By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Throughout the last 15 years, these words of Jesus Christ, recorded in Matthew 25, have taken root in the life of Susan Wood of Cokato, who helped start the nonprofit organization Without Borders International after meeting members of the deaf and disabled communities of Lima, Peru.
Wood’s heart went out to these people after taking a short-term mission trip with her church, Grace Church in Eden Prairie, to its sister church Lima in 2001.
Having a background in sign language interpretation, Wood chose to serve on the deaf team, through which she formed many friendships with the deaf people of Lima.
As her stay continued, and she made a return trip in 2005, the needs of deaf and disabled Peruvians became more and more apparent.
“Peru is very behind in its ways of treating people with disabilities,” Wood stated, comparing the country’s approach and understanding to that of 1930s America.
“I have two sisters with disabilities,” shared Wood. “I know what the system is here, and it’s not perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than it is there.”
For instance, Wood explained that disabled Americans have social security disability payments, while disabled Peruvians do not receive any financial support.
On top of that, Wood said it is typical for the father to leave his family if a child is disabled, overwhelming the mother in having to care for her children and provide an income.
“We really believe that the church has to step up to the plate, and say, ‘These people are made in the image of God, just like every other person. They deserve dignity and respect and a better standard of living than what they’ve been given,’” Wood stated. “Hopefully, if the church starts stepping up, then the culture will start stepping up and eventually change the tide.”
With the intent of reaching that goal, Wood unofficially started WBI with three other individuals in 2007, to improve the lives of the disadvantaged “by providing critical services to help them spiritually, vocationally, emotionally, and socially.”
The organization formally launched in 2012, after acquiring a 501(c)(3). In 2016, Wood left her career in financing to become fully invested in the mission.
The other founders have since moved on to another ministry.
Giving the deaf a language
One of the areas WBI is involved with is creating a deaf-friendly education system.
Typically, children are not diagnosed in Peru as being deaf until they are 5 or 6 years old, meaning they go at least five years of their life without any language whatsoever.
As a result, they perform poorly once enrolled in the regular school system (some without any interpreters, and are often instructed with an audible curriculum), causing many not to graduate or acquire a job as an adult.
In order to give these students proper education, WBI is involved with the development of a deaf school a new concept to the country.
“They’ve just finished up their first full school year,” which runs from April to December, stated Wood. “The strides that these [six] kids have made has been phenomenal. To see their critical thinking skills, and their ability to think on their own and their grasp of language it’s just crazy.”
To reach deaf adults, WBI supports a deaf man who teaches sign language to members of the Lima Cercado church in Lima so they can better serve the city’s deaf community.
Thirty individuals, ages 10 to 87, recently graduated from his instruction.
He also reaches out through Bible studies, fellowship, and advocating for the deaf.
Caring for the disabled
In aiding the disabled community, WBI is involved with two groups. One is operated by Peruvian Victoria Moreno, who cares for about 200 children with severe disabilities in a poor mountain region called Pachacutec.
Among the millions of people of Lima, only one hospital treats children with disabilities. According to Wood, the journey to this hospital often requires a two-hour bus ride one way, which is especially overwhelming for families whose children or teenagers cannot walk. As a result, many children do not receive the treatment they need.
To help change this, WBI has prospects of setting up a house for Moreno, where she could keep all of the needed equipment and have therapists and doctors on hand to treat patients.
While the journey would still have its challenges, the location and convenience would be easier for families to handle.
WBI also collaborates with another woman who wants to start a day program for disabled adults every Saturday, which is an unheard of opportunity.
It is more common for these adults to not do anything but sit at home all day, because their mothers are out working and there is nowhere else for them to go.
Eventually WBI would like the day program to expand to include Mondays through Fridays as well as daily meals.
Currently, it is working towards providing one meal each Saturday.
As the program grows, its building could then be used for evening early childhood family education programs, such as teaching parents sign language so they can communicate with their child.
“The possibilities are endless,” Wood said.
Mending lives with mittens
Back home in the states, Wood spends much of her time cutting fabric and sitting at her sewing machine, repurposing wool sweaters into mittens to sell towards the cause.
The idea originally started when she received a sweater-pair of mittens as a Christmas gift in 2011.
“They didn’t fit me very well, but I thought the idea was really cool,” said Wood. “So then, I just made my own.”
Wood continued making sweater mittens for family members, and her sister suggested she should sell them.
Even though she was not sure where she would find the time to make that commitment, Wood realized selling the mittens could serve two purposes: raising money for WBI, and opening the door to conversation about what the organization is doing in Lima.
“It’s kinda gotten crazy from there,” she stated. “I can hardly keep up with making them.”
Each mitten is lined with polar fleece and made from sweaters of at least 75 percent wool. They are available in two sizes.
In addition to crafting sweaters found or donated (which are tax deductible to the donor), Wood has also started sewing “heritage mittens,” which are made from the sweater of a customer’s deceased relative for their family members.
“I love to sew,” Wood commented. “So, to me, it’s the perfect blend of something I can do creatively.”
Sweater mittens can be purchased or ordered by contacting Wood at (952) 465-5127 or firstname.lastname@example.org. All proceeds go to support WBI.