What they do on their summer vacations
Lakeville family rides the seas to save lives
A woman lived 50 years with a cleft lip, exposed to the style of ridicule that accompanies such a birth defect – she was shunned and obscured herself from the public.
A little girl, only 2 years old, never learned to walk. She couldn’t if she wanted to – a large tumor was growing on her face, weighing her down despite her attempts to try.
A man lost his nose to a machete swipe during a brawl. He carried on his life with holes in his face.
They each received life-changing help thanks to Mercy Ships and the volunteerism of Lakeville family the Zupkes, members of Trinity Evangelical Free Church. Sam and Margo are educators in School District 196 and their children attend school in Lakeville.
The woman’s lip was fixed and the girl’s tumor removed, which along with some physical therapy allowed her to walk for the first time in her life. The man received a new nose.
Mercy Ships’ 499-foot Africa Mercy stops at a different African nation each year, bringing doctors, dentists and a helpful crew – all volunteers who pay for the privilege of travel in order to help the disadvantaged. Mercy Ships’ mission, according to the organization, is to follow “the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus, bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor.”
The idea is to instill self-sufficiency in the beneficiaries. The free medical care and select procedures and agricultural training ensure those who are helped can help themselves long after the ship leaves the port.
A couple of weeks ago, the Zupkes returned from their sixth and most recent excursion, which lasted about six weeks. They were in Togo, a west African nation. They have previously helped out in other African nations, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Benin.
Since he was in elementary school, Matt Zupke has been participating in Mercy Ships, along with his parents and his younger sister Micah.
On this most recent trip, Matt, 15, had a leadership role as part of the crew of the ship, keeping an eye on the seas. It wasn’t the first time.
“In Liberia I did pirate and stowaway watch,” he said in an interview recently. At Mainstreet Coffee Cafe, he and Margo exuded earnest excitement and a profound belief in their mission.
Gurkhas helped guard the ship, providing a powerful reinforcement for those on pirate watch. For more than 1,000 years the Nepalese warriors have been known for their tenacity at battle.
“They’re cool guys,” Margo said.
When the ship docks in a nation’s port, the crew members’ duties extend off the boat. In Liberia, Matt “adopted” a patient named David, a 15-year-old soccer goalie with a clubbed foot.
“Matt would go down and visit David every day,” Margo said.
Matt said he and David played “Liberian checkers,” though Matt swears “David made up the rules as he went.”
Matt and David got along well, helped by the fact that David spoke Liberia’s national language, English. The common language offered up the ability to find friendship in nuance.
“He even played drums,” Matt said.
After Mercy Ships’ volunteer doctors fixed David’s foot, the boy switched from goalie to offense, Matt said. David was thrilled.
These trips are not without an element of risk. In Benin, Matt was riding in a truck that got a bit too close to the president’s home.
“Two (Range) Rovers stopped us,” Matt said. “They had AKs strapped to their chests and a 50 cal(iber gun) on the truck.”
At first, the Zupkes only volunteered with Mercy’s European fleet, which was responsible for acquiring supplies and crew, Margo said. The family visited the Faroe Islands and the Netherlands.
“It was a safe and fun one to do,” Margo said. “When they asked us to go to South Africa, I said ‘No way. I’m not going to Africa ever.’”
Sam had served in Europe when he was in the military, so it seemed like that would be the most familiar option to stick with. The Zupkes would still be helping out the disadvantaged by procuring supplies, even if it was not a situation of direct contact.
But after some prayer and contemplation, the family decided to give the second most populous continent a try. And their lives have never been the same.
Other than quick brushes with danger – or perceived danger – the family was never in a wholly dire situation. Nevertheless, Margo said she did have moments of concern early on.
“I thought what on Earth am I thinking bringing little kids to live in Liberia under security,” she said, “but we were so safe.”
They were street-smart when walking around and in some of the countries, such as Liberia, volunteers stayed in camps surrounded by razor wire and security forces from the United Nations.
They lived on the edge to bring others from the edge.
In addition to the risk and the gift of their time, the Zupkes had to pay for the privilege of riding on the ship and helping out.
The cost is about $4,000 total on average. This past year, the Zupkes raised $8,000, all of which went toward helping to provide the services to the African patients.
The African patients aren’t the only ones who derive value from these summer excursions of fellowship. The Zupkes take a lot from them as well.
Matt, for example, said he does not fall prey to the ferocious demand instilled by marketing. Based on what he has experienced, he feels that he has enough.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. He recalled how Liberia barely had electricity, “There would be one generator with a thousand wires. I’ve seen stuff that nobody (teens in Lakeville) will ever see in their lives. What’s happening in other countries – poverty, civil war – I’ve seen some gruesome stuff.”
Mercy Ships also operates in the Caribbean. For more information, or to get involved, go to www.mercyships.org.