We have a life of choice. Little girls in America might prefer a red dress over a pink one, or a Blow Pop over a Tootsie Pop, but Haitian children don’t understand the difference, according to Joanna Thiele, class of 1997 and the 2012 Sent Forth Award recipient.
“They have nothing,” she said, “but they have so much hope.”
Thiele received the award for her embodiment of Concordia’s heart of service and living a Christian life, most notably in service in Haiti. She will be on campus during graduation weekend and will host the Senior Farewell Banquet on Friday, May 4 with President William and Anne Craft and the Office of Alumni Relations. But Thiele isn’t used to being the center of attention: the work stems from her nurturing personality and her habit of simply caring.
When Thiele graduated from Concordia with a degree in nursing, she didn’t set out to save the world. She thought she’d be married and have a family by this time. And while she had a passion for people and justice, she never imagined she would co-found a non-profit dedicated, as the Haiti Mission Project Website says, to sharing “God’s love and hope in Haiti.”
Until she recently switched churches to attend with her fiancé, John Dols, Thiele attended Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley, Minn., where she worked with the youth program. After one uninvolved teen committed suicide about eight years ago, the leaders made a conscious effort to get teens who were not regularly attending more involved. Thiele noticed that there was a group being overlooked: the children of pastors, leaders and other highly involved church members. She began mentoring students and still does today.
Physical challenges during one youth group trip to Washington, D.C. wouldn’t have allowed Nick, a boy with cystic fibrosis, to attend. However, because Thiele is a nurse, she was able to talk to Nick’s parents and work with him on the trip. He currently attends the University of Minnesota, and they still meet up monthly for lunch.
It wasn’t until she was approaching her 30th birthday, a milestone that pushed her to check off a few items on her bucket list, that she ran a half-marathon and went on her first mission trip. The half marathon was an unpleasant experience—“never again,” she said— but the trip to Haiti ignited a fire. During the trip, the group built an orphanage, visited children’s hospitals and other orphanages and had daily time for individual devotionals.
“My heart was totally captured,” she said.
Near-constant political upheaval, hurricanes, earthquakes, food scarcity and feces-contaminated water fill the Haitian life. Diplomats have called Haiti a “failed state.” Four out of five Haitians live in poverty, according to an April 2, 2012 article in the New York Times, and more than half live in abject poverty. Barren, over-farmed land washes into the sea as food prices skyrocket on the tiny island.
“It would never be acceptable to anyone here,” she said. “It is disheartening.”
When Thiele returned from Haiti after that first trip, the culture shock created a sense of numbness. She was overwhelmed by happiness, sadness and gratefulness. She was so overwhelmed that she had difficulty functioning in this life of affluence, an average American life of running water and predictable meals, a life with technology and expendable income.
“I couldn’t believe that 300 miles off the coast of Florida life could be so different,” she said.
She was grateful to be alive.
Her early trips were primarily construction-oriented, but then she was in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake that left the country in shambles. She joined with other missionaries to organize a field hospital and pharmacy and provide medical care to hundreds of wounded people, said Beth McHoul, director of the Heartline Maternity Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She worked 16-hour days in the field hospital’s pharmacy but still made silly signs and baskets of candy to make the pharmacy fun.
“She created an atmosphere of order but lightness,” McHoul said in an email nominating her for the Award. “She created a sanctuary during those dark days of non-stop chaos.”
As a nurse at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn., she works in labor and delivery. Since the earthquake, she has been transferring her professional skills in America to her service in Haiti. She now helps women by working in a women’s program at the Heartline Maternity Center. She works in prenatal and child development classes, and she even came down with gifts, according to McHoul.
Thiele is loved for who she is, and her co-workers recognized her as an outstanding nurse who goes above and beyond what is necessary when they awarded her the Sarah Harrison Knight award in 2005. She also received the 2009 Community Service award for her excellent work with patient care and her community service that overcomes social barriers. Yet, even after two awards that recognized her service, she is still not used to the spotlight shining on her.
“People go ‘Haiti equals Joanna, Joanna equals Haiti,’” Thiele said, “but I’m just a small drop in the ocean.”
This June she will leave for her 15th visit in the last seven years, and the shock that used to last for days has become much more bearable, she said. Counseling has helped her develop tools to manage the disparity between a day here and a day in Haiti.
Back home in Plymouth, Minn., Thiele is currently planning her wedding.
She and John Dols have been together since last Christmas when her co-worker, Dols’ dad, realized they have all the same passions.
“He does Africa,” Thiele said.
Dols goes to Africa every other year for five weeks, but he has never been to Haiti. Thiele goes to Haiti about twice each year and usually is gone for a week at a time. They value remaining themselves, something that many couples lose when they meld two lives into one. And while they both hope to visit the other’s country of passion, it’s a dream that live in the future.
In 2006, Dols received St. Norbert College’s equivalent to the Sent Forth Award in recognition for his work in Africa since graduating from St. Norbert, Thiele said. He is currently an assistant principal and campus minister at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria, Minn., but students approach him as if he were a friend, Thiele said.
“Our passions just line up,” she said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders.
Ten years out, Thiele hopes to be living a life very similar to her current life. She and Dols will be invested in their local community and reaching out to those who often slip through the cracks in society. They plan to live in North Minneapolis where there are many opportunities for them to be purposeful about outreach, she said.
“Another adult being a positive influence on someone’s life,” she said, “it can never be bad.”