Kindness reigns in this parade
Column by Ann Macari Healey
Sometimes, you can't stop the parade, especially when it's fueled by quiet goodness and an abiding conviction that the smallest effort makes a difference.
Sometimes, you just have to jump into the line and see where it takes you.
That's what high school teacher Bob Sutterer and his Rum-Dums did.
“We feel we don't really know what we're doing,” says Bob, with a smile. “But none of us really feels like we should walk away — so we just keep walking forward.”
One hopeful step at a time.
The path is taking him and his small troupe to Liberia, a battle-ravaged country struggling to find its way after two successive civil wars dismantled its economic and educational infrastructure.
“The challenge is huge,” says Robert Sondah, an educator in Liberia from whom Bob has learned much. “Our society has been broken.”
But to fully understand Bob's connection to this small West African country, you must first retrace the route back 17 years to a Minnesota basement and a rickety table with file folders stacked by a man who repeatedly showed his family what it meant to care.
“I remember walking into the kitchen and Dad was cooking ribs — mounds of food,” Bob says. “I'd say, `Oooh, we're going to eat well!' And he'd say, `They're for so-and-so-and-so-and-so ... someone with illness in their family or who had lost their job.”
His dad, Dittmar Sutterer, was the son of a pastor from a small Minnesota town. Now 82, he spent his life as a teacher, paper industry employee and school custodian.
Always, “he was making and giving things to other people,” Bob says.
So, it didn't surprise anyone when Dittmar, after befriending members of the large Liberian refugee community in Minneapolis, began supporting an orphanage in the country where 85 percent of its people live below the international poverty line.
He established a small, informal nonprofit comprised mainly of neighbors on his street and ran it from the table in his basement, writing necessary communication on a manual typewriter. Eventually, the bridge he built carried more than 7,000 books, about $90,000 to help create and modernize schools from thatched-roof into cement-walled structures and 178 55-gallon barrels of clothing, medical supplies and food.
In 2007, after 11 years of guiding this outreach, Dittmar, beginning to feel the weight of his years, gave notice to family, friends and partners in Liberia that he would retire the following year.
“A lot of his supporters were aging, too,” Bob says. “It was kind of a natural wind-down of the entire process.”
But, as Bob looked at what his father had done, he and his wife, Lisa, began to marvel: “We were amazed that one guy, a retired senior citizen, could start something that grew to something really significant.”
That's when the parade beckoned.
Bob visited Liberia in 2010, driving down muddy roads through lush jungles to villages where kids ran down hills as he arrived and teachers shook his hands in gratitude. He found unexpected memories of home, too.
“I saw books that were on my shelf on their shelves,” Bob says. “I saw kids running around in Minnesota jerseys.”
He returned to Colorado completely overwhelmed, knowing only the need for education was immense and feeling a fascinating curiosity spark about what, just maybe, could happen if someone cared enough.
“Education,” Bob says, “should be something everyone should get a shot at.”
He began writing to friends, and like his father before him, recruited a small neighborly band. They include his wife, a middle school social studies teacher; a marketing executive; a physician's assistant; a school principal; an accountant; and a college professor. They call themselves the Rum-Dums because they're figuring it out as they go.
They've connected with the nonprofit Vision Trust in Colorado Springs, a Christian organization whose goal is to provide at-risk children in Africa, Asia and the Americas with education, food and medical care.
That's how they met Robert and his wife, Siakor, who oversee six schools with 54 teachers and more than 2,600 students in kindergarten through ninth grades. The couple was recently in Colorado for training with Vision Trust and strategy meetings with the Rum-Dums.
They are passionate about their mission.
“We're hoping to develop a new generation of leadership in our country,” Robert says. “We're hoping the kids will grow up to know God and become the leaders who will help the people and bring back to the community.”
Apart from the mission connection, a true friendship forged on mutual admiration is growing.
Bob is consistently moved by the devoted commitment Robert and Siakor, parents of four children themselves, bring each day to plant roots for successful lives in the children under their watch.
“It's truly inspiring ... to give to so many kids,” Bob says. “There's a simple but profound goodness in that.”
Robert and Siakor see that virtue in American culture rather than their own.
“You (Americans) can't just live for yourselves,” Robert says. “You have to empty yourself into other people.”
Siakor acknowledges the different cultures and environments. “But,” she says, “we are all working for the common good — so we can make the world better.”
Maybe that's what the parade represents, a chance to become part of something greater than ourselves.
For Bob, the journey has been a multi-faceted blessing.
As a teacher, “it's fascinating professionally to apply the things I've been doing my whole life in a different way.”
As a father, “it's a good kind of family legacy and a good teaching moment for my kids.”
As a son, “it was a way to honor my father.”
It's about faith, too.
“There are about three times in my life that God has tapped me on my shoulder when I've gotten the sense this is something I should be doing.”
There's a true story Bob likes to tell about a parade.
It goes likes this: One New Year's Day when San Diego resident Bob Goff's kids were bored, he suggested a neighborhood parade. The only rule — no one could watch. Everyone had to participate. A few neighbors joined and marched down the street. Years later, hundreds march in a parade that has become a grand tradition.
Bob recounted that story when he first approached the Rum-Dums about helping children half a world away find their future.
And then he said: “There's this parade that's happening. Do you want to just grab something and jump in?”
All it takes is one hopeful step.
Aren't you curious to see where it will end?
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.