical teams and other missionaries, offer their services to the Vroomans’ ministry. Overseas volunteers receive training, pay their own way and make a financial contribution to the project they work in.
Michael said young volunteers who came to assist the family left the Philippines profoundly changed.
“When young people saw the harsh reality of how three-fourths of the world lives, their parents would write to me and say, ‘I don’t know what you did, but they are so grounded now,’ “ Michael said. “I said, ‘Well, they dealt with death.’ That’s a big question. The West runs from it. The East deals with it.”
The family’s move to the Upper Peninsula was precipitated by the Vroomans’ belief that it was time to turn their ministry over to the Filipinos they had recruited and trained.
Denise said the family’s philosophy is to work alongside people to alleviate intractable problems, not to dictate solutions or lead indefinitely.
As they both approach fifty, the Vroomans are not retiring or even slowing down. A huge new challenge looms on their horizon.
A year ago, the Vroomans formed a small foundation with three friends who are long-term supporters. Hope Endeavors is designed to fund the ministry the Vroomans founded in the Philippines and a new project in Malawi (Africa). Malawi is a land-locked country in southeastern Africa bordered by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique.
Denise said the vision of Hope Endeavors is to train people from all areas and all churches and expose them to the Third World to broaden their vision.
“Once you’ve been exposed to Third World culture, you live differently, you think differently,” she said. “You begin to distinguish between a need and want. It raises your compassion.”
In keeping with their desire to help the most desperate children in the Third World, the Vroomans are working with Save Orphans Ministry to create a house where Malawian children with AIDS can live—and die—with dignity.
The African AIDS epidemic is overwhelming. With a population of ten million, an estimated 1.5 million children under the age of fifteen are infected with AIDS. Michael said that 1,000 children die from AIDS in Malawi each day. Coffin building is a booming business. Wooden caskets are sold along the roadsides out of necessity.
The AIDS epidemic is complicated by military conflicts around Malawi.
Orphans from Mozambique and other countries find their way to neutral Malawi. The Vrooman’s new project is just across the road from the Mozambique border.
“Rebel troops rest and have tea in Malawi, then walk back into Mozambique to continue fighting,” Michael said.
The Vroomans will leave the contentment and security of their comfortable house east of Negaunee to go to Malawi sometime this year.
Son Jeremiah married in January. He studies psychology at Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba. A psychology degree is a requirement for working as a translator at an embassy, Jeremiah’s goal. He would like to return to the Philippines. Being able to travel is important to him.
“Growing up in the Philippines, I learned to accept people, to be adaptable,” Jeremiah said. “It wasn’t stagnant. I was around so many cultures, I learned a lot more than if I had been exposed to only one culture.”
Abby is home-schooled, but her exposure to Third World living conditions has lent a maturity that formal education could not impart. She said lessons from her childhood in the Philippines will last a lifetime.
“It’s nice growing up learning that you don’t need a lot to be happy, because if you have your friends and your family, you can be the happiest person on the planet,” Abby said.
Contributions to Hope Endeavors can be mailed to: 45 Forest Drive, Negaunee, MI 49866.
—Suzan Travis-Robyns

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.