Someone You should know

Welcome to #SomeoneYouShouldKnow!

Have you ever seen familiar faces at church week after week and thought, "I should know that person"? Do you recognize some folks by name but wonder how and why they became involved in their mission and ministry? 

#SomeoneYouShouldKnow will introduce you to members of our church community who are leading or engaged in a wide, vibrant variety of missions and ministries. Learn more about their stories here, and the next time you see them in worship, at a special event or out in the community, say hello to Someone You Should Know! 

Scroll down to read our #SomeoneYouShouldKnow interviews.

Have a suggestion for #SomeoneYouShouldKnow? Email info@oursaviours.comWe're keeping a running list! 

Susan Leibforth, Women's Ministry

Susan Leibforth has served as one of nine leaders of the Women's Ministry group at Our Saviour's since 2019. It was something of a leap of faith that sparked Susan's involvement in Women's Ministry shortly after she and her husband, Bill, joined Our Saviour's six years ago—not knowing other group members, Susan signed up for the annual Women's Retreat as a way to meet people. "I was welcomed so warmly, and it was such a great experience," Susan recalls. 

Now, with a full calendar of programming on tap for 2023, Susan and the Women's Ministry team are looking forward to continuing to grow the ministry and offering space for fellowship and connection for women of all ages, backgrounds and interests. Next up for the group: the annual Women's Ministry Book Discussion, happening this Friday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m. in Luther Court on the Our Saviour's Campus.

In a recent conversation, Susan shared more about what led her to connect with Our Saviour's and Women's Ministry and how Women's Ministry embraces the wide-ranging interests of its membership.

For 2023, Women's Ministry is planning a spring volunteer event at Loaves & Fishes, a nature appreciation walk, a tea, the annual October retreat and additional events, besides your regular group meetings and the monthly Better Together breakfasts with Men's Ministry. Why, for you, is it important that Women's Ministry offer this kind of range of programming?

Susan Leibforth: We try to mix it up and have different types of events or outreaches that will appeal to different people, because not everyone likes the same thing. Every summer we get together—we have nine women who are Women's Ministry leaders—and we brainstorm and come up with an agenda for the year. We ask, what appeals to you; where you would like to be a co-leader? And then we’ve got a great group of women that just takes things and runs with them.

We try to plan one event or volunteer service opportunity per month and reach out to everyone—we let the women of the congregation know that they’re not committed to come to every meeting or event—though if they’d like to, we love that!

How and why did you initially connect with Women's Ministry at Our Saviour's?

When Bill and I moved out to Bolingbrook from Forest Park [they now live in Poplar Grove], we were kind of church-homeless for a while. We tried different churches and nothing just felt right. We found Our Saviour's, and the friendliness of the pastors and the staff really kind of opened doors. When Bill and I became members, the very next month was the women’s retreat, and I decided, “You know what? I’m going to go.” I had never been to a retreat before; I didn't know a soul; and I thought, “This is a great way to meet people.” And I was welcomed so warmly, and it was such a great experience, that that was when it kind of clicked in my mind that, A) we made the right choice in picking Our Saviour’s, and B), this is a ministry that I can feel needed in.

What has being involved in Women's Ministry meant for you? What would you say to someone else who might be mulling whether to try out a Women's Ministry event?

I think that Women's Ministry creates an opportunity for a church the size of ours to build connection. I had never met a lot of the women who attend Celebration—this has given me an opportunity to meet women I probably never would have met before and to learn from them and learn about other ministry opportunities that are available. That has opened up other opportunities to engage in a Bible study, or prayer-shawl ministry, things like that. 

And for me, the biggest role it has played for me is in strengthening my faith. I feel that it has given me an opportunity to be more confident in my faith by learning from others and having that opportunity to express with others my beliefs and the strength that I get from them and from the pastors and staff—those have been the two big things that I have really appreciated about Women’s Ministry. 

I would say to anyone interested, "If there’s something that catches your eye or appeals to you, just come and feel welcome, because once you’re there, you will be welcomed." 


Russell Harwood, Navy Veteran and outreach advocate

Russ Harwood and his wife, Mary, have attended Our Saviour's since 1981, after moving to Naperville from Pittsburgh. Russ, a Navy veteran who served on destroyers for three years before beginning a career that spanned HR and strategic planning, is a coordinator of the annual Veterans Day breakfast at Our Saviour's; this year the event saw a record 117 people in attendance. Russ is a longtime community outreach advocate and a prolific letter-writer, calling on elected officials and other leaders and organizers in DuPage County, Chicago and beyond to support programs that empower mothers and help remove barriers to health, well-being and self-sufficiency. He has served as an ESL assistant at Waubonsee Community College and also volunteered for 16 years with Naperville CARES, which in 2016 aligned with Loaves & Fishes under the new name of Loaves & Fishes Community Services. In a recent conversation, Russ shared more about what led his family to Our Saviour's and what he's looking forward to in the life of the church.

What brought you to Our Saviour's?

I grew up Presbyterian, and we lived in Pittsburgh for several years and went to a Presbyterian church there. Then I went to Muhlenberg College (in Allentown, Pennsylvania), which is a Lutheran college.

When we came out here from Pittsburgh looking for churches, a couple of churches we tried just weren’t right, but the pastoral structure here, they had a good youth ministry program, so that was a yes for us.

You are passionate about community engagement and connection. What would you like to see for Our Saviour's going forward from a community engagement standpoint?

I have been a long supporter of doing outreach in the community. With Naperville CARES, we developed relationships throughout this community and neighboring communities.

We’ve never had the assets to really develop [that] outside of our church. Part of my strategic planning time was asking, “How do we do that; how do we plan for the future?” I’ve asked, “Here’s an opportunity; what are we doing about it?” Locally, there are people in need. I see them all around. We can develop relationships with schools, with social workers in the high schools. There are ways we can do outreach to schools or to other churches.

What brings you joy as we head into 2023 and what are you looking forward to in the life of our church?

In the life of Our Saviour’s, we have a huge opportunity to rebuild. Churches in general had been struggling with attendance, and then Covid came along and doubled down on that. But we have a terrific staff, and we have great opportunity.

Another thing I’ve done is use my time at events like the MEGA Garage sale to recruit people. There was one woman I met—I was helping her load stuff in her car—and she said, “By the way, I’ve been to the church, and I’m going to come back.” She was Catholic, but she was trying to find a church with Sunday School for her 9-year-old. I talk to people about coming to church. I’m seeing a lot of new faces, so I’m encouraged.

McKenna Wolfe, call committee chair

McKenna Wolfe and her husband, Dane, have been a part of Our Saviour's since 2012, when they moved to Lisle and sought a new church to call home. Earlier this year, McKenna applied for and was named to lead one of Our Saviour's two pastoral call committees; the committee she chairs was tasked with creating the Ministry Site Profile (akin to a job description) for an associate pastor who will have, as one area of focus, children, youth and family ministries. In this conversation, McKenna shares what led her toand has kept her family at—Our Saviour's, as well as the joy she has experienced in serving on a call committee.

What led you to Our Saviour's 10 years ago?

We had just moved to Lisle—Dane and I are both from Indiana but moved this way after college. We found our way to Lisle and started to church-shop, but Our Saviour’s was the first church we went to and we didn’t go anywhere else. Our church-shopping was pretty fast.

Wow, that is fast! What about Our Saviour’s made you think, “This is it; this is a good fit”?

I think Our Saviour’s was a good middle ground for what each of us grew up with. I grew up United Methodist, and he grew up in a little bit more formal of a Lutheran church, and coming to Our Saviour’s just felt like a good mix of both.

We got involved pretty quickly in a small group called Galaxy, and that was a great option for us as we joined the church to get to know other 20-somethings and people who were newly married and were part of the church.

Nowadays, we mostly are at the Celebration Campus for worship. We started at the Our Saviour’s Campus and were there for years, and then in about 2018/2019 (son Sam was born in 2013; daughter Savannah arrived in 2017), we kind of moseyed down to Celebration, and that’s now where we spend most of our Sundays. I still like to go back to the Our Saviour’s Campus once in a while for some of the classic songs and the different feel from back in our pre-kid days.

What called to you, so to speak, about serving on a call committee? 

I just felt, when they mentioned it at church, that this was something I should submit my name for. We’ve helped out with hospitality for a number of years; we’ve been in some small groups; I help with Sunday School at Celebration, and I just felt like, “I think I could do this—I think I could help.”

There were no guarantees that you’d be selected, but I threw my name out there just to see. And soon after, in talking to Pastor Brian, when he explained that they’d be hiring for two pastors, both sounded interesting to me, so I was even more excited about the chance to be on either committee.

You and your counterpart on the Engagement committee, David Ashcraft, had great news this week that the Synod has accepted the MSPs that your two committees submitted and will begin the process of identifying possible pastoral candidates. Can you go back a little and share more about what that process was like in creating an MSP?

Surethe MSP helps pinpoint what you’re looking for and what you want in this person who will serve as an associate pastor. So much of that, from feedback from Pastor Brian and in talking with our committee members and David from the engagement committee and the engagement committee itself, comes down to that we want someone who’s going to be a good fit for our church as a whole. There is nuance in getting the language right; for our committee, we want to have someone who will have a focus on children and youth to motivate and to champion those programs—but we hope to find someone who is excited about all things at Our Saviour’s and who will be one of the puzzle pieces in helping us grow.

Our committee is made up of some amazing people, and it has been so nice to get to know more people in our church. We have a nice mix of parents with younger children and others who have kids who are in Surge or Ignition, and still others who have kids who have graduated and are out of the house, but they have experienced those programs and were counselors or mentors in those programs. For me personally, learning more about Surge and Ignition has been so valuable, and also what, in this day and age, is needed for our church and the youth of our church—truly continuing and solidifying what our church has to offer for those crucial populations in our church. 

What are you looking forward to in 2023?

I think as far as for our committee, we are so excited to take the next steps in the process and see who some of our candidates are. We hope and pray that we’re going to find someone who’s going to click. There are a lot of what-ifs, and it’s interesting running two committees side-by-side, but hopefully the new year brings some good candidates.

What brings you joy as a member of Our Saviour’s?

I think feeling like it’s an extension of home. I think that getting to know people, that is often what has kept us coming back, from our small group connections. We’ve been in two different small groups over the years; we’ve done Friendship Table. I personally feel like I come back each week for the message—I’m someone who loves to sit there and listen; I need that to get me through the next week. I love when I learn something in the sermon that week. But a big, big additional part is the people. The call committee has been so great—there are so many people I kind of knew by face, but I didn’t really know who they were or their story, and getting to know the people in my committee has been so great. That’s just building that home base that is Our Saviour’s to me.

marcia patterson, season of sharing leader

Marcia Patterson has been an Our Saviour's member since 1991, and for around a decade she has served as a coordinator for the giving trees that go up each holiday season at the Our Saviour's and Celebration campuses. A longtime choir member and a former nurse and nursing instructor at Rush University Medical Center/Rush University College of Nursing in Chicago, Marcia has seized her retirement to become further involved in a variety of mission and ministry areas at Our Saviour's. 

Season of Sharing is no small effort from an organizational standpoint—besides the giving trees, there's the toilet-paper drive for Loaves & Fishes, the coat drive for World Relief Chicagoland and the book drive for Holy Family Ministries in Chicago. What goes into getting everything ready and getting all of the moving parts coordinated?

We start in October, and I usually assemble the group—those who are the heads of each of program. The Season of Sharing dates have been already selected, and then the leaders of each group let me know what gifts/contributions they’re looking for. When the trees go up, Lee (Thomsen) and I and several other people will decorate with paper ornaments—there are about 200 across both treesthat dictate what gift should be bought and brought back.

One of the recipients of giving-tree contributions is Bethel Lutheran Church in Garfield Park. Can you share more about that partnership and why working with Bethel and Holy Family Ministries spoke to you? 

We were doing Bethel before I took over, and Jan Dusek introduced me to Holy Family. I was so impressed with what Bethel doesthey create this “store” of gifts. I’ve been down there and worked at the store; it’s in a big gymnasium, and people from the church can come in and purchase gifts. Gifts are priced at a low price point so that people can shop for their children—there’s so much more dignity in that, vs. just getting a wrapped gift. And people who were a part of the church could earn “Bethel Bucks” so that by participating in activities at the church, they could earn Bethel Bucks that would be applied toward the cost of items. Participants come in and select gifts for their family—it’s a normal shopping experience. I was so impressed with that; I wanted to be a part of it.

What brings you joy as a member of Our Saviour’s?

What continues to bring joy is the relationships. I’m involved in a variety of activities and I know so many people, and a number of them have become really good friends. Before I retired, I could do some things—I’ve always been in the choir, for example. But I couldn’t participate fully in other things, because a lot of stuff is during the day, and I had a job and family. So when I retired, one of my goals was to give back, and I’ve become much more involved since then in activities that bring me a lot of joy.

It’s been a long couple of years where we couldn’t gather, and we had to be content with Zoom and not seeing people in person, and now we can come back together and be together and participate together. People take such joy now in the things that we used to do that have come back. It’s good to be back.

Jan Dusek, visual arts team leader

Jan Dusek has been attending Our Saviour's since 1986, when she and her husband, Tom, moved to Naperville and transferred their church membership. A retired art teacher in Naperville Community Unit School District 203, Jan leads the visual arts team at Our Saviour's. In this role, she guides everything from decorating spaces for worship to managing the art gallery on the Our Saviour's campus. You've seen Jan's work not only at the Our Saviour's Campus altar but also above it: She has made several of the banners that hang in the Sanctuary. In this conversation, Jan talks about what engaging in the arts at Our Saviour's means to her, her daughter's own service as the founder of Educating Africa's Children, and why Our Saviour's remains her church home after nearly 40 years.

The banner that was up on Thanksgiving Eve of the boy scattering seeds—you painted that one. What was the inspiration for that? When else do we get to see your work in the Sanctuary? 

For the Thanksgiving one, the kids had a trip to Slovakia, and they sang this song about the parable of the Sower—that was the inspiration. Some things grow, and some things don’t. Sowing trees, sowing love…

The rest of the banners have been made by members of the congregation or past members of the congregation. I painted the Jesus banner on canvas; the poppy banner that was up this summer, I painted that. I also made the Advent banner where every week, a different element is uncovered. At first you see only a little bit, and you don’t know what it is. I feel like that’s what it’s like to be pregnant—you don’t really know what’s going on. The next week you see the sun, and then the next week is a small Star of David, and then on Christmas Eve, the aprons come off, and it’s a huge star and it’s all different colors.

Besides all of the work you're engaged in throughout the year with visual arts, you're involved in a number of other mission and ministry areas, too—can you share a little about those?

I have been involved in arts because it’s my passion, but I also help with Holy Family (Ministries) and Bright Stars of Bethlehem, and then our daughter has a school named after her in Uganda. She has named a 501(c)3 that’s called Educating Africa’s Children, and a lot of members of the congregation support that school. We raise money to provide scholarships for students and salaries for teachers and build classrooms. 

Our daughter is an attorney in Chicago, but she raised the money to build the school in the first place, and then we raised money to add on to it. Before the pandemic, we were approaching 1,000 kids; right now, there are about 800. It has three levels of preschool and goes to 8th grade—a lot of people know Dusek Child Care and Primary School in Ibanda, Uganda.

What motivated her creation of Educating Africa's Children?

She started volunteering at Lincoln Park Zoo as a stress reliever and then started going on safaris. One time, she was on a tour with just a driver and a tour guide—the driver had escaped from the genocide in Uganda and had seen his family killed while he was hiding in a bush. The tour guide said that he had some land in his village and that his dream was to build a school where the ratio of kids to teachers was more like 20:1, vs. maybe 200:1.

It’s just an incredible thing. And it’s opened a whole new world for my husband and I and our friends. We're trying to get a group to head back there in 2023.

What brings you joy in being active in the life of Our Saviour's?

Anything related to art is a passion I have, and why we’re here at Our Saviour’s is because what we have seen is that the congregation has always seen a need and then tried to help, wherever that need is.

If you'd like to be a part of the visual arts team, contact worship team coordinator Terry Thompson at

Carly Nasman, NCC senior/Eagle's Wings alum

Carly Nasman is an Our Saviour's "lifer" - the North Central College senior was baptized at Our Saviour's, went through Sunday School and children's choirs, and then became active in junior high and high school ministry and music programs, eventually becoming a student mentor for Surge. Carly credits her own "amazing" mentors and impactful experiences she had participating in Our Saviour's youth programs with guiding her move to seek similar worship and fellowship experiences at North Central, where she currently serves on the executive board of the student-led worship group Focus. In this conversation, Carly shares more about how Our Saviour's has shaped her faith formation and how she wants to continue to give back.

What did growing up in Our Saviour's look like for you?

I’ve been going to Our Saviour’s my whole life. My grandma on my dad’s side went to Our Saviour’s and my dad grew up going there, and then I was baptized at Our Saviour’s and went through Sunday School, Surge and Ignition; I was in children’s choir, Eagle’s Wings and Praise Express. 

My involvement really peaked in high school—I was a part of Ignition; I was a Surge mentor; and I was on the Ignition leadership team, so I helped plan Ignition nights as well, in addition to being part of Eagle’s Wings choir and going on Eagle’s Wings tours.

Wowto have those kinds of opportunities available to you as a young person is one thing, but to take advantage of them and engage at the level you did is something else. Why was it important to you to get involved as you did?

I’ve had a lot of really amazing mentors throughout my life. Both of my parents have been very involved in church—my mom has sung at Celebration ever since I can remember, and my dad has just been so involved. He’s been a Surge mentor and an Ignition mentor—that’s really what got me into wanting to be a Surge mentor, along with my student mentor when I was in Surge, who was amazing. I saw how many friendships were made when people went through the Ignition and Eagle’s Wings programs, and I just really wanted to help make those connections.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time in youth ministry programs at Our Saviour's?

The one that really stands out to me was my sophomore year, I went on my first tour with Eagle’s Wings. I was really, really nervous to go on this tour—I’ve dealt with mental-health issues my whole life, and I never thought I would be able to go on a trip like that without my family. 

At the last minute, working with Lynn Panosh, we were able to get both me and my dad on this trip to North and South Carolina. There was night toward the end of the tour where we went to this small church where our old youth minister, Bobby, had grown up going to church. At the time we went there, the church was kind of struggling, and at the end of our concert, everyone gave a standing ovation, and it was like, “This is something really important that we need to be doing, hearing God’s word and seeing all of the amazing things we can do with our church.” 

I remember that everyone in Eagle’s Wings was crying—you just really felt the presence of God in that moment, and that is a moment that I will forever cherish.

Why was it important to you to continue to participate in faith-centered programs in college?

When I started going to North Central my first year, even at my orientation, I went and talked to the church chaplain and said, “How can I be involved?” because church was such an important part of my life in high school, and I wanted to continue that. I found out about a group called Focus, which is a student-led worship group that meets Wednesday nights. We sing worship songs and hear from a student speaker about their faith journey or something specific that speaks to them.

I started going to Focus my first year, and then I kind of walked away from it when Covid hit. But my junior year, I decided to really jump in. I applied to be a part of the worship team, and starting last year, I’ve been singing every week. This year, I’m on the executive board and in charge of the worship team, getting people together and singing and leading worship.

What are some of the things that you’re looking forward to in the next year?

I want to be able to see people like me who, in high school, at school, didn’t really feel like they had a place—I want them to feel like they have somewhere to go. I really felt like I had that when I was in high school, and I would love to come back and be an Ignition mentor; I would love to work with Eagle’s Wings and help people have an amazing experience like I did.

I graduate in the spring, which is crazy. My current plan is after college, I’m going to apply to work for a mental-health awareness organization.

I’ve had so many amazing people to look up to, and I am just forever grateful.

Are you a fellow Eagle's Wings alum? Join us for the Eagle's Wings Thanksgiving homecoming, hosted by CARE Moms after the 7 p.m. Thanksgiving Eve service on the Our Saviour's Campus. You're also invited to join in singing at the service ~ no need to sign up, just show up at 6:20 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 23!


Pastor Fanya Burford-Berry joined Our Saviour's as interim pastor in April and leads Our Saviour's high school ministry, Ignition. But her ministry to young people extends back more than a decade before she entered seminary in 2012. Pastor Fanya graduated from the University of St. Francis in Joliet with a bachelor's in secondary education and history in 1996 and worked as a teacher before taking on a full-time youth minister role at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Naperville. In this interview, she talks about her calling to ministry, what it means to be able to connect with young people during their critical adolescent years, and the greatest opportunities and imperatives she sees for the greater Church in this moment.

Can you tell me about your calling to be a teacher and then transitioning that calling specifically into ministry?

Oh, my goodness, I remember as a little girl putting my dolls on the floor and then acting like I was a teacher with my dolls. That was my most basic memory of being called to be a teacher. That was a career choice I desired from a very early age.

But when I think back also on my family’s history, most of my people come from the state of Mississippi, and when I started talking to my relatives, a lot of my relatives are teachers and preachers. That’s sort of something that’s in the blood of our family, teaching and preaching.

You are what you know, right? And so that is where I think my call is, and it kept on moving when I expressed my desire to be a teacher in a congregation called Sacred Heart in Joliet. They said: “Oh, you want to be a teacher? How about you teach the religious education program here?” So I started out working with third-graders on a volunteer basis, and then when I got into college, my priest said, “Why don’t you become the Confirmation teacher?” So I started doing that, and then parallel to that work, I was in school to be a teacher at the University of St. Francis in Joliet.

When you tell people your dreams, people will help you achieve those dreams, and that’s what’s so great about the people of God—they help you with your calling. And then as I progressed more, the pastor who was my priest said, “You know what? You should go to seminary.” And I was just like, “No, not me.” I was like, “That means I need to be a nun—no; that is not happening; I am not becoming a nun.”

Middle and high school can be this pivotal and challenging but also opportunity-rich time, including for faith formation. What does it mean to you to be working with students who are this age?

What I love about working with middle and high school students in particular is they have questions; they’re excited about life; they have wonder and curiosity. They’re still children, but they’re trying to gain their sense of identity as young adults. I know my middle school years were very important to me as far as awakening my views of the world—it just seemed like something happened.

In sixth grade we moved from Moline, Illinois, to Chicago, and at that point in time in my life, I had always been in schools that were predominantly White. And then I switched over to going to a school that was predominantly Black, with Black teachers, and their care for us in seventh and eighth grade and how they ignited a thirst for learning in me and in my sister, as well, really just was so impactful. Those middle-school years are so valuable because there’s push and pull. I remember our teachers talking about going to Black colleges and getting us excited about going to them and taking us to museums and helping us learn about our history—something happens where you were in a cloud, and all of a sudden you can see clearly when you reach those years.

And then it keeps on building as you begin to better understand and appreciate, I think, religion and culture and people—especially when young people are talked to as if they have a brain, when they aren’t talked down to, when adults around them and teachers around them say, “You need to think about these things; you need to wrestle with these things.”

I think that’s what’s such a great thing about working with kids this age, because you can say, “It’s your time to wrestle—do it.” But that’s if we give them permission, and a lot of times we don’t want to give them permission to do it, because it’s hard when they start questioning. We might not have the answers, and we want to be seen as the experts. We can say, “We don’t know, but let’s work on that question or that issue together.”

What, to you, creates belonging in church today, especially for young people?

I can only speak from my experience, but what created belonging for me when I chose to become a Catholic, in that particular parish—each church congregation’s cares are different. What each congregation does to express their faith in Jesus is what creates a sense of belonging. I went to Sacred Heart (in Joliet), and Sacred Heart at the time was a Catholic church that is pluralistic—we had Black, we had White, we had Latin, and it was very intentional that we chose to worship with songs of the African American experience. And the White people and the Latin people who were there also were very intentional in saying, “This is what we want; this is how we will express our faith.”

Eventually what happened was, after a while, when more of our Latinx brothers and sisters came, then we started to incorporate more of their music as well, as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe and All Saints Day. We were very intentional about making sure we honored all of the cultures that presented in our congregation because we truly believed that all cultures represent the body of Christ.

And then we were steeped in Gospel, steeped in the Bible, but Jesus charges us to do work of justice, so we were a congregation that worshiped and prayed together, but then after we worshiped and prayed together, we said, “What are the concerns of our brothers and sisters that we need to address?”

That’s what’s so great about Our Saviour’s—you do a lot of mission work and ministries, with Haiti Scholars, Slovakia, with Baby Care—you are trying to do works of justice and mercy.

You have plans to go back to school for your doctorate in community psychology. Why is that a particular passion for you?

I’m passionate about community psychology because I believe mental health is such a big issue in this day and age, especially after Covid, especially in the community that I live in, which is predominantly Black and Brown. We can’t afford just to see a therapist one-on-one, so we need to figure out ways to provide mental health in congregational settings.

My hope is to work in a congregation or some setting in Chicago—the Holy Spirit, you never know where she’s going to lead you. How do we make community psychology so it’s public, not private? Because mental health is a public issue, not a private issue. There’s so much need to do it and to do it well and to talk about it so that people are not ashamed to talk about issues.

You’ve had the opportunity to serve in Catholic churches, within the Lutheran church—what are some of the greatest opportunities and imperatives that you see in this moment for the Church?

For the Church in general, honestly, it’s to advocate for the dignity of work. Absolutely. I think that’s a big opportunity. I feel like in the pandemic we learned that those people we thought were not essential—fast-food workers, certified nursing assistants, grocery-store workers—those we thought just were not essential when we didn’t have a pandemic now became essential. And now we have a crisis of not having enough people who are working, but I feel like it’s a crisis of underinvestment in different communities. We could have, as the Church, been a little bit more like, “Every vocation has worth.”

We should not look down upon different types of careers; we should have been saying more like, “This person is doing this job; they deserve a living wage; they deserve to have shelter and food and not have to show up to food pantries.” I was executive director of a food pantry, and we had a food pantry, a preschool, an after-school program and a computer program for adults. And during our food pantry, a teller from Chase would come and get food. And we would think, “This is a teller from Chase,” right? A big banking institution, and she’s getting food from a food pantry because tellers are underpaid. We need to be more vocal about the dignity of work.

The other aspect is rest. I feel like our society is just running 24/7 on a hamster wheel, and we don’t even honor, within Church, the second commandment well—giving sabbath, allowing that to happen. We expect people to work themselves to exhaustion, and that is not of God. So I think those are two issues we need to wrestle with right now.

Nicole Waite, founder, Haiti Scholars

Nicole Waite is the founder of Haiti Scholars, a not-for-profit established in 2018 to provide education assistance in the form of scholarships, tutoring, and health and nutrition support to students at Centre D’Etudes Lumiere in Mariani, Haiti. (Haiti Scholars' biggest annual fundraiser, HaitiFest, is Saturday, Nov. 12; purchase tickets and find info here.) 

An Our Saviour's member since 1993, Nicole first traveled to Haiti as a chaperone for her daughter's youth group mission trip in 2014. The experience profoundly moved her, and in 2015, Nicole, a former first-grade teacher turned professional photographer, returned as an observer, documenting her experience in photographs. Three years later, with a team who felt similarly called, the groundwork for Haiti Scholars was laid.

You have shared the story of how, on your first trip to Haiti in 2014, you bumped into the principal of the Centre D'Etude Lumiere on a hillside and wound up talking with him about challenges in educating children in the Mariani community—you had observed that many children didn't attend school daily. You say you feel that conversation didn't happen by accident. What did the principal say that day that stuck with you?   

It was a gesture. I said to him, “How does it make you feel when there are so many children in this community who can’t go to school?” And he held his heart and he said, “Sad.” I remember it vividly.

One of the things that I asked Headmaster Sonel in 2014 was: “Could I come into the school and photograph? Can I see the teachers working, see the environment? That was such an eye-opening experience because these classrooms were underneath the church, terrible conditions; teachers have no supplies and students are crammed in on benches; there’s no lighting. I realized that the teaching situation there was very dismal. 

When we got home, I reached out to the group we went with, and to some of the people who knew Haiti, and I just felt like doors were closing. In 2015, I went back, and this time I went as an observer. I just watched, and I prayed on it a lot. And I took a ton of pictures of children that were happy and celebrating life, and people who were engaged—that sat by my desk where I worked every day, and I just couldn’t let if off of my heart.

I can’t explain it—the feeling would never go away. It was that strong.

I brought a team there in 2018 to discern whether this nonprofit was worth pursuing. And everyone said yes. But what we didn’t foresee was all that was in front of us. And so, really, we just kept plugging along, little by little. Haiti Scholars is not my organization—this is a team that God has orchestrated it; I truly believe that. He has brought amazing people to do amazing things to help this community.

What are some of Haiti Scholars' accomplishments that you're most proud of so far?

The No. 1 biggest accomplishment is we are continually able to add more scholarship students to our program. When we take on a student, we’re not going to see a student only through sixth grade, seventh grade; we will be with them until the end of graduation. And we offer that student then ways to succeed—after-school tutoring, Saturday programs where they meet once a month so they can get leadership training, life skills.

These children are some of the poorest in this community. Most of their parents don’t read or write; the daily necessities to survive are limited.

We asked our partners, “What do you need to give these children a better chance?” The first thing was resources—teaching supplies, school supplies. We immediately send those down with the youth team that was going down there after were there. Number two was a computer lab; we partnered together and built a computer lab. We support one computer lab instructor; they support the other.

People just showed up on this journey. Now we have a full-time nurse on staff who is implementing programs that she feels are critically important.

  • We’ve gone from where 60% to 70% of children in the community weren’t going to school to now, 15% don’t. That was the moment where I thought, “Oh my goodness; maybe we’re doing something right, maybe it’s working.”

We have an amazing team. We all get along famously, and we all enjoy and respect each other. Everybody seems to have their talent, their puzzle piece, and we listen really well to each other, and it’s all coming together to make this a really healthy organization.

How have you seen being part of Haiti Scholars change your fellow team members' lives?

Haiti has taught us to persevere. Haiti has taught us to trust in God’s path. Our friends in Haiti don’t complain; they don’t ask for anything. All they say is, “God will provide; we trust in God; and we give thanks.” At the worst of life, they have taught us how to persevere, and have faith, and move forward, humbly.

We can only do so much, and that’s the heartache. We only have so much money, and there’s such great need. And that’s a struggle, when you hear that in your school 96 people are malnourished and you can’t do anything because you don’t have the funds or the resources. That’s when you trust in prayer and you trust in God and you keep moving forward. 

  • You know, people will often say: Why Haiti? There are needs all around here.” And I think it’s just so simple: Why not?

You meet someone on the street, you have a friend who needs help, you help them. This just happens to be the community that we met that needed help. And you can’t turn your back. Everybody is our neighbor; we are all connected.

Education is so critical in a country like Haiti because it is the one thing that gives hope for a better future. As Kinley said, who is the No. 1 student in our class in 10th grade, "If I don’t have education, I have nothing."

You’ve been part of Our Saviour’s for nearly 30 years. What does being part of Our Saviour’s mean to you?

Haiti Scholars is family—Haiti Scholars is a community of people who embrace kindness, giving back, acceptance and love—and what the church is to Haiti Scholars is an anchor. They just give us such support in making us feel that we are doing God’s work and making a difference in this world. They are our anchor of support.