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Nothing is Impossible

by Mary Jo Shannon

One of the most inspiring women I have ever met was Frances Landers, a housewife from El Dorado, Arkansas who began mission work in Haiti at the age of 60. She died this past September at the age of 93 – still working to bring hope through education to the children of that impoverished nation.

During that 33 year span she suffered colon cancer and chemotherapy, but still managed to speak throughout the country, spreading awareness of the desperate need for education in Haiti. Only through education, she believed, would Haitians stand a chance to move out of poverty.

Frances first visited that island nation in 1977 as she accompanied her husband, Dr. Gardner Landers, and assisted him in cataract surgery. Dr. Landers went twice each year because many Haitians develop cataracts early due to the bright sun,

One day as she was talking to Père Jean-Alfrid Albert, a Haitian Episcopal priest, a little girl asked the priest something in Creole and went away in tears at his reply. Curious, Frances asked what disturbed the child. “She wants to come to the school, but there isn’t room,” he replied. He had started a weekday school in the sanctuary of his mission church.

Frances couldn’t forget the look on the child’s face, and when she returned home she spoke to the members of her church and sought their help. The word spread and soon she raised enough money to build and operate an eight-room school.

Soon after that project, Père Albert felt God’s call to the mountains. No schools existed there. He challenged Frances to raise more money.

“Impossible!” she replied. “”It was all I could do to build one school – now you want many!”

His reply was calm, but confident. “If God wants schools in the mountains, there will be schools in the mountains.”

God must have wanted schools in the mountains. In 1989 Frances began what she called her “Kitchen Ministry.” Sitting at her kitchen table, she wrote letters to churches asking them to support her work. Her brochure with pictures of hopeful children emphasized how far a dollar will go in that impoverished country.

“Only $15,000 will build a concrete block school large enough to accommodate 400 children. Only $8000 will build a church. For $55.00 a child can attend school for one year, with a hot meal at lunch time.” Frances Landers paid all administrative costs; every penny went directly to the schools.

Frances began to expand her efforts. An extensive speaking schedule took her to churches throughout the country, showing her slides of the schools and the children, making friends and raising funds for Haiti. Although her husband passed away, she returned to Haiti at least twice each year to see for herself the needs and the progress her ministry had made.  She was especially close to members of the mission groups who went to establish relationships with the Haitians, help provide safe water, and hold medical clinics.

When Père Albert died of pancreatic cancer in 2005, there were 40 schools in the mountains – 30 elementary and 10 high schools. A total of 13,000 children were enrolled. But his ministry went on as Frances Landers, now 88 years old, continued to work with the young priests who succeeded him. Frances established a non –profit organization, The Haiti Education Fund (HEF) and trained faithful friends to manage it. She was adamant in maintaining the promise that 100% of funds go directly to the schools in Haiti. She continued to visit Haiti until she was well into her nineties.

The 7.0 earthquake in January of 2010 destroyed four schools and the guest house at Cherident. But Frances —  who used the word HOPE more than any other word in the English language– said, “The situations we have believed to be the worst possible thing to happen in Haiti have brought the richest blessings.” The earthquake brought Haiti to the world’s attention.

Susan Turbeville, the daughter of Mary Jo Turbeville who has been a loyal co-worker for many years, took Frances’ place as fundraiser when the cancer returned. In the last letter I received from Frances two months before her death, she said, “Susan travels so much to make talks and has lots of news articles to write… Since I like to write letters and design the memorial and gift cards, we are a good team.”

So many incredibly successful ministries that touch, heal and even save lives seem to start with a sense of “there’s just no way…”

But of course with God there always is.

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