In the summer of 2016, Audrey Gerhardson, of Hawley, had just lost her husband, Marv, and was still grieving. They had been married for 60 some years, raised five children together and traveled the world…50 countries exactly. After his long bout with cancer, this chapter of her life was over. So here she was, a new widow thinking, “What in the world am I supposed to do now? I need to find a purpose.”
On that day an invitation came in the mail in the form of a postcard from an organization called God’s Child. The postcard said “Come and Rock the Babies” in Antigua, Guatemala. Audrey, who was never daunted by challenges, thought to herself, “I can do that.”
“So here I am, 82 years old, and I do not know anyone there,” she said. “I do not know the language, but I am going alone to Guatemala to rock the babies.”
This reminded her of one of her favorite quotes by Susan Jeffers, “Feel the fear—do it anyway.”
This passionate drive to help others and travel did not begin for Audrey on that summer day but had been an intricate part of her entire life. Audrey grew up in Fargo and graduated with a degree in social work from North Dakota State University. She met her husband, Marv, in college, and he became a guidance counselor in West Fargo. When she was 29 years old, she became a police officer in West Fargo in juvenile detention.
“In 1961, as a police woman in West Fargo, we still had to wear heels,” she said. Eventually, the family moved to Hawley, where they raised their five children. While in Hawley, Audrey was very active in the school and church. They took in foreign exchange students three months at a time from Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Chile. Then they got involved in the Lutheran Church’s Unaccompanied Refugee Program and hosted four refugees, each for two years from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They hosted individuals from Germany, Japan, Ireland and even a baby from Zimbabwe, Africa.
The couple were active volunteers and travelers especially after they retired. These trips were often initiated by their children. Their son, Timothy, and his wife, Kristine, worked for the State Department, so his job took him around the world. Audrey went to visit him in 2010 in Zimbabwe and learned about a program there called Feed My Starving Children. She came home, and their family and the community raised $80,000 to send to Africa to feed starving children. She set up a packing station assembled in the Hawley gymnasium. It took seven weeks to set up mobile packs of food, and it took two semi loads to carry the prepackaged food out to be shipped to Zimbabwe. Other trips she went on to help people were to Haiti with the Fargo-Moorhead medical group where she walked patients and other duties. She went to Biloxi, Mississippi, after an earthquake where she worked in the kitchen feeding volunteers.
Audrey and Marv decided to travel to South America in 2010. For safety, they traveled at night on a first class bus from San Antonio, Texas. This was a 12-week trip. They spent a week in Mexico City, visited Costa Rica, San Salvador, then to Guatemala. Audrey said her favorite place was in El Salvador because the Mayan Indians wore traditional colorful clothing from their tribe. In Antiqua, Guatemala, Marv got food poisoning and was hospitalized at St. Pedros Hospital, a private facility. There were many long days at the hospital, so Audrey decided to venture out alone. She traveled on a tuk tuk, which is a very small car that taxis people around in Antigua. She had heard about a program called God’s Child and wanted to check it out. She visited the facility that day and put her name on a mailing list to learn more about it. Marv eventually got better and was able to fly home. Unfortunately, Marv was later diagnosed with more serious health problems and battled kidney cancer for years. In March 2016, Marv’s long battle with cancer ended, and he passed away.
By summer, Audrey was ready to do something new. When the postcard “Come Rock the Babies” came in the mail from the Bismarck God’s Child Project it was a sign for her. God’s Child Project (GCP) was founded in Bismarck 25 years ago by Patrick Atkinson. He grew up in Bismarck in a large Catholic family and graduated from college at Moorhead State University in social work. He worked in nonprofits in New York City but became disillusioned because of the politics involved in these organizations. He decided to try something new after seeing a billboard that said “Come to Guatemala and Drive Tractors for War Widows.”
Guatemala had been in a civil war for 36 years, and the people and country were devastated. Patrick lived in a donated old farm house and because of his compassion and generosity, found himself living with a house full of street children. The news spread fast that the farmhouse was a safe place to sleep and there was food. Patrick never did drive tractors for war widows. He outgrew the farmhouse and later bought a city dump and cleared out all the garbage in a poor neighborhood in Antigua. On this property he built a school. He believed the path out of poverty was to educate these children. The school had a kitchen, open-air dining room, business office, medical and dental services, flush toilets, a chapel and a large playground and outdoor auditorium with a stage. God’s Child reached out to children, widows, and families in intense poverty to provide education, health care, housing and basic human rights. Audrey was in for an adventure with this organization that would last the next three years. She completed the necessary paperwork and travel arrangements for the trip and was ready to go by Nov. 30, 2016.
After arriving in Guatemala City, Audrey was taken by taxi the 20 miles to where she would stay. She was a full-time volunteer at Casa Jackson, a house for malnourished children, working five days a week. She stayed in a boarding house owned by Janet Flores, where she had her own room, bathroom and WiFi hookup. There were others volunteers from the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Spain, India, Italy, England and Canada. Her family came for a few days and stayed with her that year and saw the beautiful sites of Antigua. She said, “They also got to spend a little time at the Casa Jackson, and they, too, fell in love with the babies.”
One of the first children she helped was a little boy named Ever. Audrey said, “It was my first day, and they told me that this was the first day Ever quit crying.”
Ever had been at Casa Jackson for a week. Audrey remembered writing home, “It is my first Christmas without Marv and I chose to be without my family and friends. But, I do have a new friend and his name is Ever. He is 18 months old and Olga sees me and runs to tell Ever I am there. What a greeting every morning.”
When Ever was no longer malnourished, he returned home to his parents.
“He looked like a prince. The staff put all new clothes and shoes on him, and he left happily with his parents with many hugs and kisses,” she said.
Audrey explained the routine with the children that consisted of getting them ready for the day, feeding them, weighing them, and preparing them for doctor or therapy visits. At 10 a.m., it’s bottle time. Everyone has a bottle with their name on it filled according to their needs. At God’s Child they are fed seven times a day. Many of the children do not like to eat so it had to be forced. If they did not take the bottle they sometimes had to use a syringe and drink or eat it all. A lot of the food was home grown and donated by farmers, then cooked and prepared in a blender. No food was ever wasted or thrown. Food was given several times per day on regular intervals. There were 13 cribs in the house, and some of the mothers stayed with their children, but there were no beds or facilities for them. Many mothers slept under the cribs.
Another story she remembered was about a quiet, engaging 12-year-old girl named Guadelupe and her child, Nahomi. Guadelupe had been molested for years by her father and became pregnant and had a baby. When they came to Casa Jackson, Nahomi was 18 months old and born blind, with physical and mental disabilities, unable to hold up her head, and never would be able to walk or talk. Mother and child were inseparable. After several months living at Casa Jackson, Guadelupe slowly trusted others to help take care of her child. Eventually, she was sent across the country to another foster home where her sisters lived (also removed from the home) to go to school. Nahomi stayed at God’s Child in Antigua and was cared for by staff and volunteers. After Guadelupe was gone, Audrey said, “I wanted to do something for her, and I thought that every school girl should have a little money in her pocket, so I gave her 100 quetzales, around $14.”
Audrey stayed in Guatemala for three months that first year and then returned in 2017 for another three-month stay. Instead of staying in a home stay like she did the previous year, she had her own large room, bathroom and balcony. They provided her with food, and she had a choice of five breakfasts every morning. She would take a tuk tuk to work, and the first thing she would do was have Spanish lessons one on one with a tutor. After that it was off to work with the children.
In the second year she formed a close attachment with a little boy named Rony who could not use his legs due to malnutrition. Rony gradually improved and was able to play like other children.
“He proved to be like Evel Knievel in the walker,” she said, “learning to use his legs full force and walking while holding someone’s hand.”
There were some things she described about Guatemala that were not so nice, like the infrastructure. Many parts of the city were old and crumbling, with poor roads and sidewalks. Men defecate against the buildings, and people always bothered you to “buy from me.” But overall, she said, “It was a beautiful country that had a lot to offer—the mountains, volcanoes, the ocean, the Mayan ruins and most of all, the people were wonderful.”
Audrey fell in love with her new life. When she returned home, with the help of her daughter Julie, she began to do presentations at nursing homes and senior centers to talk about her adventures and promote God’s Child.
In August 2018, Audrey decided to return to Antiqua to resume her volunteer work. This time, she would stay for eight months. Her granddaughter, Annika, who was able to speak Spanish, came and stayed with her on this trip.
During her time away this past year, Audrey realized that she no longer needed her large home in Hawley. She said it was just “too lonesome.” She realized that after living without her possessions for so long and with people who had very little and were happy, she no longer needed her big house and all the things that went with it. So when she returned home in April 2019, with the assistance of her five children, she made arrangements to get rid of almost everything she owned and move into a small studio apartment for seniors in Fargo. The five children and grandchildren took the possessions they wanted and everything else went to thrift stores.
“What’s gone is gone and no regrets,” she said.
Audrey has made arrangements to return again to Antigua in October, and this time, she will stay for six months and then come home to her apartment.
She will spend the winter in a warm climate and go back to rocking the babies, kind of like a snowbird with a purpose. She said, “I’d rather be in Guatemala, taking care of the babies.”
To learn more about God’s Child visit godschild.org.