When Tom and Mary Pat Roovers married 55 years ago, they never would have dreamed that their life together would include leading 85 humanitarian trips to Jamaica and Kenya. “Whoever would think we would end up in Africa?” Mary Pat says with a laugh. “All those years ago, we hardly knew where it was!”
For the past 24 years, this faith-filled couple from St. Matthew Parish in Wausau, along with about 360 equally faithful volunteers from all over the country, have made a huge impact in parts of the world most people only read about.
“It all began when a missionary nun came to St. Matthew Parish to make an appeal,” Tom remembers. “She was telling us about the poverty in Jamaica and asked our parish to become a sister parish.” Tom says he had spent 10 years doing missionary work in St. Lucia with Good News and he thought he had a good sense of what poverty was. “After Mass, we talked with Sister Connie and I admitted that I couldn’t believe there was that kind of poverty in Jamaica. She said, ‘Come, then, and see for yourself.’” The couple and four other parishioners did just that, and the experience changed the course of their lives forever. “Mary Pat and I had never been to Jamaica and we assumed some things,” Tom admits. “Boy, were we wrong.”
It’s very important that we respect and acknowledge the local people’s skills. We ask them to teach us, not the other way around.”
“When we came back from that first trip, we gave a presentation to the Parish Council and they decided the parish would send money quarterly,” Mary Pat says. “But we knew we could do so much more than that.”
With support from St. Matthew Parish, Tom and Mary Pat established Helping Hands, a volunteer organization that provides “an opportunity to make a difference for people who are struggling to survive in Third World countries.”
“Our work evolved slowly,” Tom says. “About a dozen volunteers went with us to Jamaica to help build a school out in the bush, a rural area. But when we saw how the people were living, some of the volunteers wanted to come back and build houses, too.”
And build they did. For the past two decades, Helping Hands volunteers have made 66 trips to Jamaica, building new schools, homes, churches, medical clinics, a sausage factory and a commercial greenhouse. They’ve also repaired roofs, constructed outdoor toilets and kitchens and refurbished orphanages, rectories and convents.
But Helping Hands doesn’t just focus on construction work. They have also collected and sent more than 3,000 tons (204 overseas containers) of much needed supplies and materials, valued at more than $34.5 million. “We collect things that might otherwise end up in a landfill, such as medical and school equipment and supplies, household items and much more, and send them to people who can make good use of them,” Tom says.
And they accomplish all of this without general fundraising. “It’s all done by word of mouth, including recruiting volunteers,” Mary Pat says. “We don’t spend our time on fundraising or advertising. We devote our time to giving hope.”
In 2002, Helping Hands expanded its efforts into Africa, following a trip that Mary Pat and Tom took to Kenya. “We went to Mass on a Sunday morning in Kenya, and the church was a hut inside a large stone block structure,” Tom says. The couple learned the locals had been working on this structure for about 17 years. “They saved money—about $5 or $10 U.S.—and every six months they could afford to go to the quarry and mine about 30-40 stones to add to the structure,” he explains. “When I asked how long it would take to finish, they said about another 15 years.
I was shocked.”
“As we flew home from that trip, Tom said ‘We can finish that church,’” Mary Pat continues. “The next year, we took 24 volunteers and completed the church in a little over two weeks. The locals were so grateful, but we couldn’t have done it without them.” While there, the volunteers saw the need for housing and expressed an interest in returning. Since then, Helping Hands has made 19 humanitarian trips to Kenya, building and refurbishing as they do in Jamaica.
Construction experience is not necessary for Helping Hands volunteers. “The locals know how to do most everything, they simply have no resources,” Tom explains. “They have no shovel, no hammer or nails, they can’t afford it. Our approach is, we are there to bring resources and to work side-by-side with the locals.”
Mary Pat agrees. “We have had some volunteers with construction background, but they soon learn that they have to leave that behind because things are done so differently in Jamaica and Kenya. We don’t try to westernize the locals, they don’t need that. We do things their way.”
“It’s very important that we respect and acknowledge the local people’s skills,” Tom adds. “We ask them to teach us, not the other way around.”
There are multiple ways to support the work of Helping Hands, through monetary donations, supplies or volunteer work. “The people we serve need a combination of all three, but the greatest gift we share with them is hope. And the greatest gift they share with us is their Faith,” Tom says. “A new house gives a whole village hope that the poorest of the poor will be served. Providing a way for a family to obtain water without making long trips to the river is huge. This is accomplished by purchasing donated water tanks and installing rain gutters on the house. Every little thing provides them hope. And hope in the Lord is all that many of them have.”
Even the smallest of gifts can become something special. “On one trip, we went to a primary school and did projects with the schoolchildren,” Mary Pat remembers. “When we left the class, we gave each child a new pencil. One little boy cried because he had never had a pencil before. He was so overwhelmed that this was his pencil! Can you imagine? In the United States, school supplies are often thrown in the dumpster at the end of a school year. And this child cried because, for the first time in his life, he had a pencil all his own.”
The couple believes volunteering in poverty-stricken countries can be a life-changing experience. “If you come into it with an open heart, the experience is priceless,” Mary Pat says. “After just a few days together, our volunteers bond and become like family.”
“For volunteers to see the joy and Faith of the people they serve is incredible,” Tom adds. “The locals may have nothing, they may sleep on a dirt floor, have rags for clothes and not enough to eat, but they praise the Lord constantly. That experience is priceless for the volunteers. It has an incredible impact and gives them a completely different perspective. They realize what is important in life.”
The locals may have nothing, they may sleep on a dirt floor, have rags for clothes and not enough to eat, but they praise the Lord constantly.”
Most volunteers agree that participating in Sunday Mass is the highlight of their experience. “The singing and dancing at Mass can last for two or three hours and it’s just incredible,” Mary Pat says. “There is such complete joy, and the locals are so thankful to the Lord for all their blessings, even though they may have no idea what they will eat when they go home after Mass.”
Tom and Mary Pat’s four children and five grandchildren have accompanied them on a number of humanitarian trips. “One year, the entire family went to Jamaica for Christmas,” Mary Pat says. “It was an eye-opener. There were no Christmas trees, no lights, no presents; it was just another day for the locals. It was important for the grandchildren to understand that everybody doesn’t have as much as we do. We hope that it will plant a seed of what they should be doing when they grow up.” Their son, TJ, usually devotes his Christmas to Jamaica, providing the most needy families with a Christmas meal and some small gifts for the children.
While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down their overseas trips, Helping Hands has found new opportunities to continue its humanitarian work. “Helping Hands supporters have provided the funds so our local Kenya Helping Hands members can purchase and distribute food for families who are in desperate need,” Tom explains.
Helping Hands is looking forward to returning to Kenya in January 2021, with a group of volunteers, to continue their hands-on service. Even though Tom and Mary Pat are of an age when most people are sitting back and enjoying retirement, this couple can’t imagine giving up their volunteer service. “What’s retirement? Many 20-year-olds can’t keep up with us!” Tom says with a laugh. “The simple reason is we know this is what we should be doing. It’s why we are here.”
Mary Pat agrees wholeheartedly. “We wake up every morning with a purpose. What could be better than that?”
Tom and Mary Pat emphasize that Helping Hands would not exist without the generous volunteers and supporters, and the faith-filled people in Jamaica and Kenya who allow them into their lives.
“We’re mere instruments,” Tom says. “We thank the Lord every day that we’ve been blessed with this opportunity.”
If you are interested in additional information or would like to make a contribution, contact Tom and Mary Pat Roovers, c/o of Helping Hands, 480 Artesian Way, Wausau, WI 54401; 715.842.4270; or [email protected].
MARY ELLEN BLISS
Published December 2020 Catholic life Issue