Innovators: The Awkward Plane Ride that Led to International Friendship
By Debbonnaire Kovacs, March 23, 2017 In the five years I’ve written for Adventist Today, I have “met” (online or by telephone usually) many, many amazing people, and sometimes researching an AT story even makes me cry. Amistad International is one of those. “Amistad” is Spanish for “friendship” and that’s what it is—the kind of friendship Jesus offered when he was here. You can learn a great deal about this group of dedicated Jesus followers (and see lots of terrific pictures) on their website and Facebook page, both of which are very well-organized and user-friendly. In fact, I immediately shared their link on my own FB page, just because I was so impressed.
So I dithered about how to write this article. How could I possibly, in one feature, give you any idea of the amazing, godly work they do, especially with children, all over the world? Fortunately, I was able to make contact with the founder and executive director, Karen Hanson Kotoske, so now you can read details you won’t find elsewhere—how it all began.
Like lots of God’s best ideas, this all seemed like happenstance at the beginning. Maybe even a mistake…
Karen Kotoske was working as a dental hygienist in Palo Alto, California when she went to Guadalajara to visit her brother in May of 1980. He had become a medical student there the year before, and attended a “very active English-speaking church of medical students and their families,” Kotoske told me.
Today, she remembers the exact date her life changed. It was May 18. Of course, God was already busy before that. On Sabbath the 17th, Kotoske visited her brother’s church. As she tells it, “Some of the medical students told me their pastor Bill Baxter was a pilot who’d helped them start a flying clinic serving a rural remote tribe of Indians living in the Sierra Madre Occidental. In fact, the next day they were going to do a clinic route and invited me along.
“I showed up at the airport the next day and did the face of the pilot/pastor ever fall. He was so disappointed because he did not want any tourists along that day. He was going to be flying onto some particularly dangerous short runways and he didn’t want the extra weight and annoyance of a visitor.
“He grumbled to me, ‘Well, if no other medical student shows up, you can have the fourth and only empty seat.’
“No one else showed up. I jumped in, having no idea how my life would change that day.”
The pilot took them into the mountains to a place called Ocaata de los Llanos and landed the plane on a strip about 900 feet long. Kotoske says, “It was extremely rough, and the landing was terrifying. I loved it.”
The people she met that day are known to the outside world as the Huichol, though they call themselves Wixáritari, The People. Like many indigenous peoples, they have been seriously exploited by outside cultures.
This particular group was very excited and curious when the plane arrived, because it wasn’t a scheduled clinic day.
Kotoske said she never learned why the pilot flew to that particular place, but was a blessing, because the people were in serious drought and all their corn, their staple diet, was gone. The Huichol live mainly on white, yellow, red, or blue corn they call “sacred corn,” beans, rice, pasta, and the occasional chicken or pork. In this case, their food supply had run out. They were starving, and begged the pilot to fly to a place where there might be enough dried corn to help them survive.
“Bill flew off, taking the two medical students with him, leaving me behind with strangers whose language I did not speak. But we didn’t need to share a language for me to understand that I was seeing people who were genuinely in need of food, water and medical care.
“As I waited for the plane to return, I had a feeling come over me that perhaps there was something that even I, a dental hygienist, could do to help save lives. Looking out at the vast mountain landscape, I felt a sudden calling to roll up my sleeves. Truly I did. When the plane returned with corn, and I buckled up for take-off, I left Ocata de los Llanos as a different person than when we landed.”
In our conversation, Kotoske added that May 18, 1980 was also the day Mt. St. Helens, in the US, “blew her top. Neither she nor I finished the day the same as when we began the day!”
Mortals don’t always know until later that a sea change has occurred. Sometimes we are blessed to realize it, as Kotoske did this time. But she still could not have predicted what was to come.
The first part, though, was pretty predictable.
“I returned home as irritatingly annoying as any True and New Believer. I tried to share my story of the people who needed food and water with all of my friends and family. I sent out letters asking if anyone would like to donate to their survival. I filed the papers to start a non-profit. [She and her husband, Thomas E. Kotoske, incorporated the California non-profit Amistad Foundation that same year, in 1980.] I was on fire. I was high with hope that I could maybe do something that might make a difference.
“I heard back from no one at all….except for my mother and aunt, who sent enough money for me to start helping the medical students with their outreach.”
Kotoske (Iike any good New Believer) didn’t give up. She began speaking at churches and other groups. It took two to three years before they had a “growing handful of interested donors. I began to return to the Huichol villages on a regular basis. The Huichol gave me a Huichol name, Kupulli, which means ‘soul.’ In one village I visited often, the small children in 1980 are now grandparents. (Huichol marry early.)”
They do indeed. According to Wikipedia, the parents arrange marriages for their children generally between fourteen and seventeen years of age. Extended families live in ranchos, family compounds of small stone or adobe, grass-thatched huts with a communal kitchen and a communal shrine.
By the late 80s, the original medical students had long graduated, and there were few or no new enrollees during the later 80s, but “Kupulli” could not give up on her people. “Prayer was what kept me going…I asked God to help me carry out whatever it was God wanted me to do.”
She avoided one all-too-common mistake people from developed countries are prone to make; she didn’t assume she knew what they needed.
“Rather than trying to imagine what I thought the Huichol would benefit by having, I asked the people what they felt were their needs, hoping to avoid any naive, inappropriate ideas for them I’d certainly have as an outsider. I could see they had a very high infant mortality rate because of filthy water (rain puddles they shared with pigs and dogs.) They wanted clean water. They wanted more medical care. They wanted schools.”
Kotoske made another wise choice. Along with raising US funds to help provide what they needed, she looked to what they could already do for themselves.
“The women were talented embroiderers and weavers. Together we created a handcraft cooperative where the women and girls made dolls dressed in their traditional wear. I took the dolls back to the US (around 1000 dolls) and began showing them to women all over the US. They loved them and could have one for a donation of $65.”
The dolls sold well. Now, with Kotoske’s and the donors’ help, the people were becoming more self-sufficient. The money they earned helped them buy basics such as food, shoes, livestock, and their important traditional fiestas.
Amistad funded various water projects and community development such as building schools and school feeding programs. Currently they’re building a trade school for young people to learn welding, electricity and other electrical work. Amistad works alongside them in these endeavors.
They also continued the plane with its medical missionary work. In 1991 there was a tragic accident which killed the pilot, along with doctors and visitors. “We rebuilt the program, Kotoske said, her few words far simpler than the events must have been. The plane was sold in 2012 and now the director travels by truck.
In 1996, Kotoske heard about Paula Leen, a Seventh-day Adventist woman from Portland, Oregon, who wanted to build an orphanage in Zimbabwe. “She was living there, had a lot of children gathered up, and needed a place for them. Amistad helped her to build her orphanage.”
It was Amistad’s first venture outside of Mexico. That orphanage was outgrown and then drought struck. “Time to move on,” said Kotoske. “We’ve just completed building a new beautiful home for the orphans in Zimbabwe, Kuda Vana Adventist Children’s Home.”
That was only the beginning of what was now Amistad International; the name was officially changed in 2001. Kotoske’s friend, Vesna Wallace, a professor of Buddhist Studies at University of California Santa Barbara told her of Rajan Kaur, a teacher in Varanasi, India who wanted to start a school for the “Untouchable” children of beggars and lepers. She would call the school Buddha’s Smile, a name that tells the children, not to mention their parents, who have been put down and vilified all their lives, that they have value.
“She had 60 students and need help desperately,” Kotoske remembered. “Long story short, Amistad stepped in in 2003 to help her pay her teachers and build classrooms, and much more. Amistad has been their main monthly sponsor since then. They’ve had 220 students for many years; many go on to high school. One boy is graduating from college this year. All of the kids are of the untouchable caste, or lower. Many live in the open; don’t even have huts of plastic. BSS gives them opportunity they’d never otherwise have.”
You can learn about these programs and many, many more on the website by clicking the Newslog tab. In fact, I urge you to read every page, and be sure to watch the video, which gives an excellent overview of the work of Amistad International.
Kotoske continues, “How do we hear about programs and why we get connected to them? Typically it would be a program that someone knows about first hand, or perhaps a family member started a project and they told me about it. For example, SDA pastor Smuts Van Rooyen had a niece who had started a home for HIV positive kids in South Africa. His wife Arlene asked me if we’d help that woman with her Lambano Sanctuary. We started doing that, still do, and she’s long moved on to another project. But Lambano continues on saving kids’ lives. We’re happy to help them.
“Then we have an active anti-FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] program going in Kenya, tribal directed and driven, [with] new coming of age rites for girls. A very popular program.”
Of the many active anti-FGM groups, I haven’t personally heard of any offering new coming-of-age rites (which isn’t to say there aren’t any.) I think this, and the fact that Kotoske makes the point that it is “tribal directed and driven” are two vitally important points.
She went on to mention helping farmers learn sustainable agriculture [Grow Bio-Intensive Agriculture Centre Kenya, or G-BIACK], and helping to build a sewing school.
Karen Kotoske could go on and on. I suspect she will. That’s another one of God’s great ideas.
Debbonnaire Kovacs is a speaker and the author of 28 books and over 700 stories and articles for adults and children. To learn more about her work or ask her to speak at your organization, visit www.debbonnaire.com.
Innovators graphic by Lauren Smith Design