Becoming A Hero
I recently interviewed Diane Wamhoff who humbly describes herself as just another regular retired person. She’s a 67-year-old wife, mother, and grandmother, and as her story unfolded, an extraordinary hero too.
Prior to retiring Diane had been a bookkeeper for an accounting firm. She and her husband Bob, a financial planner, live in St. Charles, Missouri. After their son Timmy died in a car accident in 1993, at 23, Diane began searching for a way to honor his memory. In 2003 she was invited to travel with a church group to El Progresso, Honduras. The oldest volunteer, Diane helped build a home to get young girls off the street.
The Life Changer
While in El Progresso a local nun, Sister Terasita, asked if Diane would accompany her on a grueling, four-hour trip on a rutted dirt road up Brisas del Norte Mountain to a small village called Guaymitas. Diane agreed instantly when the nun mentioned the children there were starving to death. Four hours later she and Sister Terasita stood in front of a two-room, ramshackle, adobe elementary school that housed ninety students and one teacher.
A Heartbreaking Sight
Diane nearly fainted when Sister Terasita brought the students out to the schoolyard. Many had protruding bellies and hollow, sunken eyes, and all were in various stages of starvation. When Diane asked the nun what was wrong with them Sister Terasita took 11 of the 90, aside and told Diane these 11 children would all be dead in a month. They’d been eating weeds, leaves, and caterpillars and had a belly full of parasites. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine why none of the children knew their birthday.
The nearest town for work was seven miles down the mountain and there was no public transportation. Families in Guymitas were isolated and without public transportation. Diane had found a way to honor her son’s memory.
The children lived with their families in one-room, dirt-floor huts. One family of five lived in a pig stall, a major source of parasites. The water from the creeks was also parasite-ridden. There were no doctors. The church was empty and without a priest., and Sister Terasita was the only person trying to help.
Just A Kitchen
Sister Terasita asked if the church group could build a kitchen onto the school because the children were too hungry to learn, and the Honduran government had promised to donate rice and beans if the school had a kitchen. The church had to decline due to a lack of funds. But in Diane’s heart Timmy was telling her to get involved and she committed to building a kitchen, something she admittedly knew nothing about.
Before returning to Missouri, Diane spent time with the children, hugging them and promising to return and help. Back in El Progreso she was introduced to Judith Suazo, a nurse/attorney, who worked at a government run hospital. Judith knew a contractor who built the kitchen for Diane for $3,000. When Diane returned a few months later she discovered the government had reneged on its promise to provide free food. Judith and her two sons took Diane to a black market where they bought a propane stove, tables, chairs, and 50 pounds each of rice and beans. Judith promised to cook rice and beans for the schoolchildren once a week.
Diane and Bob raised enough money hosting a charity golf tournament in St. Charles to feed the children once a week at first. With additional charitable events and small contributions they were able to feed the children two, three, and eventually five times a week. Included with the food is a daily vitamin, milk, medication for parasites, fruits and vegetables, and clean drinking water. The swollen bellies began disappearing along with the sunken eyes and looks of despair.
In addition, Diane raised funds to increase the school’s grade level from sixth to eleventh grade. There are eight young men and women whose college educations are being paid for by Timmy’s Mountain, the foundation Diane and Bob named after their son. The only stipulation is that the students commit to returning after graduation to help the village. Dianne personally sponsored one young woman through medical school, the first to graduate in 2015.
Last year was a turning point for Dianne. At 67 she couldn’t continue the pace she’d been maintaining. Her 48-year-old daughter Vicki Rodell took over as full time administrator. While Diane retired from the daily task of running the foundation she still helps collect, polish, and bag used shoes by size. She also finds used clothing and furniture, all of which are shipped in containers once a year to Guaymitas. Her three grandsons also help, and Bob still handles the finances. They’re currently trying to get a grant to send eight more children to college this year at a cost of $1,400 each.
Timmy’s Mountain has built several, small adobe homes for families like the one living in a pig stall, and Diane continues to raise money to build more. She also set up a school to teach local women how to bake bread and sell it in the marketplace.
A Fair Question
When Diane is asked why she doesn’t help needy children here rather than Honduras, her answer is that people have places to turn to here. And while she wishes she could help every child in the world, Timmy guided her to the children of Guaymitas because they had no one else.
The Definition of Hero
By any definition Diane Wamhoff is a boomer hero. She saved starving children in a tiny speck on the planet that lives huge in her heart. Here is Timmy’s Mountain Website, www.justbecausewecare.com.
This story was recently published by Ken Solin at The Huffington Post. Check it out here.