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Tampa teachers' dream to live abroad comes true

Tampa teachers' dream to live abroad comes true

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Tampa teachers' dream to live abroad comes true

Jan. 29, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0433}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

TAMPA — It all started out very innocently.

TAMPA — Suzanne and John Baskett, members of Hyde Park United Methodist Church, take a moment for themselves at a Starbucks in Tampa while home for two weeks in December. The Tampa residents signed up for a two-year teaching stint in El Salvador after answering their call to serve abroad. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-302.

In December 2004 a couple, both teachers, told fellow teachers Suzanne and John Baskett their two-year stint in El Salvador was complete and suggested the Basketts consider taking their place.

The idea immediately struck a chord.

Throughout their 35 years of marriage the Basketts had secretly harbored the dream of living abroad. Now that their children were adults, it seemed like that idea might actually be possible. The seed to move to El Salvador was further watered the following Sunday when the couple attended their church, Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, and heard the first sermon of the Rev. Bernard Lieving's two-week series about Christians having the responsibility of listening to God.

The Basketts had listened and heard God calling them. The sermon confirmed it.

"We had the security of a three-car-garage home and all the things that come with it, but we knew if we were going to do it we were going to have to commit our heart and soul," John told e-Review during a two-week hiatus in the United States last December. "So we put the house on the market, gave away some furniture, stored some furniture and sold the rest. We kept very little ... one car. We knew we had to do it."

Next, the Basketts notified their employer, the Hillsborough County School Board, of their plans. Because of their tenure they were told they would receive their choice of available teaching positions when they returned.

Everything fell into place. The Basketts formally accepted teaching positions with the American School in El Salvador in February 2005, completed the school year in Tampa and found themselves in a whole new world that summer.

They knew they would be among teachers who taught children of the staff at the world's second largest embassy. Their students would be 40 percent American and 60 percent local. The capital, where they would reside, would have all the trappings and comforts of any modern city. But while the Basketts were settling into their new life, Mother Nature gave them an unexpected welcoming party.

A tornado ripped through the country, a volcano erupted and caused the evacuation of thousands of people, and Hurricane Stan embedded itself in a larger system of rainstorms across El Salvador, Mexico and Guatemala that brought torrential rain and mudslides. The combination of events devastated the lives of people living in El Salvador's backcountry, according to the Basketts.

"These are people who have nothing to start with," Suzanne said. " ... We heard stories of men lifting babies on (to) riverbanks before the men were washed away by the mud. People literally had nothing but the shirts on their backs. Women were nursing their babies and the babies of mothers who died in the mudslide. It was something else."

The Basketts launched into action by taking food from their own cupboards and going door-to-door in the teaching compound collecting more food to take to the backcountry. They loaded their four-by-four with all it could carry and set off for the area, 45 miles away. Since much of the roads had been washed away, the journey took four and a half hours.

When they arrived they found 150 people, 96 of them children, standing in a circle in the church, the only remaining building in the village. The people had been praying God would send food  — something they hadn't had in days — and people to help. When they saw the car loaded with food they didn't immediately rush to it. Instead, they thanked God for answering their prayers.

While the Basketts distributed the food villagers told them entire families had been washed away in the mudslides. They knew they had to do more and returned to the village in the coming days to help meet people's emotional needs.

The Basketts coordinated what they referred to as a mental health day to play with children who had forgotten how to be children while dealing with their tremendous loss. They gave mothers a break by playing jump rope with their children, drawing photos, using Play-Doh and popping popcorn.

The couple returned to the comfort of their home, complete with Internet access, electricity and indoor plumbing — all the things people in the village could only dream of having — and knew there was still more to do. Yet, they had literally given every penny of their own personal financial resources for the supplies they had already delivered.

Help came when a member of their church in Tampa heard television news reports about what was happening in El Salvador and sent an e-mail asking if there was anything choir members could do. They sent $450, which purchased a large quantity of food in a country where a person's average annual income hovers around $2,300, according to UNICEF. The Basketts bought about three tons of food, including 100-pound bags of corn, flour and soymilk, and other necessities, like diapers. It was enough to give people a two-month supply of food.

They also bought 3,000 Ziploc bags and began making family packs of essentials. Knowing the job was too big to do alone they enlisted help from other teachers and turned their front yard and home into a staging area.

The mission team at the Tampa church sent an additional $1,000, and the Basketts decided it would go toward rebuilding the destroyed home of the pastor of the church in the village they had been helping. He and his wife had been living at the church. The average cost to build a home in El Salvador is about $6,000, so they felt they were off to a good start.

"We thought if he was given a home first, he could better take care of the people," Suzanne said.

The Basketts don't see themselves as an inspiration to others or even refer to themselves as missionaries. They say they are just people who saw a need in others and did their best to fill it.

And that's enough for them. Although the last six months have been filled with turmoil caused by the weather, they don't waver in saying it has been the best six months of their lives.

"What we did is not for everybody," Suzanne said. "Some missionaries who come to the area get burned out because there is so much to be done in the small, remote villages. They lose their enthusiasm because the mountain is too tall. What we do is what we can, then take a breath at home, have a hot meal, a hot shower and get away from it."

John agrees. "It can be crushing to the spirit so see so much need; you feel like you're putting a Band-Aid on it," he said. "We have the spirit, energy and desire to do what we can, but we also can walk away and rejuvenate ourselves. That makes it easier to give a lot, get a lot done in a short period of time."

John said the help they have given has been from the heart.

"We are fully dedicated," he said. "We do by example; we never preach. I just want to be the best person I can be. I know that God sent me there, and I want to be a good representative of him. I want to honor him."

John, who spent 30 years in the retail industry before becoming a teacher and Suzette, a stay-at-home mother for those years, said they have only one regret — not realizing their dream sooner. Although they miss their children, ages 32, 30 and 26, holidays, Tuesday night dinners with family and the simple things, like having Starbucks coffee and such teaching luxuries as colored paper, they say it has been a good experience overall.

"This has been a sacrifice well worth making," Suzanne said. "We see the world in a whole new light. This has been a happy, amazing experience."


This article relates to Outreach and Missions.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.