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The Powells’ East Timor Christmas

Katelyn Phelan
MSM Class of 2011

Most people take advantage of the holidays—especially Christmas—to spend time with family and friends. The Mount’s President, Thomas Powell, and his wife Irene are no different, though the friends they enjoyed this past holiday are much newer and quite a bit younger than you might expect.

The Powells used their 2010 Christmas break to travel with their daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter to the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste, known as East Timor. This is the world’s youngest country and is located in Southeast Asia near Australia and Indonesia. It is also considered one of the poorest countries in all of Asia, with 50% of the children suffering from malnutrition. The country was recently tangled in bitter civil war with Indonesia, but things have settled down due to the U.N. presence. In just two years, though, the U.N. will leave and it is not clear what will happen to the fledgling country after that.

Tom and Irene first heard of East Timor from their West Virginia parish priest, Father Ed Daschbach. Father Ed and his biological brother Father Richard Daschbach both became priests of the Society of the Divine Word, but served in very different areas. While Fr. Ed served in West Virginia Appalachia, Fr. Richard went to Indonesia in 1967. He originally served as a parish priest for the huge Catholic presence there; 98% of the people in the country are Catholic. But in the ‘80s the Vatican decided that indigenous priests should lead their own parishes. Fr. Richard needed a different mission. He chose to focus on the isolated children and people of East Timor and founded Topu Honis, a shelter that today cares for approximately 120 children aged 3 to 18. Topu Honis has little in the way of modern amenities, and, as President Powell explained, "many things that are familiar and even necessary to us aren’t even on their radar, like microwaves or cell phones."

The organization was originally founded as an orphanage, but over the years it has become a safe-house. Many of the children under Fr. Richard’s care still have parents. Some come from abusive homes, while others have single parents unable to care for them. If Topu Honis did not exist, the luckier of the unwanted children would be passed on to extended family and treated as second-class citizens. Topu Honis provides safety and opportunity for children who would otherwise have very little.

The Powells became directly involved with Topu Honis when their daughter Cate and her husband Mark went on a self-directed mission trip to the country. They met up with Fr. Richard and spent months working with him and the children. During their time there Cate and Mark fell in love with two good friends, eleven year-old girls Bernadeta and Emelda. Cate and Mark wanted to adopt them, but no American had ever adopted a child from East Timor. So they began to pursue ways to achieve this hope.

Since both girls had living relatives, the parents had to grant their permission. In Bernadeta’s case, her parents sought an uncle’s opinion. This uncle, familiar with the West, responded with a rousing, "yes!" Another aspect involved in her family’s decision was the traditional ritual "reading" of pig livers. Two pigs were sacrificed, one for the mother’s ancestors and one for the father’s. The livers would reveal the wisdom of the adoption—one liver contained good omens while the other was neutral. Bernadetta’s family ultimately agreed. Emelda’s mother, on the other hand, waffled back and forth, and finally refused the adoption.

Bernadetta became the first adopted child from East Timor. She has lived happily in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her new parents, Cate and Mark, for the past three years. Her move here entailed a series of drastic changes. Deta, as she is known, has become accustomed to indoor plumbing, modern appliances, and technology. She has also picked up English very quickly, excelling in her schoolwork. "She’s smart as a whip!" Irene proudly boasts, "and is as proficient with the language and modern technology as any 14 year old."

Though Deta has adjusted extremely well to life in the United States, contact with her biological family has been limited. Over 10,000 miles separate her from her family, and with no mail system in the country, communication has been limited to rare email messages relayed through Fr. Richard. Deta has sent photographs, but Fr. Richard can only pick up mail 4 times a year!

This occasion, Deta’s first return to her country and her biological family, spurred the Powells to accompany their daughter’s family to East Timor. They wanted to see Deta’s country for themselves and also wanted to reach out to the people there. Deta’s reunion with her family was bittersweet. On one hand she was overjoyed to see her parents and sisters again, but she quickly found that all was not as she left it. She was frustrated to find that her knowledge of their native language of Meto had gradually fallen away. She could not communicate easily with her family or friends! However, as she spent more time hearing and speaking the language, she found her skills returning.

The children the Powells came to know during their week-long stay made a deep imprint on their hearts. Tom and Irene spoke tenderly of children who craved adult attention and loved to play. The Powells snapped countless photos of the children playing games, whether it was their own complicated form of hopscotch, or newly learned American pastimes like the hokey pokey or itsy bitsy spider. The Powells were stuck most by the atmosphere of love in the shelter. Irene said of the children that "they didn’t know how to whine. I saw only one child cry during our entire stay, and he cried quietly, hiding his tears in his arms."

Part of the Powells’ outreach was in two huge suitcases they brought—full of clothes and toys for the children. They gave inflatable balls, games, and even Mount t-shirts to the children. They also gave each older child three dollars.

The children were delighted with the gifts they received, but this was not the focus of their Christmas. Each year the people hold a beautiful service in their church, nestled deep in the jungle. The Powells attended the service, despite its difficult location. In order to reach the church they ventured in the pitch dark night without flashlights down a steep hill on a little goat path through the jungle. When they finally reached the church, what they found was breathtaking. Irene described the scene: "You go down, down, down through the jungle and you hear voices, and then you see lights. There are 300 people dressed in native clothing and church clothes and it’s all held outdoors. It’s just beautiful."

This jungle location is where Fr. Richard led Christmas Eve Mass, but the whole event was highly interactive, with people singing songs and dancing. Some of the carols were familiar to Tom and Irene because Fr. Richard has translated many Western songs into Meto for the people. The Powells could recognize some of their favorite songs by their melody; "picture listening to "Silent Night" in the jungle in Meto," Irene described. They both agreed it was the most beautiful service they had ever attended.

Though the service itself was beautiful, what has remained most with the Powells is the amazing children they met during their week-long visit. Irene described the children as entirely self-sufficient, even those as young as three years old. For meals the children get a bowl of rice and lentils. After they eat, they take their empty bowls and spoons, rinse them out, and return them to the kitchen area. Irene marveled that she did not witness a single fight during her stay. The only slight argument Irene witnessed was over who would hold Tom’s hand, or take turns wearing his hat or holding his hiking stick.

Topu Honis does not take an extraordinary amount of money to run. The entire organization costs about $70,000 per year. This includes food, shelter, clothing, and education for the 150 children in the shelter. The other adults that help run the shelter are women who have nowhere to go. Fr. Richard cannot pay them a salary, but is able to offer them shelter and a $25 stipend per month.

For many years Fr. Richard’s brother, Fr. Ed, largely supported the mission with money from his parishioners and his part time teaching salary. But two years ago Fr. Ed died which has caused some financial problems for the mission. Despite these financial concerns and his advancing age of 74, Fr. Richard is largely unconcerned. He believes the money will come from somewhere. Recently some funding did arrive. The Powells presented Topu Honis with over $6,000 raised by the Mount Marketing Club.

This money was certainly a help, but not enough for the plans Fr. Richard has for the future. His goal is to build two additional dormitories, costing $20,000 each. These dorms will increase the shelter’s capacity. He often has to turn sets of siblings away, or only accept one child from the family because he doesn’t have the room to care for all of them.

Another financial need is college funding for the older children. Sponsoring a teen for college only costs $1,300 a year for everything—tuition, housing, books, and food. The students spend three years in college either in East Timor or in Indonesia.

The Powells have two immediate concerns in dealing with East Timor. Their first goal is to raise awareness of the country. Many people do not know where East Timor is, let alone that it even exists. The second goal is the raise money for Topu Honis. The Powells also hope to work with the ambassador to Timor Leste to raise awareness of the needs of this still young country.

So how can you help East Timor and specifically the children of Topu Honis? Well, knowing about the country is the first step. Give a donation, no matter how big or small, to Topu Honis. Every little bit helps, especially when it only costs $2 to feed, clothe, educate and house a child for a day. "A little bit of money can make a big difference," said President Powell. Why should you give your hard-earned money to Topu Honis when there are so many worthy charities? In Fr. Richard’s words, "No special reason; it is just one of many good causes… because the kids need it. That’s all." If you’d like to donate something, send a check to Brother Dennis Newton, SVD Director, Society of Divine Word Missionaries, 1835 Waukegan Rd., PO Box 6099, Techny, Illinois 60082-6099. Indicate that the check is for TOPU HONIS. He will make sure it gets to the 150 delightful children of Topu Honis who are in need of your help!

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