Miles in their Shoes
— Julie Cramer · Tuesday, August 29, 2017 —
For 39 of 40 years of marriage, Will and Candace Stark have lived in Candace’s hometown of Lancaster, Texas, where they raised their two now-adult children, Julia and Joel, among the rolling farms and pop-up produce stands that linger long into pumpkin season. Their lives have been as rich as the Lone Star State soil. Will recently retired as a dentist, and Candace, a social worker (lmsw), continues as a program director for Child Protective Services, where she has worked for the past 33 years. But an entirely different corner of the world has captured their hearts over the years—drawing them to come back, summer after summer.
When Julia Stark, now 33, left home to attend Texas Tech University in Lubbock, she could not foresee that her decision would take her entire family—and church home of First Baptist Church
Lancaster—along with her on a journey to an Eastern European country only a smidge bigger than West Virginia. After graduation, she moved to Dallas, where she went to work for a program called Shoes for Orphan Souls, where Amy Norton—now Orphan Outreach’s Vice President of Strategic Partnerships—was her boss.
“The first trip to Latvia for me was the shoe trip in 2007,” Julia says. “It surprised me how the kids looked so much like me and could have been part of my family. I felt so close to them even though I didn’t know the language. We traveled all over the country, and seeing the kids—who could be my kid, or my sister or brother, but in such different conditions—was eye-opening.”
“In 2008, Will and I reached out to our church family and were able to get a group together to go,” Candace says. “We really loved Latvia and felt a real calling to minister there."
Eventually, the nonprofit that Julia worked for ended the program, but the family’s desire to return to Latvia only grew. Having maintained a friendship with Amy Norton, Julia knew Orphan Outreach had begun to work in Latvia in 2012. A year later, she rang her former boss.
“It all started with Orphan Outreach,” she says. “At the Day Center in Liepaja, you could see that it was a family feel and the kids just hung out there as much as possible because it was ‘home’ and they were loved and safe from the support they received. It’s been so neat to see the change over the years.”
“I was a little surprised at how much the Day Center affected each of us emotionally,” Candace says. “We cried often during our meetings with the staff, and we cried when we came back to report to our church about the trip. We still do because we care for them so much. The biggest challenge is the language barrier. Some children speak Russian and some speak Latvian so everything we do in groups has to be translated twice. After the first two years, we decided to devote our time to the Day Center since others were not going there.
Now we can’t imagine not being there and being involved with this ministry. I believe that if you think a short-term mission trip is wasteful, you must have never been on one.
We began taking short-term mission trips with our children through our church when they were in junior high. Those trips were meaningful to my husband and me, but were especially meaningful as we saw the effect they had on our children.
I didn’t feel called to be a full-time missionary, but going on short-term mission trips feeds my soul in a way that nothing else does.”
Now, after five trips to the Day Center in Latvia, the Starks are more than welcomed guests. The children await their arrival like relatives who have made a long journey home—and rush to hug them when they finally spot their faces. For one girl, however, this wasn’t always the case, Candace says. “She had a scowl on her face most of the time, and her way of getting your attention would be to punch you on the arm. She didn’t hug you like the other children would,” she says. “On the third trip, two of our group delivered groceries to her apartment and saw the sad situation where she lived. It broke everyone’s heart. But the good news was that, after spending time at the center, our special little girl had begun to change. We began to see her smile more and interact with others. This summer, she immediately came to us and gave each of us a big hug and a smile.”
Transformations like this are what draw the Starks to return. They not only have seen the Day Center children grow and change, but also the children they sponsor through Orphan Outreach. “It’s so special to see them grow up,” Candace says.
“What stands out for me is the look on a child’s face when you’ve seen them before and you call them by name after not seeing them for a year. They are always beaming because they know they are important.”
“They can’t believe you are back,” Julia says. “Short-term missions to me just opens your heart and soul to something different than your normal life. Then, once you do it, you can’t go back to normal life. Opening up my heart and life to Latvia and the kids at the Day Center by going on short-term trips has just made me think of life different. I want the kids to know the Lord, and I want them to dream—and to dream big. Many don’t because they think they can’t get out of the cycle or the hole they are in.”
When the Starks return to their home in the States, it is their church family that eagerly awaits their arrival and stories during an annual presentation they give at a Wednesday night service. “Several people tell me that they can’t wait to hear about it, and they’ll listen to every word for an hour or more while we share our stories. Our church is very small now and has a majority of older people. They will always say, ‘I can’t go, but I’m going to support all of you.’ They help to pay for about half of each person’s trip and donate any supplies that we need.
We’ve always been a church that gave generously to missions, but putting our feet to the actual work has added a new dimension to our church.We could not do it without them.”
The picture Candace paints of Liepaja for her home team church is that of a “quaint Eastern European city, but when you cross the beautiful bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel from Liepaja to Karosta—the Naval Port area—it’s like a different world,” she says. “You see some apartments that look fairly nice and a beautiful Russian Orthodox church with gold turrets. Then you see shabby, square block apartments where most of the Day Center children live. The good news is that when they come to the Day Center, it is a bright spot in a sad landscape. It’s like a light in the darkness, a place of safety and love.”
Both mother and daughter relish their travels to Latvia as well as other destinations. Julia, who works for Morning Star Tours, a company that plans group travel to locations with biblical significance such as Israel and Turkey, gets her fair share. And while the two college football fans anticipate the autumn and a chance to root for their teams—“Wreck ‘Em!”—they also look forward to each summer and the “wheels up” moment when they are on their way, once again, to Liepaja and the soon-to-be smiling kids.