Taking a leap of faith. That’s a decision that many Christians face. However, having the conviction to follow through is often easier said than done. That’s not the case for the Suon family (Husband Jason, a 1996 graduate of Wauseon HS, and wife Becky, a 1999 Liberty Center alum, along with children Finn (10), Paisley (9), Stacia (6), and Moses (3)) of rural Wauseon. On the contrary, the “Suon Six” are pursuing the special passion they have for the people of the Dominican Republic. A passion they feel so strongly about that on January 23, 2017, they are leaving the comfortable life they have established in Fulton County to live and serve there full time as missionaries.
The story for the Suon’s began three years ago when some missionaries from Freedom International Ministries paid a visit to the Pettisville Missionary Church and presented an opportunity for a construction trip to the Dominican Republic. Becky Suon shared the story behind how they arrived at where they are today. “My husband Jason and I weren’t present that day, but a couple of weeks later our Pastor sent an email calling for anyone who wanted to sign up for the trip. I encouraged Jason to go. Our youngest, Moses, was less than a year old and we have 3 other young children and he does so much that I wanted for him to have this “gift” to take some time off of his work at Wauseon Schools and do something he always wanted to do. As it would turn out, no one else from our church went, just Jason and a team of people from Indiana that he didn’t know, took part in a mission trip to the Ramon Santana area of the Dominican. Jason had a great trip and loved the ministry, but didn’t feel that the timing was right to pursue anything other than following the ministry’s progress and praying.”
At the time of Jason’s initial trip to the Dominican Republic, Freedom International Ministries had just purchased 25 acres of ground.
While there, Jason and his team built the first two classrooms of a school building for Haitian immigrant children living in the sugar cane bateyes. Jason shared, “When we got there, the land was flat, with only the footers being dug. When we left 7 days later, we had built the first two classrooms with a bathroom that separated them”.
Through email updates from Freedom International Ministries President, Jason Hilgeman, Mr. Suon continued to watch the ministry grow. What was at first a tiny spark slowly grew as the school building progressed. When the batey children, who had been attending school at makeshift locations, were able to actually move in to the classrooms he had a part of building, Jason was really excited to know that he was responsible for the development. Becky shared her excitement about the project. “What started as this tiny spark is now a full-fledged fire for these precious people to know the God of the Bible. It only takes a spark to get a fire!”
When asked what led them to making the final decision to leave everything here and move to the Dominican, Becky shared the journey.
“After two years of watching the ministry grow, we had the opportunity to get together with Kurt (an Archbold native) and Katie Cline, who are serving full time with Freedom. Kurt explained to a group that Freedom’s greatest need wasn’t necessarily money, but people. They needed more people to help the school to grow (it is in an ongoing state of construction) and he asked specifically for prayer for a preschool director. By this time, Jason and I had several times of hovering over the computer, checking flights, and many conversations about whether we should go and check out the ministry as a family. We just couldn’t pull the trigger on it. After getting together with Kurt and Katie, we knew that we needed to just buy tickets and go. This thing was not going to go away, much to my chagrin, so we purchased tickets and boarded a plane two months later. That was exactly one year ago.
Becky continued, “At first, this was really hard for me to wrap my mind around. We love where we live, Jason has a great job, I love our little life of homeschooling and wannabe homesteading. Picking up and moving was something I fought for a while. We are happy here in our little country farmhouse and things are predictable. Moving to the DR… not only is it a huge endeavor to raise our team of supporters, but there has been fear of the unknown, leaving our friends and family and the comforts of America won’t be easy. My heart changed after we went to the DR and once I saw how hungry those sweet children are for real relationships, I couldn’t turn my back. I am a person who has always had mentors. In my mind, that’s what they need. When we were in the DR, I saw something in a little girl that I can’t forget and I can’t describe. In her glassy eyes was a hunger for a relationship with me. I believe that the ministry we are serving with is giving Hope and meeting the love needs of children that are in great need… and I believe that is happening through relationships. I believe that those relationships are worth campaigning for. The children that we are serving are being intercepted from a life void of hope, illiteracy, and the certainty of poverty. We love Jesus and are daily seeking to live for Him. He has placed a special passion in our hearts for the people of the Dominican Republic… so we are going– to live there and serve there full time!
To the question of how long the Suon’s planned to remain in the DR, Becky explained, “We can’t possibly know how long we will serve as missionaries in the Dominican Republic. We want to build relationships and integrate with the Dominican people, so of course we see this as a long-term move—it’s a one-way ticket. For many years, Jason and his father Greg owned “Anything Grows” in Wauseon. Six years ago Jason took a maintenance position at Wauseon Schools. We thought he would be there until he retired. Little did we realize that when he took that job, he was being trained for this new vocation in the Dominican. Obviously, the Lord had other plans.”
Support also plays a huge part in determining the length of stay. The Suon’s are responsible for raising 100% of their budget. “According to Becky, the average range for a missionary to raise support is 18-24 months. She and Jason decided to jump feet first into the process, and set a goal to be fully funded in one year. With that time frame in mind, they started to meet with people, explain the ministry and their hearts for the people. For the Suon’s it has been so encouraging to have people wanting to be a part of this. They are quick to acknowledge they do not go alone. Becky stated, “We have a team of people that are in this with us and are invested in these children. This is God’s story of redeeming love and it’s much bigger that Jason and Becky Suon.”
After just 12 months of building their financial partnership team, the Suon’s will leave in late January. Currently they have reached about 90% of their funding goal. Becky explained the importance of the funding, “Our percentage is increased by people who invest in us on a monthly or annual basis—gifts that we can count on. Giving to us is an investment in the Dominican people and will allow us to live and work there in the DR. They do school in the DR pretty much year round, with a short shut down in May. During that 4 week time period, Jason and I will have a yearly “furlough” here in the states. This is mainly a time to connect with our supporters and partnering churches. We have tried to keep our support base local, which will also allow us to visit with our family and friends.”
The Suon’s will not be alone in the Dominican. Currently 5 missionary families (All from Ohio or Indiana) associated with Freedom International are serving full time on the ground in the DR. There is one additional family that is raising funds to make the move as well.
The Salsbery family from Sharpsville, Indiana, hopes to be fully funded and on the ground in May 2017.
Interns also are extremely important for the ministry of Freedom International. Young people that will come for any length of time are needed and welcomed. They have real life responsibilities and the opportunity to impact children by serving as classroom aids, construction workers, or other areas they are gifted in.
With the help of short term teams, Freedom was able to build a missionary apartment building on the 25 acre campus which serves as housing for the missionary families. According to Becky there is a lack of typical comforts, and many inconveniences, but their 3 bedroom apartment is a far cry from a shack in the village.
The Suon’s will be very busy during their mission. Becky’s role will be working in the preschool in some capacity, while Jason will mainly be a part of the construction team. The ministry relies heavily on short-term mission teams to come and work, so Jason will be a part of helping people utilize their gifts and talents in a way that benefits the ministry. Short term trips are valuable because people are being inspired to get more involved as “champions” of the ministry and our hope is that they are inspired to come back home and be a change in their own communities. However, that will not be their only responsibilities. Becky explained, “The truth is that it is a small ministry and everyone wears several hats. I am beyond excited to be a part of these children’s lives as they are starting school for the very first time. God is allowing me to play a part in planting the first seeds of faith in their hearts, and that is very humbling and I cannot wait for this precious opportunity.”
One question that is frequently asked of Becky and Jason is how the children feel about the move. Becky explained that since all the children are 10 and under they really have no idea of what lies ahead in the move. They are however just as eager to get there as their parents. This enthusiasm was formed after the entire family spent time in the Dominican last December. According to Becky the trip was also an eye opening experience for them. “It was shocking for them, especially my 8 and 10 year old. The people we are serving do not own anything. They are living in 1 room dwellings built by the sugar cane company. Their playground equipment consisted of a dirt pile and sticks, rubber tires, a broken Rubbermaid tote with tin can stilts, a few baseball mitts, deflated balls and a few misshapen hula hoops. Freedom has since added a tetherball pole and we are working on getting actual playground equipment there.”
The Suon’s youngest child, Moses age three, is the only one who has ever expressed any anxiety over the family’s new calling. Becky shares this story, “A few months ago we were talking about his birthday, and through a quivering lip and watering eyes he asked me “Mommy, will they have cupcakes in ‘Minican Wepublic’?” Once I assured him that we will make sure he has a cupcake on his birthday, he was carefree and bounding away to play and I haven’t heard anything negative since!”
The children are fully aware that the family is going there to help the people. Ironically Jason and Becky have been preparing the children for this venture for a long time. Becky shared, “Since their birth we have been telling them stories about the heroes of our faith. This has been inspiring to them and they are really happy to be a part of this after reading, watching videos, and listening to audio series for so many years. Our children are a huge part of this. In a ministry that is all about building relationships, they will be going to the school and learning shoulder to shoulder with the Dominican kids. There is just a handful (5) missionary kids there in the school currently, and they are friends with the Dominican kids. This provides an opportunity for us to have a “bridge” into the families.”
Becky has homeschooled the children for their entire lives. She feels that attending an American school would be a huge adjustment to them as well. Having them at the Freedom Christian School may mean a high learning curve, especially considering they will all be learning a new language, essentially through immersion. This coupled with the facts that they will be foreigners and minorities as well. Becky summed it up like this, “It is complex and hard to wrap our minds around sometimes, but this is a faith journey. Children are very resilient, and who knows, they may adapt better than their parents! The bottom line is that God is in control and He will take care of us!”
Becky explained the birth of the school, and what the vision is for the future. “The ministry started in the bateyes (settlements around sugar mills) with a group of 3 year olds. Now, those three year olds are in the third grade. The school grows by a grade every year, which explains why Jason’s job with building is really important. They are constantly adding classrooms to keep up with the growth. The school will eventually serve students through High School.”
The school is located near Ramon Santana, just outside of the sugar cane plantation area. A bridge separates Ramon Santana from an area that opens up into 240,000 acres of sugar cane fields owned by Central Romana (Domino Sugar). To put that into perspective, that is about the size of Fulton County. Within that 240k acres, there are around 120 bateyes peppered between the fields. There is a railway and many weigh stations scattered in there as well. Of those 120 bateyes, Freedom International currently has children coming from 6 of them, so Becky stresses there is a HUGE opportunity for growth of their school.
As most would imagine, the conditions in Ramon Santana, and especially in the migrant camps, are far from ideal. However, the move to the Dominican Republic is an upgrade for most of the Haitian migrants. According to Becky, all of the families have settled from Haiti, some more recently than others. The mentality among them is they are going to eventually leave for a bigger and better opportunity.
However, the reality is they rarely do. Becky explained, “They go from one third-world country to another, but they can make much more money in the DR. They typically make $500 per year in Haiti and they can make $50 per week in the DR in better living conditions. During cane cutting season, the village population could double. One village we are currently working in will go from 300 inhabitants to 600 during cutting season.”
Becky provided a graphic description of the people and the area. “Well, yes, comparing them to our standards they (the conditions) are deplorable. They are living in dark one room dwellings that are overcrowded and sometimes they even run small businesses out of them.
People are very “creative” there. You have to be. They own so little. They do not own their houses. You see moto’s that drive back in that area sometimes and I even saw a few people on horseback, but they do not own vehicles. It’s a rural area. They don’t have plumbing or running water and modern electricity is rare. There is a lack of potable water. Each village has a concrete slab with a hole in it that they use as a bathroom. They have a company owned store called a colmado in each batey that sells packaged food, pop, beer, and other items.
Children are unsupervised, undisciplined, and on their own a lot. They are in fear of deportation. The education system is broken… most are illiterate or have very low reading levels. Village schools get cancelled due to rain, which is a problem in a semi tropical climate. Most of our second graders (at Freedom’s School) have surpassed their parents reading level. School is required through the 8th grade, but it is not at all uncommon to have them drop out before that. Boys join their fathers in cane cutting, which is a seasonal job. The problem is that in their current situation they lack opportunities. Being given the gift of a bilingual education will change their world. As a ministry, our #1 priority is seeing these people be able to use their God-given gifts to glorify God. The Christian education they are receiving is going to open up opportunities for them that they would have never even been able to dream of before. They don’t see themselves as able to escape the batey system. We, as a ministry are there to help provide for their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. We want to introduce them to a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ because ultimately He is the only one able to meet their needs. We love them, care for and protect them, foster positive family relationships. At our school they receive a vitamin and their best meal of the day.”
Although limited, the people do have other options for employment. Becky elaborated on these options. People jump at the opportunity of outside labor. Sugar cane cutting is backbreaking work done by hand with a machete in the heat. There aren’t tractors, there are ox carts and wagons. Weeding is done by Haitian migrant workers, as that is a job that is not desirable to a Dominican. As a ministry we provide work for as many of our school children’s parents as possible. We use them sometimes in construction, we have Dominican teachers, our language training will be done by a native Dominican, the school cook is mom to one of our students… we do our best to help them in that way. It isn’t super common for the village people to get outside work, but if they do get a job outside of the batey, it will often lead to them displacing their children so they can work in the city.
Becky summarized not only her mission, but also that of Freedom International. “Freedom is there long term, creating discipleship relationships, but we do not want to create dependency. What we want to do is come alongside these people and allow them to be the change in their own culture. This kind of change starts small with the youngest children, but we are quickly growing and soon those children will be in High School and we hope that they will grow up learning how to love God, love others, and they will be able to live out their God given design. The reason that the ministry is there is to point the people to Christ. We are also helping in other areas, but we recognize Him as their greatest need. Us teaching them to read and them being able to read the Bible for themselves is a huge deal. The country has been highly evangelized but the people are uneducated and things are so mottled that they don’t know what they are believing in. Giving them an education will allow them to read the Bible for themselves and it will allow them to escape the hopeless cycle they seem to be in. We want them to be able to have the opportunities to become doctors, lawyers, pastors, whatever. They are really limited right now.”
Jason added, “God is impressing on me that He has always had a plan for me and I am being challenged to listen and follow in faith.”
The “Suon Six” can be followed on their journey at their website, www.suonsix.com. Additional information on Freedom International Ministries can be found at www.itisforfreedom.com. Anyone wishing to support the Suon’s cause can do so through either site.
Kent Hutchison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org