A life lived for the poor, the indigenous, the disabled

Helga Dueck had no idea, when she started out for Mennonite World Conference assembly in Winnipeg in 1990, how much her life was about to change. She travelled from Filadelfia, Paraguay, eager to meet new people, reunite with old friends, and attend a special session for people with disabilities.

She left Canada with a new direction that would lead to a new dream.

“God calls a person, and, if the person is willing to obey, then they can continue to pray, continue to go forward and not fear, but to have confidence in God,” Helga says as she stands, surrounded by adoring children, in the place that started as a dream and is now Rayito de Luz, a school for the deaf in Filadelfia.

The journey from dream to reality was not easy, but it was far from the first challenge Helga has faced in her 66 years of life.

One of 10 children of refugees from Siberia, Russia, Helga developed polio as a child. A botched operation at 12 created even more problems. Still, the indefatigable Helga continued her studies, graduating from the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Montevideo, Uruguay, despite undergoing a leg amputation halfway through her studies. She then taught for several years at a school at Kilometre 81, the Mennonite-sponsored leprosy hospital near Asunción.

Important lesson

Next, Helga was off to Canada where she worked for Neil Klassen at Gospel Light Hour in Winnipeg. Klassen not only championed her ability to contribute to the organization despite physical limitations, he taught her something that would remain with her for the rest of her life. When a problem arose, he would disappear behind the closed door of his office for long periods, not to be disturbed: he was praying.

Returning to Paraguay, Helga began a 19-year tenure at Yalve Sanga, an indigenous community supported by the Mennonites, where she was counsellor, teacher, and school principal.

In 1989, Henry Enns of Mennonite Central Committee came to Paraguay, looking for a spokesperson for disability rights in South America. Soon Helga, fluent in German, English, and Spanish, was on her way to Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg and to orientation and job training for this role.

Then her life began to change.

As Helga traveled through South America from 1991–5, visiting centres for the disabled, giving speeches about disability awareness, and chronicling the needs of the disabled, she was particularly moved by the conditions of the deaf children she saw.

She began to dream of opening a school for the deaf.

Helga continued to pray about her concerns, to move forward, and to have confidence in God. Everywhere, it seemed to her, Proverbs 31:8 appeared: “Open your mouth for the speechless.”
“God, if it is only me that wants a deaf school, let me know,” Helga prayed. “I cannot do it alone.”
Encouraged by trips to the Lobetal Institute in Celle, Germany, and to an MCC-sponsored school for the deaf in Recife, Brazil, she continued to pray.

Miraculous opportunity

Then, miraculously, an opportunity appeared. She was urged to run for the Concejal, or city council, of Filadelfia – and won. With that salary she began her school, first in a Sunday school room at an indigenous church, then at the government school, and, finally, thanks to help from the organization Kinderwerk in Filadelphia, in a facility with a dormitory, Rayito de Luz.

The students come because they have heard of the school. A mother arrives with her child and eyes of hope. The police bring a homeless boy who was sleeping with dogs and whom they discovered was deaf. The students come from many language backgrounds but learn international sign language. They come to find friends. They come to find Helga and the teachers, who believe in them and their abilities. They come to find confidence, pride in their accomplishments, hope, and inspiration.

At a recent year end ceremony, Rayito de Luz is filled to capacity with the people of Filadelfia, alumni, and officials. The children sign songs, put on a skit, read Helga’s lips, speak aloud their names, and beam up with love in their eyes at the woman who started from nothing, nothing but faith, this opportunity to shine.

Katherine Arnoldi is the author of two books, a member of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship (New York), and currently a Fulbright Fellow in Paraguay.

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