Charity founder wants to change the world, one child at a time
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY, KAN. - Bob Hentzen is nuts. Just ask him.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Bob Hentzen, president and co-founder of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, looks over a report with Edna Farris, International Programs contact person, and Paul Pearce, director of International Programs.
He truly believes he can save the world, one child at a time.
"I think we are making a difference," said Hentzen, president of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, a Kansas City, Kan.-based organization that has arranged "sponsorship" relationships between thousands of U.S. citizens and nearly 230,000 children in 26 developing countries.
"That's where our faith comes in," he told The Catholic Key. "If we can offer the struggling people of God a faith to live by, I sincerely believe we are making a big difference - especially in ourselves."
Hentzen told his big secret - the foundation isn't just about changing lives in the Third World.
"I believe we make a big difference in the lives of people in the United States," he said. "If we look at the tremendous challenge in the world today, including Sept. 11, and ask ourselves what is the most strategic thing we can do to bring about change, my answer is to establish very human connections, one-on-one relationships, between people."
It wasn't enough for Hentzen to serve two hitches as a missionary, the first from 1959 to 1963 in Colombia, and the second from 1967 to 1973 in Guatemala. It wasn't enough that he was establishing a very solid career in the late 1970s as a teacher in a very solid suburban St. Louis public school district.
Nope. He and three of his 11 siblings - Bud, Jim and Nadine - plus their dear friend Jerry Tolle got this nutty idea that people all over the United States and Canada would pay a small donation every month to make the life of one child better - a child they would never meet.
"It kind of crystallized at the time of our mother's death. That happened in 1977," he said. "I had been a missionary as a Christian Brother, and Jerry had been a Jesuit missionary in Honduras. My family had taken an interest in my work and had come to see me."
If the idea crystallized in 1977 with the death of his mother, it galvanized in 1978 with the murder of Mario Mujia Cordoba in Guatemala, a man with whom Hentzen had worked closely.
"After I left, Mario became involved with Maryknoll and some of their organizations of peasant farmer cooperatives," Hentzen said. "That was a very dangerous thing to do at that time. There were many martyrs."
Within three years, the Christian Foundation was at work in Guatemala - in the middle of a civil war.
"When we started in 1981, it was at the height of the violence there," Hentzen said. "Part of God's blessing and guidance was that our sponsorship programs for children became a tranquilizing presence in an intranquil place."
Hentzen said the foundation stayed out of politics and concentrated on the people it came to serve.
"We were not making political statements," he said. "We were working directly with the poor, and with children and the aged."
The sponsorships from people in the First World allows children in the Third World to go to school. Often they are the first ever in their families to learn how to read and write.
"Education is a big part of what we do," Hentzen said. "Nutrition and health is another."
The Foundation, when given the resources, can also provide permanent housing. Though tiny by U.S. standards, a one-room house can look like a castle to a family that has lived for generations in straw huts.
"A dear little mother in Honduras was showing me the one-room brick house she received from the program. She literally caressed the walls," Hentzen said. "Her husband had died of AIDS a year earlier, and she had AIDS. She said to me, 'Here, my little ones will have some place to live when I am gone.'"
The Christian Foundation in the last 21 years has spread around the globe, from India, to the Philippines, to South and Central America, to Africa.
Hentzen could have chosen to retire by now. Or he could have continued to run the Christian Foundation in comfort from its Kansas City, Kan. headquarters. But nope, he had to go to where the action was. And he couldn't do it like a normal gringo and hop the first jet pointed south. He had to walk.
In 1996, he hiked from Kansas City to Guatemala - a nearly 4,000-mile stroll, with a support vehicle to keep watch, that took him eight months and 16 days to complete. "I walked every inch," Hentzen said.
"It was a natural for me to go back," he said. "I felt that as one of the founders and the president, I could better reflect the core values of the organization by having as my base the missions themselves. There, I have the daily opportunity to be in contact with the people."
Hentzen said he learned his own core values as a child growing up across the street from the Redemptorist Parish playground in midtown Kansas City.
"Redemptorist was a home for us," he said. "Our life revolved around that parish community."
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who staffed the parish school reinforced the prayerfulness and the concern for others that the 12 Hentzen children learned from their father, Ramond "Yorkie" Hentzen, and their mother, Catherine.
"Our mother was a very prayerful person. We prayed the rosary daily. She knew the entire Litany of the Saints by heart," Hentzen said. "Even though she had 12 kids to raise, she was able to get her kids to see beyond our own family."
Those lessons were further reinforced at DeLaSalle High School, where Hentzen met the Christian Brothers. "They had a wonderful group of young brothers there," he said.
Eventually, he would graduate from a Christian Brothers college, St. Mary University in Winona, Minn., and become a Christian Brother himself.
His alma mater on Feb. 26 bestowed an honorary doctorate upon him at its annual Alumni Days.
He left the Christian Brothers at age 34 and began teaching in the United States. But he could never leave his calling as a missionary behind - his dream of making a difference kept nagging at him until he had to give in.
Two decades later, he is convinced his dream is coming true.
"Human beings are naturally hunters and gatherers and cultivators of land," he said. "We can also be hunters and gatherers and cultivators of the dream to make this world a better place."
Although a semblance of peace has returned to Central America, Hentzen knows very well that people who work with the poor are targets, and that he himself may one day pay for his dream with his life.
If that happens, so be it, Hentzen said.
"Every time Jesus cured somebody, the powers that be became more angry," he said. "And where was Jesus heading, but to his passion and the cross?"
After all, he said, he has been given 21 years and counting to establish his work with the poor. Jesus was given only three years. And it's been a great ride, he said.
"We didn't know how this was going to take off. We just took it day by day," Hentzen said. "Now have over 500 full-time employees in Guatemala alone, including social workers, translators and accountants, and 80 in our U.S. headquarters.
"I think of it as an ever-expanding circle of love. As it grows, it gains momentum and gathers new people in. And I don't fear growth as long as we are getting good people."
Besides, he said, "The Lord takes care of me."