Alumni couple shares the love that goes around and comes around with new Fortress of Hope family in Nicaragua

Mitchell and Lauren Yoder, both graduates of the education program at Eastern Mennonite University, now live in Managua, Nicaragua, where they teach and act as communications directors for a children's home called Fortaleza de Esperanza (Fortress of Hope). The home is supported by several midwestern Mennonite churches. (Courtesy photos)

In October, Mitchell and Lauren Yoder left everything they knew for Managua, Nicaragua and the children’s home called Forteleza de Esperanza [Fortress of Hope].

What caused these two Eastern Mennonite University alumni to make such a move, leaving behind full-time teaching jobs in Harrisonburg, Virginia?

The couple was inspired both by a love of travel and new places, and a strong familial and spiritual link to the home. Fortress of Hope was founded in 2008 by Maple Grove Mennonite Church in Hartville, Ohio. The Yoders connected with Maple Grove and the children’s home through Mitchell’s father, Dale Yoder. Dale knew a few of the members on the board of directors for the home and wanted to become involved.

Soon his church, Pigeon River Mennonite Church of Pigeon, Michigan, embraced the nonprofit, and Dale joined the board of directors. That bond between Pigeon River, the church of Mitchell’s youth, and Forteleza de Esperanza is strengthened with the couple’s role as communication directors.

Now nine months after their move, “Papa Mitchell” and “Mama Lauren” have formed a new family. Although most of their job as volunteer communications directors involves administrative work and translation, the couple has enjoyed strong relationships with the children of Forteleza de Esperanza.

“I enjoy giving hugs to the little ones as I walk through the gate and having deeper conversations with the older children and staff,” Lauren said. “These are all things that take a lot of time and effort, and they are by no means quick and easy, and they give me the most joy.”

Help and stability for children in family transitions

Lauren Yoder teaches an English lesson.

Lauren Yoder teaches an English lesson.

Known as Centro Integral para la Niñez y la Adolescencia: Fortaleza de Esperanza (or more popularly CINAFE in the city of Managua), the nonprofit organization provides a home for 20 children. Some are orphans, some are waiting for a relative to adopt them, some are offered shelter after their family can no longer afford to raise them and others are offered impermanent refuge from a temporarily dangerous situation at home.

“We have been trying hard not to call Fortress of Hope an ‘orphanage,’ because the majority of our children have families of some sort,” Mitchell said.

Forteleza de Esperanza’s biggest goal is to be only an interim living situation for children. Parents can often reclaim their children after going through therapy or treatment. However, the children’s home remains a long-term home for some, and as children reach young adulthood with their 18th birthday, Forteleza de Esperanza helps them search for employment, enroll in a university and find a safe place to live.

For both Mitchell and Lauren, volunteering at the home is a way to pass on the love that nurtured them through childhood and young adulthood.

“We both feel like our lives up to this point – our friends and families, our Mennonite upbringing, our EMU college experience, our church family at Eastside Church [in Harrisonburg], our teaching jobs in Harrisonburg – are all things that have filled us to the brim with love. Now, we are able to give that love to the kids here,” Lauren said.

Devotions a favorite time of day

Both Yoders graduated from EMU with teaching degrees, and after a few years in Harrisonburg City Schools, they traveled to Nicaragua on spring break. Mitchell had first visited the children’s home in 2009 with family and friends to truly understand the work that his father was involved in. It wasn’t until March 2014 that he returned with Lauren.

Once there together, the couple saw that their connection to the board of directors in the U.S. could be useful in a communication role. In order to fill that role well, they took two months of intensive language classes upon arrival. Now, they speak directly with the staff at Forteleza de Esperanza to relay messages, ask and answer questions and provide an avenue for communication on behalf of the U.S. board.

Due to the voluntary nature of their work, both Yoders had to find full-time employment elsewhere. At Nicaragua Christian Academy Nejapa, Mitchell is the head of the English department, and Lauren works as a kindergarten assistant. Despite the difficult balance of a busy schedule, Lauren and Mitchell spend at least two hours a day with the children at Forteleza de Esperanza.

Birthday celebrations are favorite events for everyone at Forteleza de Esperanza.

Birthday celebrations are favorite events for everyone at Fortaleza de Esperanza.

“The hardest part for me is knowing that there are lots of interactions and celebrations that we are not able to be a part of because they happen while we have other commitments or are unavailable,” Lauren said. However, the couple is included in many events the home hosts, whether it be dramas at church, birthday parties or devotions, which they lead twice a week.

“My favorite part of my day is devotions,” Mitchell said. “The staff gathers around with all the children, and everyone has a chance to spend time singing and talking about God. It’s a great picture of children who are loved, safe and learning about Jesus.”

‘God at the center of all we do’

Living as missionaries reflects many of the values reinforced through an EMU education. EMU taught Mitchell that “the time we spend working should also be spent seeking God and sharing His love” as well as acting as a reminder for Lauren that “this world is bigger than [us].”

Both themes still hold true in their work and their lives. “I think that EMU’s education program kept our worldview at the center of our teaching, and has helped us keep God at the center of all we do,” Mitchell said.

While mindful of their past and the community that has brought them into their current home, the couple is still grateful for present support: by Forteleza de Esperanza itself, through the donations of other churches, and their Mission Support Team in Harrisonburg comprised of friends and family, including members of Park View Mennonite Church, Community Mennonite Church and Eastside Church.

Mitch-girls with dolls_web

The partnership between Mennonite churches in the United States and the nonprofit CINAFE organization has helped build a strong source of stability for children with families in transition. Here girls show off their new dolls.

Virginia Mennonite Missions provides health insurance benefits and has helped to promote the couple’s mission work. VMM also assists the couple through their Partners in Mission program, and a mission coach meets with them about once a month.

Maple Grove Mennonite Church provides administrative support through the board of directors. It leases the building, and is continually working to find ways to own the property that the home sits on as well as open up more green space for a playground. Future programming goals include English classes for the children and staff as well as vocational training for young adults who age out of the program.

Pastor Myron Weaver, a board member of the organization, said that when Mitchell and Lauren approached the board with the idea to move to Managua, “no convincing was necessary.”

“It takes very little to recognize the image of God in Mitch and Lauren,” said Weaver, who has known the Yoder family for more than 30 years. “They model the Kingdom of God in a powerful way.”

Published August 2015.