Your Catholic Neighbor
Faith guided by mission spirit
Trip to Africa opens door to missionary outreach for Oshkosh's Altepeter
By Jaye Alderson
OSHKOSH -- The plight of the poor sometimes can be hard to comprehend, especially those who live in other countries. A decade ago, Carla Altepeter of Oshkosh went to Africa on a work assignment and stayed on for a safari in Zimbabwe. There, at a luxurious conservation camp, a director complained how neighboring people didn't know how to farm their land and poached on conservation land.
She thought, "If I was hungry and needed to feed my family, I'd be doing the same thing."
It could take as little as $150 to feed a family there for a year. Back in her room, she realized she probably had $150 worth of face creams, soaps and accessories in her luggage.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I knew then I had to do something to help the poor," Altepeter said. "We live in such excess in the United States and have more than what we need."
Altepeter had considered serving in the Peace Corps when she was young. Now, many commitments demand her time and attention close to home. She is president and CEO of CitizensFirst Credit Union in Oshkosh. Her husband, Thomas, is a psychologist and director of behavioral health at Aurora Medical Group, and both actively give back to their community.
While Altepeter has worked with numerous community organizations, the urge to serve the poor overseas was strong. So she looked into short-term mission trips that would fit into her current schedule.
"I can do this and still honor my family," she said.
She approached the leadership at her parish, St. Raphael, about supporting such trips. She offered to lead the project, raise money and gather teams.
"This is one of those God things," Altepeter said. "The leadership had been talking about taking the message outside to international areas. I had this proposal at the same time they had been talking about it, and it just clicked. So it was meant to happen.
"The fact that leading an organization and leading teams is second nature to me, that's very helpful," she said.
Altepeter is now in her 10th year of organizing mission trips, which run between eight and 14 days. Trips to Central and South America are shorter, and a trip to Uganda was the longest. Between eight and 23 people go along each year, including a core group of St. Raphael parishioners, friends and co-workers. The cost has ranged between $1,600 and $2,300 for everything, including meals and travel, Altepeter said.
Next year's mission is shorter, running from Feb. 28 to March 6, and will visit Elias Pina in the Dominican Republic, home of the Green Bay Diocese's sister parish. There is a need for a dental team as well as participants to help rebuild a chapel for St. Teresa Parish in Elias Pina and St. Isidore Parish in El Llano. The cost will be about $1,500 per person.
"People have to pay their own way or raise the money," Altepeter said. "It's not a vacation. It's a service to the poor. If the trip is subsidized to too great an extent, it's a vacation."
The first trips were involved in constructing homes. More recent trips took medical teams of doctors and dentists to countries where their services are desperately needed. Non-medical volunteers assist the professionals with services such as taking blood pressure and temperatures and doing triage.
As many as 1,200 children have come for basic dental services such as sealing, fluoride treatments, extractions and brushing. In Bolivia last year, the medical team served 800 people, said Altepeter.
"It was just an awesome experience," Altepeter said. "We had people walking for eight hours to come and get medical care. That's what you deal with there. They don't have the care unless people care enough to come in and do that for them. In countries where these people are extremely poor and live with barely nothing, money doesn't come down from the government. We are a source not only to bring medical teams and to build homes, but we bring hope.
"They don't have the resources to build homes unless we bring the resources and people to do it. Here we have the Red Cross, United Way, government sources, churches. They don't have those in third-world counties. That social safety net is not there."
Volunteers also have helped with services such as a patio garden project to provide food to the community. Each trip has attracted just the right number and type of volunteers who are needed, Altepeter said.
"It's all about what the Holy Spirit brings together," she said. "In Nicaragua, I was concerned because we only had one nurse, one nurse practitioner and a doctor. When we got there, that's all we needed. There were three small communities that we served. The Holy Spirit brought us just what we needed, and that happens time after time after time."
Others unable to go on the trips donate money for medical supplies, project materials and funds to help better the community after the volunteers leave.
Altepeter said the mission trips are a lot of work, but they pay back in the warmth, happiness and welcoming nature of those they serve. She said the trips also have changed volunteers' lives. Some have changed jobs and started doing volunteer and domestic mission work at home.
"The ripple effect of all of that is a transformational experience," she said. "It's awesome. It touches people's hearts."
One volunteer touched in this way is Tom Donovan, business administrator for St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church and Most Blessed Sacrament Church of Oshkosh.
He has great enthusiasm for the trips and Altepeter's leadership.
"She has been consistently leading these trips around the world and motivating a whole range of people to come along," he said. "We get a larger world view and stretch ourselves a great deal. The significance or the impact on those who have gone - that's the real ministry. We are changed, we are reformed, we come back and have a much wider world view of this thing called the Catholic Church."
Volunteers are attracted when Altepeter reports each year on the last year's mission and announces the upcoming trip. "People just come forward," she said. "I trust the Holy Spirit to work on people's hearts. Typically, it's word-of-mouth, and it starts with the core of parishioners at St. Raphael's."
Because of economic conditions and the cost of airline tickets, Altepeter said arranging this year's trip will be challenging. "We can leave it in the Holy Spirit's hands," she said. "He hasn't failed us yet."