By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — It’s been 35 years since Bob Hentzen, his brothers Bud and Jim, their sister Nadine Pearce and friend Jerry Tolle used their Christmas card lists to raise awareness of children and families in need in Central and South America.
Beginning with one sponsored child in Colombia, today there are more than 300,000 children and elderly in 24 countries across Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
Bob, a former Christian Brother, and Jerry, a former Jesuit, had served as missionaries in Latin America, specifically Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras. There they saw first-hand poverty’s devastating effects on families as they struggled to provide better lives for their children. Guided by faith they envisioned a program rooted in Catholic social teaching: invite people to partner with families to support, encourage and empower them.
Bob began his life as a Christian Brother serving four years in Colombia, and later six years in Guatemala. Living with and serving the poor, he fell in love with them, his sister recalled. “He could never be the same after that.”
Bob later left the order and taught in the St. Louis area, but never forgot the families he had met in Colombia and Guatemala, who had inspired him. He wanted to introduce others to them, which led to the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.
In 1981, Bob and former Jesuit priest Jerry Tolle, who had served in Honduras, were working together at a Kansas City charity and remembering the poor they had met and been inspired by. Bob talked to his brothers Bud and Jim and sister, Nadine Pearce and, in November, the siblings and Tolle met in Bob’s basement to start a not for profit agency in honor of the Hentzen’s parents. Remembering the poverty in Guatemala, Colombia and Honduras, Bob and Jerry Tolle suggested a relationship-forming sponsorship organization. The Hentzens and Tolle wrote a letter asking for support for their organization, the Christian Foundation for Children, and sent it to family and friends on their Christmas card lists. According to Bud Hentzen, that letter “fell flat on its face.”
But the Hentzens and Tolle stuck with it and slowly built the foundation, gaining one sponsor a day, then a few more. After four years, they were at 1,000 sponsors. Their first headquarters were in Bob’s basement.
As time went on, it became obvious that there were aging men and women in the countries served by the foundation, also struggling with poverty. The foundation’s name and mission changed slightly to include them: The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.
In 1991, CFCA converted an abandoned Kansas City, Kan., warehouse into what is still the headquarters of one of the top 200 U.S. nonprofits.
Currently there are more than 300,000 sponsored children and elderly poor in 24 countries across Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Since 1981, Pearce said, “Through Bob’s effort and example, more than 700,000 people on the margins of society believe in themselves.”
Bob Hentzen was a walker, walking as the poor and marginalized walk, to work, to play and to worship. In the past two decades, he took two long walks; the first in 1996 was a 4,000 mile, eight-and-a-half-month trek from Kansas City, Kan., to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. He was 60 years old. The second, a 14 month walk from Guatemala to Chile, a total of 8,000 miles through twelve countries, began Dec. 29, 2009 and ended in April 2011. In an email to The Catholic Key during, “walk 2gether,” he said that “walking with the poor enabled him … to be taken as an equal and a friend.” Bob turned 75 shortly after finishing that walk.
Bob was in New York in Sept., 2013 for a film tour of Rise and Dream, a documentary produced by CFCA, when he became ill. Bob and his wife, Cristina, returned to their home in Guatemala. His doctor sent him to the Hermano Pedro hospital in Antigua, where, on Oct. 8, Bob died. He was 77.
Shortly before his death, he made a video in which he spoke of changing CFCA’s name to something simple, short and memorable that would symbolize the foundation’s goals, mission and ministry. During the first weeks of 2014, the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging changed its name but not its mission, becoming Unbound, reflecting the goal of helping families free themselves from poverty. Over the years, the organization has served more than 800,000 children, students and aging adults and currently works with 310,000 people supported by 260,000 sponsors. Families around the world contribute to Unbound. Sponsors, volunteers and the families they serve all bring their gifts, initiative and potential to bear on creating connections and lifting each other up in the face of life’s challenges. That first sponsored child, Florelia Delgado, was selected from a group of students at her school. She was sponsored by Bob Hentzen and his wife, Cristina. Today Florelia lives and works in Bogota and has two children.
The first sponsored children have grown, and the organization has grown, but the dream of families working together remains. The founders’ commitment to the people they serve and their passionate and dedicated example continues to inspire us today.
On Nov. 19, Unbound celebrated its 35th anniversary with a global block party, live music and dancing and of course, food. The governors of Kansas and Missouri and the mayors of both Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, MO., proclaimed Nov. 20 Unbound Day. More than 1,000 people attended the block party at Unbound’s headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., including the mayors of both Kansas Citys.