Mitchell arranges mission trips to Peru, Cuba

Published 1:39 am Sunday, July 1, 2007

NATCHEZ — Peru, Cuba and Natchez have something, or someone, in common.

Joe Mitchell, development director for the Natchez Children’s Home, is “Mr. Joe” locally, but is better known as “Pepe,” the Spanish nickname for Joseph, or “Uncle Pepe,” in Peru and Cuba where he does frequent mission work.

Mitchell and his wife relocated to Natchez six years ago after growing up in the Delta and working in orphanages in Columbus and in North Carolina.

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“My family and my wife’s family are here,” he said. “Plus, I feel privileged to be a part of this local mission.”

The Natchez Children’s Home, founded in 1816, is the oldest, continually operating children’s home in the United States, Mitchell said. And it constantly needs funds.

That’s where Mitchell’s trips come into play. He spends his time in Natchez working to raise funds for the local home and the trips. Ten percent of the money raised for trips stays at the Natchez Children’s Home, the rest goes to orphanages abroad.

In July and again in August, Mitchell and a team of no less than six travelers that may consist of doctors, teachers and others willing to serve will embark on another journey to Peru. This will be his 28th trip as an emissary of goodwill to Peru or Cuba.

“The idea of these trips was founded on building relationships, long-lasting friendships with others for the benefit of the Children’s Home,” Mitchell said. “This is an outreach to other parts of the world with similar situations.”

But more than the children in the Natchez Children’s Home are assisted.

A diversified group provides health physicals and additional medical needs. They pay for dental care. They’ve even helped supply a water system. But more important they provide a message of Christian love and caring as they visit Peru’s four orphanages and a nursing home.

“I could tell thousands of stories about how we have made a difference,” Mitchell said. “Many of these children don’t have anybody but us.”

Mitchell remembers the young man in Peru who had not been able to see out of his right eye for nine years. Thanks to the big heart of one of the members of Mitchell’s group, the boy was sent to an ophthalmologist for full sight recovery.

With the unemployment rate in some parts of Peru at a steady 50 percent, the economy is to blame for the size of the orphanages and their growing list of needs, Mitchell said.

“There’s desperation in some people, and they abandon their children just because they cannot feed them.”

Mitchell calls some of his children in Peru street children because they have grown up on the streets and learned all types of clever ways to survive. Sixteen-year-olds shine shoes and sell gum to keep their sisters in school or to provide for their ailing mother.

“Henry has to be the best little pickpocket I’ve ever seen,” Mitchell said. “He lived on the street since he was probably about 3 years old. Henry told me stories of how he was mistreated.

“It makes me so mad to think about what happened to him. I want to meet just one of these people. But Henry, in his 16-year-old wisdom, told me to forgive them. He has. He prays for them. Adversity teaches depth of faith.”

In addition to children’s ministry, the team visited a church-sponsored nursing home, bringing a little joy into lives by providing money, meds and merriness.

“We even dance with them.”

Mitchell said it was fun to teach the elderly and the children how to dance the “Hokey Pokey.”

“How can a country expect to survive if they can’t do the ‘Hokey Pokey?’ That’s what it’s all about,” he said laughing.

As for those trips to Cuba, Mitchell stresses that he has traveled there legally with a special license for religious and humanitarian work. Their last trip was three weeks ago and he plans to return in October.

“I fell in love with the people in Cuba,” he said. “There are some of the nicest people in the world there.”

In his visits to Cuba, the group enhances the work of the church by providing medicines, such as antibiotics and over-the-counter pain relievers and other resources that meet the needs of some of the children.

“We’ve provided food for elementary children. We’ve taken guitar strings, drum sticks and reeds for (musical) instruments.”

Since baseball is much like a religion there, Mitchell said they’ve even carried a dozen or more baseballs for the children. Some of the greatest musicians in the world are there, too.

“There is a huge sense of community (in Cuba). The level of generosity from the poorest people in the western hemisphere where the average worker makes about $10 a month is unbelievable.”

Even though Mitchell has learned Spanish in order to communicate on his trips, he does have local guides assist his team.

“I have never felt unsafe. There is such warmth. The hostility is not between the people and us, it is between our two governments.”

Mitchell has a vision, too.

“I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” he said. “I am having fun at work. Plus, we have five new programs (at the Children’s Home), including a counseling service and a preschool center.”

The monies raised for these trips benefit the local children’s home as well as the needy in Peru and Cuba.

“I supply a budget for our friend raising, fundraising trips,” Mitchell said. “Most of the people who go are what I call repeat offenders. These trips touch their lives. Seeing the need and making differences for so many, changes their lives.”

Mitchell said that anyone interested in going on one of these 10- to 15-day excursions, or in making opportunities available for children in Natchez and in Peru or Cuba, can contact him at the Natchez Children’s Home.

“After all,” he said. “It isn’t about me. This is about kids. This is about reaching kids in need.”