by Jackie Schmidt
Hillside Health Care International's Founder
Several times a year, I am invited to speak to groups—to churches, civic and community groups, and at business luncheons, etc. They are interested in hearing what has become known as The God Story. I didn't give the talk that name; others did. But I often smile about it, because I know that each of us have numerous such stories (whether we recognize them or not). But folks seem especially interested in THIS one. This week, I was asked to write out a brief version so that people can understand Hillside's roots. Here 'tis…
In 1996, at the lowest point in my life, I ran away. I was frozen by pain and disappointment. It was that gut-wrenching, heart-breaking kind of pain that rearranges your DNA and then renames you without your permission. It kept screaming in my face, “Stop hanging on, Sucker! Let it go! Give it up! You are over! Do you hear? Over!” It was wringing the lifeblood from my flesh. It had blown my heart to shreds, and then was laughing at me as I fell on my knees to gather up the pieces.
My greatest fear in that darkest hour was that I would not survive. The strong, determined woman I had worked to become, couldn't get her laundry from the washer to the dryer, burst into tears in grocery lines, ran red lights, and jumped curbs. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't think.
FR. MICHAEL SPAROUGH
I had left Indianapolis, the city that had always been home, and carrying all my pain on my back, ran to Chicago where I didn't know anyone. I started attending Holy Family Catholic Church in an upscale Barrington community. A couple of months later on a blustery December evening, some women from a prayer group there, women I hardly knew, came to pick me up at my apartment to drive me to a healing service on Chicago's west side. Though I had been a Christian for many years, I deplored the displays of sensationalism common at such services. But on that night, these women had decided to take charge of me, and in my helplessness, I had allowed it. All I recall of the Mass that evening was one line of the homily. The priest, Fr. Michael Sparough, cupped his hands to his heart, “Let your pain be your path,” he said, stretching his arms out before him as if they had become a road.
I felt those words tug hard at my woundedness, and I leaned forward to listen. He paused as though he were waiting just for me—one of hundreds in that crowd—to be ready, and then he repeated both the words and the gestures, “Let your pain be your path.” It was the first time in months that I had felt even a glimmer of hope. Up until that moment, my misery had seemed futile, pointless, destructive…but there was encouragement somehow in his words, in the very idea of my pain being some kind of a path, taking me someplace, leading me to see some meaning in it all!
JOHN PASSARELI, AND THE JERICHO ROAD FOUNDATION
I sought Fr. Michael out the next day, and he became my spiritual director and mentor for the next few years. He taught me an important lesson. “When your pain is too much to bear, simply take your eyes off it and set them upon someone who is enduring greater pain.” He encouraged me to attend a one-day seminar called, The Jericho Road. Throughout the day, the retreat facilitator asked us to become different characters in the Good Samaritan story. It was easy to relate to the wounded man. But I also saw characteristics in myself that matched up with the good Samaritan and those who walked pass the injured man and the inn keeper.
The last exercise was to go to a quiet place and ask God what He would like us to do with our new discoveries about ourselves.
Let me make this clear: I had never in my life heard anything certain from God and actually avoided those who talked with great conviction about the things God told them. But in those next few moments of prayer, God spoke with absolute clarity to my heart. It was the first time that had ever happened…and to date, it has never happened again. I knew I was to start a foundation, a ministry, called The Jericho Road. The next day, I called an attorney I'd met at my church, John Passarelli, to set up the foundation. When I told him my story, he actually believed that I had heard from God, set up the foundation at no cost…and told me to call if I ever needed anything else.
JOHN PASSARELI, AND THE JERICHO ROAD FOUNDATION
I always loved volunteering with the homeless, so felt that this new ministry should serve the poor. I opened a drop-in center in one of Chicago's most dangerous areas. A year into that project, I was feeling as though I wasn't really changing any lives, so I contacted a woman named Janet Hauter, a strategic planner from Holy Family Church. I hired her to study the project and its relationship to other ministries in the neighborhood. While she was researching it, I went on an extended trip down through Mexico. Toward the end of the trip, I decided to take a bus across the border into Belize City to visit a missionary I had supported for some years, Ms. Myrtle. I rode along with her for three days helping in the Port Loyola region of Belize City. I had traveled a great deal internationally, but had never experienced such abject poverty.
When I returned to Chicago, Janet and I met for lunch, so she could give me her findings. With stacks of research folders spread out on the table, she began. “Jackie, there are a million ministries in this neighborhood and many are duplicating services. Let me show you how you can close your drop-in center and instead, bring these groups together to work in cooperation with one another. You could show them how to save thousands of dollars by simply sharing their resources.”
I cut her off. “Stop right there! I just came from a neighborhood in Belize City where there are no resources, where no one is working. Why don't we look at ways to use my resources there rather than here where the do-gooders are literally stepping on top of one another?”
She looked at me, shocked. “Wait a minute. You've spent a good deal of money for me to do this study. Let me show you my findings!”
“That's not necessary,” I asserted. Then I leaned across the table and asked her if she would go with me to Belize to be a second set of eyes.
She shouted at me. “You are crazy!?” People in the restaurant began looking our way. “I don't even know where in the hell Belize is! And I assure you that I have no interest in going there!”
“Janet,” I pleaded, “will you simply pray about it before making up your mind? I respect and trust your judgment. I need you to help me make a right decision this time. Just pray and get back to me, ok?”
There was a long uncomfortable pause. Then she said, “What should I pack?”
We decided to take a five-day trip to Belize to do a feasibility study. We looked at our calendars and set aside the week of March 8th.
By the end of lunch, she was pushing to tell her the needs in that impoverished neighborhood. I answered quickly. “A clinic. The poor there have little access to healthcare.”
She then called John Passarelli, told him about this insanity we were up to. “You told Jackie if she ever needed anything, to call you. Well, she needs you to research all the legal ramifications of providing healthcare in Belize!” She scheduled a meeting later in the week for the three of us.
At that following meeting, Janet, John, and I laid out a rough plan. Janet, in her pushy, determined style, began barking orders at us. “John, we need to know the healthcare laws there. Jackie, you must find an architect to draw up some renderings of that clinic. And I will begin putting together a timeline to make this project happen.”
Then she turned to John who had already agreed to do whatever was needed. “What do you have on your calendar the week of March 8th?”
“Crap, Janet, I'm an attorney. I have meetings and court!” But when he opened his calendar, those days were totally free. Janet was determined. “You told Jackie that you really believe this is God leading her. Will you go with us?” He drew a line through those five days, and wrote in the word BELIZE.
Janet was struggling with figuring out who we should meet with in Belize and how to set those meetings up. I had learned about Edwin Smiling, the Belizean Consulate who had a business in Chicago's northwest suburbs.
He agreed to meet with us. We had only two weeks to get our plan together before that meeting!
He was the only architect listed in the yellow pages in my inner-city neighborhood. He answered the phone: “Michael Ramsey Architectural Firm.”
I introduced myself and explained that I needed some simple drawings, not full-blown plans. “Sure, I can do that,” he told me. “Let's make an appointment for next week.”
I told him I couldn't wait that long…that I need them fast. “Impossible,” he told me. “I can see you in a week and could push to have the drawings done two weeks after we meet.”
I could see that I had nothing to lose by talking, so I began non-stop! Without a breath, I told him about The Jericho Road ministry, my trip to Belize, the poverty I'd witnessed, and the urgency of our timeline regarding the meeting with the consulate.
He finally broke in. “Where did you get my phone number?” I told him that I'd picked it out of the phone directory from hundreds of listings. “I will see you first thing in the morning.” He scheduled me to come in before his office opened.
When I arrived, he motioned for me to sit in a large overstuffed chair in his office. He perched himself on a stool at his massive antique drawing board. On its large dark surface lay a closed stenographer's notebook.
“Tell me more about this idea of yours.” He wanted every detail, and I gave them to him.
I was shocked at what happened next. He picked up the notebook and began telling me his own God story. He had been journaling for two years about this sort of a project. It was his dream for himself and his firm. He felt that God had put it on his heart…and he couldn't believe that I had called him “out of the blue” to ask him to sketch the building. He told me he would do it on Janet's timetable and that he would not charge me. “But,” he continued, “I need to ask you if there is a place on your team for me. I'd like to be the project architect, help select the property, interview contractors, and ultimately see it to completion.” I wept as he blocked out the week of March 8th.
We were well-prepared as we set before Consulate Smiling. Michael's drawings were on a tripod. Janet distributed professionally developed packets with the project description, timeline, and fully-detailed plan to bring the Jericho Road Clinic to fruition. I introduced the team and briefly told the God story. Each member of the team followed with their presentation and a few comments about their commitment to project.
Mr. Smiling sat spellbound. “I can't begin to tell you how many well-meaning people come to my office with ideas about how they'd like to help my country. They all have good hearts, but rarely a solid plan. I am amazed at your commitment and your organizational plan. I believe this team can really pull this off. I also know how very, very great the need is in my country. I want to see this happen. How can I help?”
Janet explained that we needed help getting audiences with the right people during our feasibility trip. Mr. Smiling asked for several of the packets, agreed to get them into the hands of the right movers and shakers, and promised to set up all the meetings in advance. As we packed up to leave, Janet told him how grateful we were.
“It's truly my pleasure.” He replied. “If there is anything else I can do, just let me know.”
Janet didn't hesitate. “What do you have on your calendar for the week of March 8th?
FAITH HOPE LAMB
Edwin flew down a couple days before we arrived to “grease the skids” for us. At my request, Ms. Myrtle picked up us at the airport, and took our team straight into Port Loyola. They were every bit as shocked and appalled as I had been on my first visit.
One of the huts we visited belonged to an older woman, Mrs. Lamb, who cared for her lovely two-year-old granddaughter, Hope Faith Lamb. The child never left her granny's bed for fear she would fall through the gaping holes in the rotting, elevated floor. That night we all went to bed with heavy hearts. Soon Janet woke me. “Jackie, I think my husband and I are going to adopt Hope.” [The next year Janet and her attorney husband, John—both in their fifties—brought Hope home to Chicago!]
Mr. Smiling picked us up the next morning for our first meeting—with Prime Minister Said Musa and several members of his cabinet, including Dolores Balderamos, Minister of Women and Children. We could not believe that our first meeting was with the Prime Minister of Belize! After we made our presentation, the Prime Minister turned to Ms. Balderamos and asked if there was any property in Port Loyola on which we might build. She suggested an inner-city park, one full block. Prime Minister Musa said, without batting an eye, “We aren't able to give money, but arrange to give that block to this group for The Jericho Road Clinic.” By the time we left Belize, we had the land, the contractor, and the blessings of the Belizean government! We returned to Chicago rejoicing and poised to begin fundraising!
THE FEASIBILITY STUDY
A CURVE BALL
None of us on the team had any medical background…and suddenly we were hit with the realization that if we build a clinic, we would need a doctor! Janet and I made the decision to go back to Belize a few months after the first trip to see if we might convince any Belizean doctors—many in private practices—to volunteer at the clinic once it was up and running. Fortunately, Edwin's brother, Winston, owned a restaurant and agreed to host a dinner for us and about eight doctors. We made our usual blow-them-away presentation. And we got the usual what-a-great-idea response….until a quiet little Mayan doctor in the back stood up and threw us a curve ball. He asked, “Why a clinic in Belize City rather than down in the South of the country?” Confidently we explained that the Prime Minister had given us a green light and a plot of land for a project in Port Loyola…and that we would soon begin building. He persisted. “But why?”
He went on to explain that Belize City—even with its pockets of poverty—had a hospital, clinics, and doctors. “But oh, in the South!” he continued. “That's where the need truly is.” He asked if we had even taken the time to look at that area, the Toledo District. When we admitted that we'd not even heard of the need there, he said firmly: “Well, I am Mayan, and I can NOT support this project if you don't even take the time to explore the possibility of helping in the Mayan villages.”
I stammered, “Well, we don't have any objection to taking a look at the area…” and before I knew what had happened, he called the airport and reserved two seats on a little puddle-jumper plane that would leave at 4pm. Winston rushed us to our room; we threw a few things in a bag, and rushed to the airport. As the plane took off…so did Janet.
Red faced, she let go at me. “I am soooo angry right now! I am the strategic planner here; not YOU! Why did you let them hoodwink us into coming down here to some God forsaken jungle? I hate bugs! I hate snakes! I wish I'd never agreed to work on this clinic project with you!” I sat silent, not knowing how to respond. If I would lose Janet, I would lose my right arm.
DR. JON BRODIE
In the single seat across the aisle from Janet sat a middle-aged man. He leaned across toward Janet. “I overheard your conversation. May I ask what it is you guys are thinking of doing down here in Punta Gorda?” She told him about the project, but made it perfectly clear that it would NOT be happening in the jungle, but rather in Belize City. He listened intently before extending his hand. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Dr. Jon Brodie. I am with the Medical College of Wisconsin. I've been bringing doctors down to this region for nearly seven years. We treat patients out of the back of an old car. And we honestly spend more time changing tires and charging batteries than we do caring for people who need it. If you would build a clinic down here, I will see to it that you have all the doctors and medications that you need.”
We sat speechless. We spent the next two days with him. He drove us around the Toledo District, introduced us to the government representative, and walked us through the hospital where there were minimal meds, no x-ray or EKG machine, a handful of nurses, and only the Ministry of Health's representative, Dr. Jose Marenco.
Before we flew back to Belize City, the local representative and village managers helped us select an approximately three-acre plot of wild bush-land in the village of Eldridgeville which we purchased for about $2,000. At that time, Eldridgeville was then on the edge of utilities and infrastructure. Though most villagers couldn't afford them, there was electricity and a handful of phone lines. A village pump supplied water, sometimes with red worms. Children bathed in the nearby creek. Folks kept iguana and river turtle in their back yards, strapped with large rubber bands until they were killed for “fresh” meat. Beyond Eldridgeville, most villages had no electricity and all water for drinking and bathing came from creeks and rivers.
BUILDING THE CLINIC
I agreed to move to Belize, understanding that I might end up in a hammock in someone's hut. But thanks to the generosity of the Sisters at the Novitiate Nazareth, I was able to rent a lovely room on the first floor of the convent. I assumed I would simply be a tenant there until the clinic and tree house were completed…but I was wrong again. If you stay at Nazareth, you become part of their family. It was a blessed eight months.
My first day on the job, I was walking the property's dense thicket to check the terrain—and hoping not to encounter any slithery surprises. Suddenly, I saw a man standing beside me with a machete! “My name is James,” he told me. “I sure could use a little work to help out with family.” I hired James Bahadur on the spot—our first employee. He was my faithful right hand man from that day until I returned to the States!
Michael Ramsey and I hired Winston Coleman who lived near Eldridgeville as our builder, because he was in such ready agreement when we told him that we must try to use only village workers from Eldridgeville and purchase our supplies from the most local sources. Two other builders insisted on using their own crews which were made up from outside the village. We offered Mr. Coleman a bonus if he finished on or before our agreed completion date. He finished two days early!
ANNE NOHL AND MR. HILLS
Anne Nohl, a Physician Assistant from MCW and its Global Health Program Director, was one of the first to come to the clinic to help set it up and to establish local relationships with the Ministry of Health. She and I shared a common vision and an uncommon faith! (Her daughter, Jackie, currently a Hillside Board member, came with her on one of her first visits.) Dr. Russ Robertson, then from the Medical College of Wisconsin and his wife Sandy came for their first visit in the very early years of the clinic and contributed immeasurably over the years.
I would return to the States every three months for a week or so in order to speak to groups and individuals that Janet had lined up. On one of those visits, Janet and I went to the home of Mr. Hills, another member of Holy Family. We only knew at the time that he had something to do with furnishing hospitals. (The average American home could have easily fit into Mr. Hills' living room.) His housekeeper seated us, offered us rolls and coffee, and explained that Mr. Hills would be out shortly. She further informed us that he would not be able to spend much time with us and she hoped we wouldn't be offended by his rushed schedule.
Finally, Mr. Hills came in, sat down across from us, and told us that he already knew about the project. All he needed to learn that morning was what we needed to furnish the clinic. Janet pulled out the complete wish list that Dr. Brodie had put together. She looked puzzled, and as she handed it over to Mr. Hills, she asked, “Is there a chance you might be able to get us some of these items used and at a reasonable price?”
He fired back at her…”Do you have the money to buy these things at a reasonable price?”
“Well, no,” she admitted honestly, “but so far God has provided what we need.”
He stood up to leave, smiled, and said nonchalantly, “Well, God has provided for you again. Where should I have all these things shipped?”
Anne Nohl was with me at the brand spankin' new (but empty) clinic when the delivery truck pulled up. There were beautiful examination tables, chairs, an EKG machine, the diagnostic physical exam instrument sets, custom-made curtain dividers, and $5,000 in office equipment! Anne and I cried when we saw all the villagers lining up to get the heavy packing materials. Later that week, we saw additional rooms on huts made from those boxes and skids! We honored Mr. Hills' generosity by naming the clinic building HILLSide.
On November 26, 2000 several months after the clinic actually began seeing patients, The Jericho Road Clinic was dedicated! Fr. Michael Sparough officiated, and Mr. Paul Mahung, a local celebrity radio announcer was Master of Ceremonies. Several hundred people showed up—from dignitaries to villagers.
The Prime Minister sent his regrets, but in his place were Edwin and Winston Smiling. To our amazement, the keynote speaker was the First Prime Minister, the “Founder of Belize,” The Honorable George Price, (a faith-focused man revered by everyone in Belize regardless of party). He spoke of God's amazing provisions and the miracle of bringing The Jericho Road Clinic to the Toledo District.
Longstanding board member and physician assistant recruited by Ann Nohl, Jeff Nicholson, was also at the dedication. He gave some remarks on behalf of the educational partners including the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin. There was prayer and music and Garifuna dancing and miming and food galore!
OUR ROOTS AND OUR COMMITMENT
There have been ups and downs; on several occasions we faced closing our doors; but we were faithful to God's command to start this ministry, and in turn, He has been faithful to us. He worked miracle after miracle to bring the project to fruition. He always supplied the money, the meds, the vehicles, and the equipment…and in nearly every case, those provisions came from Christian organizations or individuals! Even after the tragic and heartbreaking loss of fourth-year medical student, Abby Brinkman, God blessed us with a wonderful dorm in her honor. We have never evangelized; we have simply continued to love and serve others as Christ has commanded. And as a result, we have earned the love and respect of our Stateside and Belizean communities, including the Ministry of Health. Even the secular universities and civic organizations that partner with us have come to respect our faith commitment.
Along the way, hundreds have come and gone—volunteers, employees, board members, partners, etc. Yet, in the end, we have stood our ground and held strong to our faith-rooted commitment—believing that what God started, He will sustain. And to this day, He has been faithful.