At a time when most of their peers are thinking of retirement, adding to the nest egg and perhaps booking an exotic trip or cruise, Dave and Babs Veneman are taking the road less traveled.
Make that the rutted path that few will trod.
The Modesto couple are heading to Liberia this month to work in a Christian orphanage complex. They will be there at least two years; they may be gone for life.
Quite a change for Dave, a 57-year-old Modesto native, and Babs, born in Ripon, who share a farming background and have been married since 1976. Their three adult children, ranging from 25 to 30, are married. Besides Dave's work as a field representative for Ekert Cold Storage in Escalon and Manteca — he makes sure the product is planted, grown, picked and shipped — he also farms about 145 acres of almonds and walnuts. The Venemans' holiday tables are full, ranging from 25 to 40 friends and extended family members at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Why leave all that behind and make such a drastic change in life?
"It's a question we get a lot," said Dave, a 1969 Modesto High School graduate. "I've got a job that's just storybook-made for me. It fits my personality great. It's never boring. My employers let me shoot from the hip and back me up. Nothing's changed in my farming venture. It's just getting better.
"But God just changed our hearts and our attitudes so that it was clear this is what we should do."
Vacations and missions
The seed for their actions started when Babs, a respiratory therapist, was a leader in a nondenominational group called Bible Study Fellowship. Through the program, she heard about the Rafiki Foundation, a nonprofit organization that cares for orphans in Africa.
"Rafiki was started by Rosemary Jensen, who at that time was the director of Bible Study Fellowship," Babs, 55, said. "It originally started as girls centers in India, Madagascar, South America, other places. They would take girls from about 12 and up, giving them some kind of trade. Girls are particularly vulnerable because often all they have is their bodies.
"The vision changed, because starting with children this old wasn't making a long-term difference in the countries. They decided to go with orphans and start with younger children. Their mission is basically to save children, with the bigger goal of raising healthy, contributing members of society, who are emotionally well and with a good education. With that, they will probably rise to the top of society, and the leadership is where differences will be made in these countries."
The Venemans took a three-week mission trip to a Rafiki village in 2003. "We had been to Europe and Mexico often," Babs said, "but neither one of us did the tourist thing well. ... Dave and I are workers; we like to do stuff. There was an opportunity to go do and be immersed in a country, so we said, 'Send us where you need us.' They sent us to Uganda."
Their hearts were touched by the experience.
"You can't go without seeing all the needs," Babs said.
"There is such poverty, people who just don't have enough to take care of anything else but themselves and their immediate family," Dave added. "Orphans, for that reason, are on the bottom rung."
They also saw the impact on children when they receive food and clothing and care from groups like Rafiki. Youngsters who were withdrawn and failing in other settings became joyful and active when moved to a Rafiki complex.
For example, Dave said, "Thomas was probably 3. He was in a state-run orphanage. These kids would not respond to affection because they'd been through it so many times. They knew you were going to leave again, and that emotionally hurt them, so they would not open themselves to it."
After Thomas was moved to a Rafiki village, Dave said, "all the barriers were gone in three months. This was a laughing, joking kid you could interact with."
After they returned home, the Venemans asked God if they should do something about their new feelings. "We did not get any direction," Babs said. "Neither of us thought we should drop everything and rush off to Africa."
Watching the seed sprout
As 2006 was ending, she said, "We were due for a big trip. I was thinking Greece or Italy. Dave said, 'I think I'd like to do another mini-mission.' Rafiki said, 'We could really use you in Rwanda.' "
After three weeks in Rwanda in January 2007, they came home. "We both kind of thought, 'That was fun. That was interesting.' We thought life would go on again as normal," Babs said. "Except God had another plan. He started working in both of our hearts separately. Neither one of us knew what the other was thinking."
In songs, sermons, conversations, the two realized they needed to do more.
"We had seen such incredible need, so much hurt. Dave and I are so blessed, so healthy in every sense of the term. We started talking and said, 'Oh, my goodness, we're on the same page here.' We knew something in our lives was going to have to change."
The process of being available for a long commitment, though, took Babs longer than her husband. "It was a big struggle for me, not for Dave," she said. "God and I talked many times. It made no sense. We had this great life here. I just kept saying, 'Lord, we could give you more money (to support missions). But he wanted more than just the money."
They investigated many organizations, but Rafiki kept drawing them back. The Venemans attended a "survivor camp" last summer, which set out all the realities of life in an emerging country. Then Rafiki staff asked if the couple would consider going to Liberia.
"Dave said yes and I cried," Babs admitted. "I wanted to be obedient, but I didn't want to go to Africa. I kept thinking Mexico, even South America. I kept looking into ministries in Sao Paolo (Brazil) with street children. I have no great love for Africa. The children, yes. The people, yes. But not the country — it's kind of harsh."
Yet, as she struggled with her heart, she set her mind to go.
"I was going to be obedient, but it wasn't until two months ago or so that I totally surrendered," she said. "I was going to be the good Dutch girl and do this. I knew it was right. But I was focused on the costs. The Lord said, 'No, you have to have joy in this.' "
A Bible verse, Matthew 19:29 hit home, Babs said: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."
"That struck me," she said. "We love our fields. We just planted another block of walnuts in December, knowing we wouldn't be here to see them grow. When I saw the promises there, knowing (God) has never reneged on any promises yet, I could relax, and he took away the dread."
Another lesson came from her dogs.
"We have this blue Merle called Jazz," Babs said. "Jazz loves me, and if I say, 'Jazz, lay down,' he will lay down. He will obey me, but his body is still about an inch off of the ground. Then we have a black Lab. His name is Webster. He loves me, too. I'll say, 'Webster, get on the chain.' He's so happy and wagging his tail, even though he knows he'll be on the chain. That's the difference between obedience and submission.
"People have said, 'You must be excited to go.' I could think of a lot of other words — scared, sad — but excited was never one of them. Now I'm so excited, I can't wait to go. I'm going to be on the chain, with my tail wagging."
For several weeks, the Venemans have been sorting through their lifelong accumulation of goods. They'll take pots and pans and tools and throw rugs — all things that in Liberia are very expensive yet of poor quality. But they'll have to leave behind their furniture and tons of other items.
"Getting rid of junk that's been accumulating for 30 years calls for a Dumpster, but you're emotionally caught a little bit," Dave said.
"Everything left behind has been divided up among our kids or taken to the thrift store. Most of our stuff is family — grandfather's chair — that has some sentimental value. We have the option of repossessing it if we want it when we come back," he added with a laugh.
Their son and his wife will move into their older but cozy farmhouse on 15 acres west of Modesto while the Venemans are gone. A farm manager will take over Dave's farming duties.
In Liberia, Dave will be the plant manager for the village, which includes cottages for the staff and children, a dining hall, laundry facility, schools — an elementary one for now and a secondary or vocational facility as the children age — and a medical clinic to serve the surrounding community as well as the children.
He will oversee construction projects and maintenance of the generator, sewage lines and everything else, training the native staff and, later, the older children, so they can learn how to do these things down the road.
Babs is less sure of her specific tasks but said she probably will oversee the kitchen and laundry staff and help with a village garden.
Hoping for a harvest
"Because of our background, we hope to start a large garden," Babs said. "We'll do it for food, but also for work as these children get older. We're hoping to take seeds. Liberia is interesting because it gets almost 200 inches of rain a year. As far as we can tell, it's very difficult to find a tomato in Monrovia (the capital city); they're almost all imported. We're trying to find out what kinds (of tomatoes) would be least susceptible to water and mold."
She's also packing plenty of personal items.
"You can buy underwear from a fellow pushing a wheelbarrow in the street," she said. "That doesn't appeal to me, so I'll take a lot of underwear. We're on this huge learning curve."
For example, she said, English is spoken, but with a lot of vowels added. Salad won't be a common meal item because of the lack of clean water to clean the lettuce. The temperature ranges from 78 to 94 degrees, but the humidity is very high. "My skin is going to look fabulous; my hair is going to look terrible," she said.
And everything, from plumbing repairs to meal preparation, will take far longer there than here.
"My biggest concern is really to be successful there," Dave said. "I know I can do it here; I don't know if I can do it there."
The Venemans know they will miss a lot — children and friends, church and candy bars, chunky peanut butter and lattes. "We'll miss our kids the most, without a doubt," Dave said. But they're also looking forward to what God has in store for them, an unlikely pair of missionaries.
"In my mind, these kind of jobs are for those who have problems — they've got a bad job or they have family problems or they're a little weird," Dave said. "Now I am one. But we both know this is what we're supposed to do. God has done very well at wrapping up our loose ends."
Down to the happy smiles and wagging tails.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2012.