Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Hamster Wheel

Recently, Dionne and I returned to Bosnia for a two week visit. We realized how much we miss the country of Bosnia and, specifically, the city of Sarajevo. Over the next few weeks we are going to post a few of our thoughts from our return trip.

Osteria Ai Pioppi

Our 5 children and their spouses joined us in Northern Italy; a nearby yet forbidden land (mission travel rules) that beckoned us while on the mission with all manner of exotic adventures. Our first stop was Osteria Ai Pioppi.

The group (sans our photographer, Britni) gathers after a day of play at the park.
What is Osteria Ai Pioppi? If you are like me and older than dirt, remember the wonderfully dangerous playgrounds of your youth. And then multiple the crazy factor by about 10. And you have Osteria Ai Pioppi. In the 60's the owner of a small restaurant began to build playground "equipment" on his property (kind of like a McDonald's playland). Forty years later, he has assembled 40 unique pieces of playground equipment that is as fun for adults as it is for kids.

Brennen and Amy play on the Tarzan swings.
I had to stop this thing because I was really worried that I was going to fall out and hit that solid green metal railing you see in the background.
Some of the contraptions are quite elaborate. He has built four devices which officially count as "roller coasters" (hence my discovery of the place). There are slides which tower over 100 ft. There is one device which you strap into and try to use cycling power to propel yourself and a partner upside down. And then there is this spinning human wheel which is completely made of metal (apparently the guy has never heard of "padding").


This device is so sketchy that only three of us were willing to give it a try. Brayden was willing to spin me but had no interest in hopping in.

And then there is the HAMSTER WHEEL. A fascinating contraption that stands at least 30 feet tall. You need a partner to ride this thing. Both of you climb up a ladder and take a position on opposite sides of the device. The device remains in balance as long as neither side moves (or there is not a huge weight inbalance).

Dionne and I are in the wheel, perfectly balanced so that the device is not swaying.
Working together, the riders can make the device sway back and forth. They do so by walking in their own hamster wheels in the opposite direction.

Erica has hamster blood.
If the two riders work in tandem (but in opposite directions), then they can get the wheel to flip over. And it keeps flipping over until they get tired and elect to stop.

Mitch working the wheel in his Waldo shirt. 
The wheel will not work if one of the parties elects to not "play." If one party stops, the wheel will stop. But it will go faster and faster "out of control" if they two riders want it to.


Bosnia's Hamster Wheel

Permit me to use Osteria Ai Pioppi's hamster wheel as an analogy for Bosnia. Maybe it is self-deception. But the picture most Bosnians paint of their country prior to 1991 was one of peaceful balance between Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. Intermarriage was high. Most villages were mixed. Neighbors were friendly. Most Bosnians had good friends who were of other faiths.

Iftar time in Bašćaršia.
And then all hell broke loose. Why? I know that there is no simple answer to that question but I am going to offer one anyway using the hamster wheel analogy. The three religious groups chose to purposely antagonize each other until their actions made the wheel spin completely out of control. With the exception of Srebrenica, the worst of the atrocities occurred during the first year of the war. A massacre would be followed by a revenge killing. Village by village.

This quote is from Balkan Insights...a useful source that reports on all things Balkan. Note that the author is implying that the three ethnic communities remain on the hamster wheel. "Twenty-two years after the start of the fighting, this is still a highly disputed issue in the country, and is often used by politicians to stir up ethnic instability." Basically, each side accuses the other of guilt while attempting to claim victim status for their own people.
So why, in my opinion, did the war happen? Were the tensions always there waiting to explode? Maybe. But most Bosnians tell me that there was not hatred ingrained in their hearts. And I believe them. So what happened? Propaganda. That is what happened. Propaganda. A war of propaganda broke out. Fueled by insiders and outsiders; Serbs were told of the evils of Islam, Croats were reminded of the horrors inflicted by Serbs in WWII, etc. Each group was taught to fear the "others" despite years of peaceful coexistence. They got the hamster wheel spinning and it was soon it was spiraling of control.

Russian Memes on Facebook

Which brings me to my final point. In May the Justice Department released 3,393 on-line ads and memes that Russian agents purchased on social media platforms to influence the election. While I saw this covered briefly by the news agencies, the story quickly disappeared. What a shame. Because the what Russia is trying to do in the U.S. is utterly fascinating. Most assumed that they were trying simply to promote Trump over Clinton. When they were released, Rashad Robinson of Color of Change issued a press release and claimed "these ads clearly show that the Russian government not only meddled in our election to sway the results in favor of Donald Trump but that they did so by promoting anti-Black hate speech, creating fake Black Lives Matter Facebook accounts, and stoking fears about Muslims, immigrants, and queer people." He could not be more wrong about what Russia is doing. Russia is encouraging hate speech of all types. Just like the speech from Mr. Robinson. Russia is encouraging ethnic tensions. They are stoking the fire from both sides. Many of the memes deal with race...some aimed at one audience arguing that we should "protect our officers" while others aimed at other audiences proclaiming that "cops are murderers." They are aggressively trying to promote dissension, distrust, and anger among Americans. In short, they are encouraging us to climb aboard the hamster wheel. And we have happily obliged.

An example of a Russian sponsored ad that ran a few months before the election. Targeted at the African-American community, the intention is to reinforce the belief that "blacks" in this country can never be safe. 
Conservatives where targeted with messages like this one. Fear for your job because of the invading hoards of illegal immigrants.
This is a more subtle post targeted to the African-American community. The point seems to that they should take pride simply because of their race. 
Lots of tea party and constitution language targeted to conservatives. Who does not want to be a patriot?
Back and forth the messages go. All major ethnic and political communities seemed to have been targeted. LBGT, tea party, Hispanic, white, etc. The primary goal seems to have been to stoke the fires of anger towards "another." You are fighting the good fight against the greatest of all evils (the proverbial "other"). It is propaganda 101 and its seems right out of the Bosnia playbook. It is effective because people like to believe that they are in the "right."

And it seems like we are swaying out of control. Too many of the people I know are convinced that they are right and everyone else who thinks otherwise are wrong. Social media and the internet has allowed us to self-select our knowledge reality. Today Kyrie Irving can believe that the earth is flat and limit his knowledge sphere to only those voices that support his. Too many of us do that. We listen to those who agree with us and make caricatures (or straw men) out of those who do not. I am not picking on anyone in particular but let me give some examples of some recent Facebook posts that some of my friends have shared.

This is a fun meme because it is so blatantly bigoted and it does not really seem to care. In fact, it truly believes that it is not small-minded at all. The meme identifies all of the "others" by name (including the favored class of Muslim...apparently the author of this meme did not get the memo). Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses...they are all bigots. What is really shocking is the group the baker in question represents is not even listed in this meme. Where are the Fundamentalist Protestants? The message of this meme is clear. Only the people who agree with the author believe in equality. Everyone else is just a small-minded religious zealot. 
Speaking of the "T" community, they have been routinely attacked. From bathrooms to sports, those who author memes like this are not interested in understanding what life is like for a transgendered youth. They simply want to find an effective way to attack this group. And make themselves look like the true victims (or their girls who just want a chance at fair competition). I am sorry; life is hard. Stop making life more difficult on people who are already going through a tough and confusing time.
Oh the abortion argument. Both sides have stooped so low. Both sides accuse the other of being murderers. But that does not seem to be that effective anymore. This is an argument which I have seen recently and it truly is hurtful because I know that there are so many parents who wish to adopt a baby. The waiting list is so long. The meme author is simply trying to argue that the "others" are a bunch of hypocrites because of his straw man argument that they are unwilling to adopt. Baloney. 
The point of this meme is to attack the mainstream media. To reinforce the notion that the media purposely deceives anyone that is not truly in the "know." To some extent, there is truth to that idea. The editorial process requires content editing, story selection, and prioritization. And many of our media sources suck at doing all of those things. But this meme is guilty of doing all of the things that it complains the mainstream media is doing. (By way of self-disclosure, I am guilty of doing all of these things as well during this blog post). So the message of this meme is quite subtle yet just as dangerous. It says "don't trust them, just trust us." Beware the "other." 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The End


This is a joint post. We each answer five questions about our service in Bosnia and the Adriatic North Mission.


At the mission home with our replacements, John and Karen Cooper. They will do wonderful things in Bosnia and Croatia. We wish them well.

1. What Surprised You the Most About Your Mission?

Denny:

Let me give an easy answer and a hard answer. The easy answer is PUPPIES. The minute we drove into Bosnia we noticed a few things. The haystacks, the burnt-out buildings, and the dogs roaming around everywhere. But our hearts ached as we found our first litter of newborn puppies up on Trebević mountain. 




It was all we could do to not bring them down to our apartment, put them in the little outdoor doghouse, and nurse them to health. We have literally stopped a hundred times to pet the wild dogs. But the puppies really tore at our hearts strings.


We found this guy in Eastern Bosnia. 


The hard answer, TOO MUCH UNRESOLVED ANGER, is more complicated. The Bosnian civil war ended without a resolution. The Dayton Accords brought peace, yes. But they also left lingering wounds which have not healed. Imagine where the U.S. would be today if an outside party had stepped in and stopped the Civil War. Sure, the bloodshed would have stopped. But all of the underlying tension that caused the conflict in the first place would have remained in place. The Dayton Accords have institutionalized all of the problems which caused the war. So the people here live under the dictates of an insane system. Only members of a certain religion (Muslim, Orthodox, or Catholic) can run for office. The mayor of Banja Luka, for example, must be Orthodox. In Mostar they try and balance power. If a director is a Muslim, then the assistant director must be Catholic. In this way, the mainstream religions are linked to the political power base. And, of course, power corrupts. There is widespread corruption at the highest levels of all of the institutions (political, business, religious, social, etc) within Bosnia. But what worries me the most for Bosnia is 1) the anger, bigotry, distrust, and hate that remains just below the surface and 2) the number of young, smart, and capable Bosnians that are fleeing the country. 

Dionne:


Besides going on a mission at 50 instead of 65 or 70 years old, the thing that surprised me the most was the scope and scale of the humanitarian work done by LDS Charities. I knew about “Mormon Helping Hands” and that the church was highly involved in emergency response for natural disasters, but I never envisioned the opportunities to serve during our mission. 

The church has six areas of focus, in addition to Emergency Response, that it does world wide in developing countries.
·      Wheelchairs – LDSC provides wheelchairs to those who cannot afford them through partnerships with local hospitals.
·      Immunizations – immunization programs are developed and implemented in cooperation with local medical teams.
·      Vision Care – this can range from providing glasses to training local school staff and ophthalmalogists to conduct vision screening and follow up care.
·      Clean Water – providing clean water and sanitation to communities  
·      Benson Food – these projects vary according to local needs including greenhouses, bee keeping, chickens, cows and other means to provide sustainable food and increase self sufficiency
·      Maternal Newborn Care – in Bosnia this initiative offered training in newborn resuscitation, in other countries it also includes training for prenatal and newborn care
·      Emergency Response – this includes both disasters as well as emergency situations such as the refugee crisis

We loved meeting the children with disabilities as we supported
various projects to help change the way they were being educated.
Our projects included teacher education and using iPads.


Women waiting for their turn for gynecological exams. Out of 160
women who were screened, 60% were determined to need follow up
care of some type to prevent or treat further medical problems. And
two had advanced health problems that required immediate treatment. 

LDS Charities has provided Newborn Resuscitation Training
to health care professionals throughout the world. Over the past ten
years it has been taught in Bosnia, the infant mortality rate has declined
significantly, putting it on par with the U.S. While it can not be
attributed solely to the training, it has played a major role in the decline.
Our largest project involved hosting two 3-day hands-on training workshops
for special educators. Over 40 educators and therapists were trained from 11
different centers throughout BiH. We hope that this will be the foundation
to begin changing the way children with disabilities are taught in Bosnia. 

As humanitarian missionaries we were charged with finding worthwhile projects that met a need, were sustainable, and promoted self-reliance. We were given guidelines, but no specific direction or type of project we could support. During our training before we arrived in Bosnia, it was suggested that we “go deep rather than wide” and choose an area of focus where we felt we could truly make a difference.  And we were to be careful stewards of the funds we were allocated for our country. As you’ve seen if you have followed our blog, many of our projects have focused on assisting individuals with special needs, but we have also done projects to bring women’s health care to poor, rural areas of Bosnia, aid for the homeless, sanitation projects for schools, and projects supporting refugee centers in Croatia to name a few.  In all we were involved in 29 different projects in 31 communities throughout Bosnia and Croatia. Throughout the world, senior missionaries like us are supporting welfare projects in their assigned areas.  All humanitarian funds come directly from donations to the LDS Church Humanitarian Fund.  It’s incredible how small donations from many individuals is truly making a difference for others throughout the world. I shouldn't have been surprised by this, but I was. 


2. What was your favorite food on your mission?

Dionne:


For me, food isn’t always about how it tastes. It’s about the memories, the emotions related to the food.  I love orange tea and windmill cookies because my mom and I used to share them while we played Scrabble. I love Striped Delight because it’s one of the things my children always ask me to make when we are all together. And now I love cinnamon rolls because “my missionaries” requested them over and over and chocolate chip cookies that “my barn girls” scarfed up by the dozens in mere minutes. I loved the homemade rolls at Dveri and treasure all the memories of meals shared with special people there.  And ice cream…so much ice cream with everyone!

Elders DeLeeuw and Crapo happily accepting a pan of cinnamon rolls
Elder Hole may have been my biggest cinnamon roll fan. I even
promised I make him some if he came to visit us when he gets home
from his mission, which is in only a few days now! 


This is the homemade rolls at Dveri. I begged for the recipe but
was not successful in acquiring it before we left. I could have
eaten them every day!

While the memories associated with Balkan foods are numerous, my favorite is ustipci (ushtiptsi). It’s fried dough similar to an American scone, what’s not to love about that, right!?? Ustipci is usually served with a cheese spread called kajmak, kind of like a cream cheese and sour cream combination. However, not all ustipci is created equal. I tried ustipci whenever I had the opportunity throughout the Balkans and declare that the best ustipci by far was a special treat made by a very special lady at the barn. Safija  makes the best ustipci in the entire world! There were many Saturday mornings after teaching lessons at the barn when I would go into the clubhouse to record my lessons and Sofija would sneak me one with a big smile. On our last visit to the barn before we left, she insisted we sit down and eat one last plate full of ustipci. It was served with a huge hug and tears of gratitude in my eyes for the loving hands that made it. She wrote down the recipe for me, but I know in my heart they won’t ever taste as good as hers made me feel!



And the winner is.... Uštipci!This is the final plate we were served at the barn.
Again,while it is delicious, the memories evoked are what make it my
favorite food in the Balkans. 

Safija makes everyone feel welcome, loved and hungry!
Every morsel she prepares is done with love! Pictured with
her is, Iman K., one "my" barn girls. I actually taught
dressage lessons to four different girls named Iman, which is the
equivalent of Erin. And I was told most female names in Bosnia ended in "a"!
Denny:


Our time in the Balkans was an expected culinary adventure. There is so much too love about the food here. Unfortunately, as I look at my own personal before and after pictures, there is now so much more of me to love as well. My absolute favorite dishes include a diary chicken burger (recommended by Emin), the sarma sampler plate in Bašćarisa, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, Milka bars, seeded watermelon during season, juice syrups made by Ranka, muskalica, and well-seasoned kupus (cabbage). 


Bread and gulaš at one of our favorite Sarajevo restaurants, Dveri.
But I was a missionary with a singular food-based assignment—to find the best lava cake in Sarajevo—so I have to consider lava cake my favorite dish in Sarajevo. (While I extended the search to Banja Luka, Zagreb, and Tuzla, the only official candidates had to come from Sarajevo). Now I was looking for a pure lava cake….one baked perfectly which, when cut into, oozes with pure chocolate. Ice cream on the side, fine. But I do not want cherries, nuts, or other fillers inside the cake. And if it looked like you were serving me a hollowed out cake that you piped some chocolate into…blasphemy.

Chocolate lava cake...before.

Chocolate lava cake...after.




After exhaustive research (if lava cake was on the menu, my research required that I order it, of course), I concluded that the best Sarajevo lava cake is to be found at Četiri Sobe Gospije Sofi (Four Rooms of Miss Sophie) near the University hospital. That is until we were invited for dinner at Eren’s parent’s house, Richard and Ezra. Ezra made a homemade lava cake to die for…and it win’s the best in Sarajevo award!


Our dinner with Aren's family. The master chefs are in the back!


3. What are your five favorite photos from your mission?

Denny:

We shot over 20,000 photos during our 18 months in Bosnia so you can imagine the difficulty of getting it down to five photos. For me, each photo tells a story. So here are my five favorites...


"Action Otter Getting a Little Action"
In high school, Elder Nathan Hole and some friends bought this little stuffed river otter.When they would go on trips, they would take him along with them and use pictures to catalog his adventures. He soon got the nickname "Action Otter." Unbeknownst to his friends, Elder Hole snagged Action Otter as a travel companion to the ANM. Winter 2016 was a particularly difficult one in Bosnia. It was colder than normal. Most of the Tuzla and Sarajevo houses are heated by wood or coal which produces a vast amount of pollution. In both cities, it seemed like we did not see the sun for most of the month of December. So we were excited to get permission to visit Mostar on the day after Christmas. I still remember the moment when we first saw the sun along the drive to Mostar. We were in the mountains and both cars instinctively stopped, everyone disembarked, and basked in the sun's glory. Mostar was beautiful that day. At the base of the famous bridge, Elder Hole convinced Sister Jessa Locey to strike this pose with Action Otter. (despite appearances, Action Otter is only about 10" tall)  The Tuzla Elders apparently did not want to go home to face the inversion. On the way home they hit a pothole, ruined a tire, and had to spend one more night in Sarajevo. 
"Esma"
George and Marcia Bennett have been traveling to BiH for the past 8 years and conducting neonatal resuscitation training with Bosnian doctors and nurses. Dionne and I were fortunate enough to observe their labors and assist at little. During the time that they have been serving in Bosnia, the infant mortality rate has been slashed in half. There are many factors that have led to this improvement (especially the dedicated work of Bosnian doctors in both Federation and Srpska). But the Bennett's labors have saved the lives of children. Infant survival rate plummets if a newborn is unable to begin breathing within 30 seconds of birth. When we filmed a video vignette about this project, we asked Dr. Suada Hefvić if we could meet with a child who had been saved through these techniques. So we got to spend an afternoon at the park with Esma and her mother. Esma is two-years old, was born 3-4 months premature, and had to be resuscitated at birth. She was in the NICU for quite some time. But now she is just a normal two-year old girl who loves to play. She and so many others like her are alive because of the work of the Bennetts' and LDS Charities. 





"The Swimming Pool"
When we first attended Sunday church services in the Tuzla group, it was us, four missionaries, and Sreten. Not a single member. Sreten had been coming actively for the past two years but the missionaries did not feel like they should teach him due to some cognitive disabilities that he has. A few weeks later, we visited the group again. Sreten was there at church but his heart was heavy. Through Elder Michael DeLeeuw's translations, I was able to talk to him and learned that he had lost his father that past week. As we talked, I had a strong feeling that he needed to join the church. So I asked DeLeeuw more about why he was not being taught the gospel. Turns out, nobody really knew why...just an urban myth that the Mission President had said not to. So DeLeeuw and his brash young semi-green companion, Elder Logan Leach, began to see Sreten and his potential in a brand new light. A month or so later, and Sreten was ready to accept baptism. There is not a baptismal font in Tuzla so all baptisms are held at the pool at the Hotel Tuzla. Unfortunately, there is not a shallow end in this pool. The lowest the water gets is about 5'. Which can serve problematic when baptizing someone like Sreten who stands about 4' 6". As you can see in the picture, we brought in a chair for Sreten to stand on. He was able to doggy paddle out to the chair. And Elder Leach was able to do the baptism without any problems. But getting back was more difficult. I have a wonderful picture in my mind of what happened next. Logan carried Sreten back after he had baptized him. Sreten felt safe in Elder Leach's arms. And the two shared an eternal embrace as they returned. As missionaries we make lifelong commitments to those that we teach. This picture represents the beginning of one of those lifelong commitments. 


"The Krešimir"
The Krešimir Ćosić basketball tournament is held annually in Zagreb. Teams from all five ANM countries are invited. For the first time, Bosnia sent a team (pictured). All three branches were represented (Tuzla, Sarajevo, and Banja Luka). Our first game was against a team of Croatian Red Cross workers (who also invited some refugees to play with them). They had a big guy who had played professionally and so we were the decided underdogs (at least that is what President Grant kept telling us!). We won by 1-point in the game that was so physical and out-of-control that both John Pruess and I were volunteering to serve as supplementary officials. Towards the end of the game, John accidentally swiped one of the Red Cross players across the face and drew blood near his eye. But he did not go over and apologize. When I asked why not, he said "you don't understand what they are saying to us." Apparently Croatians and Bosnians are masters at trash talking and using quite vile language. So I am glad that I did not understand. (The funny thing is that Dionne and I work regularly with the Red Cross in Croatia and I got to know the player that Pruess swiped across the face quite well...his name is Branko. I have apologized many times for what happened to him but he just brushes me off and says "that's what happens in basketball.") Our little Bosnia group lost in the championship that day; placing 2nd in the tournament. The best of the country teams but we could not beat a Zagreb club team (semi-pro) which practices 6 times a week. I love this team but 2nd place just does not sit right by me. So I have been conspiring all year about how to return to the Krešimir and try again. On June 2nd this year, I am bringing an American team to the Krešimir. It will consist of me and my sons and son-in-laws. And hopefully Almedin  (back row second from the right) will be able to join us from Berlin. 


"Holding the Ladder"
This is a picture of my good friend, Fadil, painting a mural at Los Rosales, a center for people with disabilities located in Mostar. LDS Charities helped build a kitchen for occupational therapy and we felt it would be "cool" to have a member paint a mural above the entrance. A war veteran, Fadil was shot several times which has lead to some difficulties. As Dionne and I pondered about the best ways to help Fadil, we kept feeling like the we should give him opportunities to work and serve. So we hired him to paint this mural at Los Rosales. But it was not enough just to give opportunities. We also learned that true service meant that we had to go even further...to literally walk hand-in-hand with the people that we were serving. Or, in Fadil's case, by holding the ladder while he created a work of art. 


Dionne:


As Denny mentioned, we took a LOT of pictures. To narrow it down to my five favorites is really not possible. It changes each time I start looking through the immense photo library we amassed during the mission. It depends on the mood I'm in, who I'm missing that day or which folder I look at. But here is my vain attempt to share only five of what must be hundreds of favorite pictures, in no particular order. 


Adisa founded Mala Sirena as a way to help her son, Faris, after he was
diagnosed with autism. Now Mala Sirena serves over 100 children each week
and it is apparent every time we are there that she truly loves the children and
their families and they love her back! This picture captures that love.

Tarik showed us that using an iPad could be life changing. He was one of the first children
that had the opportunity to test the effectiveness of iPad use. Before the iPad, he was frustrated by his physical
limitations and would knock matching cards to the floor. After the iPad, he loves showing everyone
 just how smart he really is. It has opened up a whole new world to him and because of his
success, to other children in Bosnia as well. Overall, we provided 26 iPads to 12 different centers/schools. 
I love this picture because it represents the many amazing, devoted young missionaries that we  had the privilege to serve with. I wish I had a picture of all of them together, but grateful for hundreds of pictures we have of them individually and in small groups. While we felt that we sacrificed to serve, they sacrificed so much more. They left family and friends behind, with only weekly emails and two calls a year. They gave up the fun college life, dating, popular music and television to spend two years of their lives serving the Lord. They are a huge contributing factor that made our journey in the mission unforgettable. I hope we will have to opportunity to reconnect with many of them in the future. They truly are an extension of my family.  
This picture will always be one of my favorite pictures of Bosnia. It is the winding roads that we traveled so many miles to projects and Zone conferences on, the beautiful mountains that graced the land and the flowers in bloom that promise a new season. Our season, our mission, brought forth a renewed faith in me. I will be forever grateful to have traveled the roads less traveled, to enjoy the diversity of people and places and to help bring hope for a brighter future to a few. 
 

This picture represents so much to me. It is the knowledge that God loves me and knows me. He knew that being able to continue with therapeutic riding on the mission would give me the strength I needed to do His work. It represents progress and hope. This little guy wouldn't even try to participate in activities, but with the help of the missionaries, he became fully engaged. It also represents a world where there are no boundaries to God's love. Language, religious background and life circumstances are irrelevant. I loved every moment spent at the barn.

4. Name one unsung hero you met during your mission.

Dionne:


So many people have touched my heart in the past 18 months. This truly is a difficult one for me.  There are the partners we’ve worked with who have started NGOs with nothing more than a desire to help. Young missionaries who continued to push forward even when it was hard and they had to carry others.  I know we have shared many pictures and stories of many extraordinary people we met on our mission. But if I must narrow it down to one person who has inspired and uplifted me, my unsung hero award goes to Esma, a young lady I taught at Riders of Hope. Here is her story in her own words:
It took Esma several years of hard work and determination
to be able to lead Gypsy by herself. 

My name is Esma and I am from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a small European country. Five years ago, when I was only a teenager, I survived a massive stroke. I was not able to move even my finger, nor to speak at all. Like every other individual whose life took an unexpected change of direction, I was looking for something that could improve the quality of the new life I had to learn to live. Being a child of the 90's I grew up watching Disney movies. In each movie my hero was the horse not the main character! I dreamed about riding a horse just like Pocahontas, Merida and Mulan. During my rehabilitation I found the information about hippotherapy here in Sarajevo with Riders of Hope at Pegasos Riding Center.  I contacted them immediately and we scheduled an appointment. When I first came I was scared of getting on the horse but that day my first task was to brush the horse I was going to ride. When I came in front of the horse and looked in her eyes, I saw love and encouragement. The moment I got on it felt magical and I didn’t want to get off. It’s been three years and now my full ability to speak has now returned. Also, my walking ability totally improved after I started riding. Although I may be a bit slow, I can now walk from the parking lot to the stalls without any assistance. I can also lead Gypsy by myself, something I didn't think I would ever be able to do. Gypsy motivates me for living my life more fully. He is the one from whom I have learned to love. Gypsy has a great sense of humor also and makes each riding lesson extremely funny. My aim is to continue with riding, doing dressage. I can see myself competing with other equestrians and taking first or second place.


Riding has helped not only increase her strength
balance and coordination, but her confidence as well.







I can’t even imagine the physical and emotional challenges Esma faced after her stroke at such a young age. What I do know is that she has a fierce determination to make the best of the life she has. She is attending university, studying genetics and bioengineering. She loves everyone unconditionally, there is always a smile on her face and her positive attitude is contagious. She radiates with an enthusiasm for life. It may not be the life she planned or expected, but she has embraced it a way that inspires everyone who crosses her path. And by the way… she did win first place at her first dressage competition last spring!

Denny:


I can think of so many people that we have met that I consider unsung heroes. By unsung I mean people who do amazing things due to the strength of their character. People like John who volunteers his time tirelessly at Pegasos. 

John is a Brit who works with Emin. He spends all of his free time, it seems, at the barn serving as the "do everything" handyman. He seems to know how to fix everything.

Or Faketa, a wonderful woman who was baptized this summer in Tuzla and has become the backbone of that branch. Or Sister Ezard, a senior sister missionary who has brought a contagious level of enthusiasm to self-reliance in the ANM. 

Sister Ezard's enthusiasm is contagious. She has helped a number of Bosnian members with her self-reliance counseling. 

Or Brother and Sister Hallings, the ANM office missionaries who kept everything running smoothly. Or my sisters Downi and Kori for literally saving Boyce’s life. Or our lawyer friend Emir for saving our life (we had a real possibility of CO2 poisoning early in our mission).

Our CO2 detectors had gone off and our landlord thought we had a faulty detector. But when they went off again, Emir called the utility company. Ten minutes later both they and he were at our door (on a Sunday evening). The utility company thought it was nothing (they asked if we had cooked garlic that evening) until they did a mandatory reading. Our CO2 levels were at 200 when they should of been at 2. They shut down our main heater, told us to open the windows, and to have our heater serviced the next morning. They told us it would be okay to stay in the house if everything was turned off and we kept the windows open. Since it was winter and 30 degrees outside, we spent the night in a nice hotel. And the serviceman the next day discovered the problem. Without CO2 detectors and Emir, we would not be in Kansas today.
But the winner of my unsung hero award is someone whose name I know not. I have met him. I know his story. But I do not know his name. The first time we visited the refugee center in Kutina, Croatia we heard stories from the staff of an asylum seeking father from Syria who had sparked life into the refugee center. When you wait for asylum, there is not much you can do. Your basic needs are met by the government, you are not allowed to work, and you receive a small spending stipend ($15 per month per person). Most refugees sit at the facility, watch TV, use the free wifi, play on the playground, take some language classes, and wait. Wait. For approximately a full year they wait.

Two asylum seekers hanging out at the Porin Zagreb facility. It is sad to watch asylum seekers sitting on their phones all day and waiting, just waiting (free wifi).

This man, on the other hand, could not just sit and wait. So he asked to be given projects. First he painted murals on the gym wall. 

He painted both the Red Cross logos and the patterned colors. He also painted a Croatian flag on the back wall.

Then he started painting rooms. He found a space and asked if he could start a workshop there. 

Here is the work space that they allowed him to build. He worked hard on the language. If you look close you will see every tool is labelled in Hrvatski.

He started teaching other refugees woodworking and other practical skills. He also started a greenhouse in his shop. All of this while tending to his family and awaiting asylum.

He is on the left showing teaching another refugee how to measure and cut wood with this improvised table saw. (The most dangerous saw I have ever seen in operation, by the way).

We visited Kutina a few weeks ago and I asked what happened to this man and his family. He was granted asylum. And the Red Cross was so impressed with his work that they immediately hired him! He now works for the Red Cross as a translator in the Porin facility. I do not know his name. But his example has touched my heart. 


5. In What Way Has the Mission Changed Your Spouse?


Denny:


Tough question. It is easier to see growth in ourselves than our spouses. Why? Because the acknowledgement of growth requires admittance that there was the opportunity to grow. And my spouse was perfect before the mission...so how could she grow?

There is nothing more powerful in this world than a mother's love. When mother's hold their  newborn children for the first time, a special bond of attachment is formed. 

It can be hard to feel that same depth of attachment with others. To exude that same motherly love to those who are not your own birth children. 

I believe that Dionne learned more about herself and her capacity to love as we served in the ANM. And the lesson learned was not from all of the 70,000+ people that we helped through LDS Charities. Professionally, Dionne already serves and loves so many people through therapeutic riding. But she does not love the people she works with the same way that she loves her children. Quite frankly, when the kids moved out, the mother's love surrogate came in the form of a rambunctious Australian Shepherd named Brumby.




What I witnessed in Bosnia was Dionne fully loving the children of others. Serving them without hesitation. Loving them without restraint. 


Our very first set of Sarajevo missionaries. Not sure what was going on with Elder Rassmussen's hair at this time.
As soon as we arrived in the mission, Dionne took a special interest in the young missionaries with whom we served. Whenever she would first meet a missionary, she would take a picture, ask for their mother's phone number, and send a private picture message. Sometimes it took a little work to track down someone's parents. But she always did. And it often led to an ongoing conversation with their parents (which was quite useful around Christmas time!).


We tried to fill their stockings with personalized presents. Having the "mommy line" really helped.
We did have some fun with this. One mother, Dana Leach, is an avid social media user (and also an apparent insomniac). Once in Tuzla we had a contest with the four Elder's to see whose mother would respond to a picture text the quickest. I think the message was sent out about 4 a.m. U.S. time. The Elders counted down while we waited for our first responder...after 1 minute and 22 seconds Dana Leach had replied! Her son, Logan, was not surprised. 


Our first of three "family" trips to Mostar with the missionaries. Elder Leach is in the middle.

Logan Leach may not be too happy with me sharing this photo. Somehow I snapped a picture of his rear end. For fun I sent it to Dana and asked if she recognized it. Her response was that she would recognize the "juicy" rear end anywhere. And so, of course, I now had a new nickname for Elder Leach...JUICY. 

We also had a slight comical mishap due to the closeness of the relationship Dionne built with the mothers. A week before the scheduled Christmas call, Dionne was coordinating logistics with mothers via text message. We were driving with the Banja Luka sisters for an exchange and Dionne accidentally "butt dialed" Amy Orchard. Wouldn't you know it but her daughter Naomi was in the car. Driving along on Bluetooth we heard the response "hello?" Dionne looked down and realized it was Amy. So we chatted for a minute, let Naomi say "hello," and just kind of laughed it off. 


The Sisters at the Turkish Dervish is Mostar. Sister Orchard is in the red shawl. 
The second thing Dionne did was she started to bake cookies. And more cookies. I probably gained 10 pounds just from the cookie dough. And, after she had figured out the brown sugar problem, she started to take baking requests. Cheesecake was another favorite. And she tried to replicate the Locey's famous cookie recipe. And a caramel pie dessert only baked in the wilds of Tazmania. And she took Briel's cinnamon roll recipe and perfected it. (Seems like we took cinnamon rolls with us every time we visited Tuzla.) It is said that the secret ingredient to every recipe is love...and those that ate her cinnamon rolls could taste that love. 


This was one of the last batches of cinnamon rolls that Dionne prepared. I kept begging her to do some with raisins. But I never seemed to prevail. Until President Grant, on his "funeral" tour, also requested Dionne's cinnamon rolls "with raisins." So she made a special batch for him (from which I was able to partake). 
Third, she was always going out of her way to serve the missionaries. If it was possible, she would make it happen. The net result of all of this is that we have developed wonderful relationships with so many Elders and Sisters. Relationships that will last. 


Christmas cooking time with Sisters Chistensen and Russell and Elder Clark.
I am not sure who did it but we considered it a compliment. There is only one phone per companionship in a city. When a new companionship arrives, they get the Sarajevo phone. With all of its contact numbers in tact. Someone mid-mission changed the Elder's phone contact label from "Sarajevo Senior Couple" to "Mom and Dad." 


About 4 months into the mission, Dionne started a "height wall" for every missionary who visited our apartment. 

This is the name of every missionary on the 'height wall." Elder King was the tallest and Sister Martineau the shortest. I measured myself on the height wall and am happy to report that I come in just slightly above Elder Perry!
Let me close by quoting from a letter given to Dionne by one of our Elders...“Well, to be honest, it is really bittersweet to have you leave us. Of course you took care of us and kept us fed—but to me that was only a bonus. Thank you for loving us (and me the most behind Rassmussen…I’m okay with 2nd place). I really felt like you cared about me and wanted what was best for me. It is too long a list of all the ways you do this because they are just too many. Just know that that in particular is what makes you great: the way you treat people like one of your own…You are a great soul Sister Newton. I’m serious! One of the BEST!” Elder Alex King


What do we do at Bosnian zone conferences? Have contests to determine who can stuff the most grapes in their mouth, of course. Elder King dominated Elder Hanks.

Dionne:


For those of you who know Denny well, you already know that he is nearly perfect. He is loving, ambitious, highly intelligent and extremely knowledgeable, especially when it come to the gospel.  He has an unquenchable thirst to share the gospel with others and to help others see beyond the surface, beyond “Sunday School” answers to gospel questions. Our first week in the Missionary Training Center all those qualities poured forth as we “practiced” sharing the Gospel with someone. We had a plan in place, we each had our part of the outline to follow, we were to be partners as we taught. The lady we were “practice” teaching asked just the right question and it was all over.  Her single question derailed our entire plan. Denny took over the conversation and left me sitting there feeling very inadequate and insecure.  My greatest fear of going on a mission was confirmed in my mind as I sat in a stupor listening to his very deep, very lengthy reply. I felt totally out of my element and unprepared to be a mission companion to such a brilliant man. My insecurities, unfortunately, turned to anger.  I swore if that’s how it was going to be, I was going home. He didn’t intend to overshadow me. Yet that part of him that is so enthusiastic and knowledgeable, that part of him that loves the gospel so deeply, was not even aware he had monopolized the conversation and left me behind. We had a lengthy “discussion” about it afterwards.  I recognized that it was up to me how I reacted to the situation, which admittedly was not ideal, but I also asked that he work on including me and allowing me to be an equal partner, not a silent one.

On our flight to Zagreb... the beginning of an incredible
journey with the best companion I could have ever asked for. 

Denny developed great relationships with the missionaries. He's not
one to enjoy the "posed" picture so he always tries to spice things up a bit.
Elder Isom wasn't quite sure what was going on....

Of course we sought out the only amusement park in the Balkans. It
just opened the week before we visited. What fun are rollercoasters
if you don't have friends to ride them with? Denny enjoyed
spending time with the missionaries, having fun and also sharing
spiritual experiences with them.

This is one of my favorite pictures of Denny. While I was doing training
with the teachers, he always spent his time playing with the kids. 

I believe that initial experience ultimately began the process of the growth I saw in Denny throughout our mission. As we embarked on our journey in Bosnia, he allowed me to utilize my strengths. We were equally yoked. I saw the nurturing side of him grow as he encouraged young missionaries, had heart felt conversations with members of the church in Sarajevo and developed close relationships with others. His ability to nurture relationships, including that between the two of us, grew tremendously.

In his homecoming talk at church, Denny shared some thoughts on God's mercy. He related mercy to holding a ladder
for someone. It's not about taking over and making it happen, it's about assisting as needed so people can be successful on their own. This picture is the perfect portrayal of mercy. Even though this man struggled with many things, Denny loved him and showed mercy in so many ways. He was supportive, yet allowed him to grow on his own terms. 
Because of Denny's unconditional love and the ability to see others
as children of God, Sretan was baptized and is now passing the
sacrament and enjoying the blessings of the gospel. 
He’s always been a loving, caring person but as I watched him embrace a new member of the church who was struggling with depression I saw a deeper compassion in him. He opened the doors of true communication and befriended him. The young missionaries love him. Being a big kid at heart, he could relate to them yet still be a mentor and provide guidance and direction when they needed it.  


He saw a member with cognitive challenges as a child of God with great potential and made him feel loved and of great worth. I loved watching him crawl around on the floor as he played with the children with special needs during project visits. From my perspective, his relationships had more depth. He became more nurturing and understanding and he learned to help others grow. He still knows more than I do, he’s still usually right, but now he realizes that others can be significant contributors if allowed and encouraged to do so in a safe and loving environment.  I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to be loved by such a special man.