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Bob Hentzen remembered as humble servant

October 12, 2013

This story was published in 2013 when we were known as CFCA. In January 2014, we changed our name to Unbound. Check this section of our website often for stories about the families we serve around the world and the news that impacts them.

Bob Hentzen 1936-2013

BobHentzen
Bob Hentzen 1936-2013

Robert K. "Bob" Hentzen, the visionary president and co-founder of Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA), died Tuesday, Oct. 8 in Guatemala. He was 77 years old.

The organization he co-founded with three siblings, Bud Hentzen, Jim Hentzen and Nadine Pearce, and friend Jerry Tolle, became a global force of love in the world. Today, CFCA has grown into a movement of more than 250,000 sponsors who are supporting more than 300,000 children, youth and aging friends worldwide.

"Bob walked right into the hearts of people in poverty all over the world," said CFCA CEO Paco Wertin. "He built bridges across divides."

Although he led one of the top 200 nonprofits in the U.S., Bob was a humble man who lived on a small farm in Guatemala with his wife, Cristina. He went to work at CFCA's Guatemala office on foot. His farm now serves as a place where families in the local community develop livelihood projects and work together in an effort to give their children a better life.

"At CFCA, we know families living in poverty can sometimes feel forgotten by the rest of the world," Bob said. "By walking with them, we are saying, 'You are not alone. We are listening to you and learning from you.'"

Hearing the call

Born March 29, 1936, in the small farming community of Kenny Heights, Kan., Bob was one of 14 children. From an early age, his parents instilled in him and in his siblings a deep faith and spirit of caring for others. These lessons were reinforced by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who staffed the parish school, and later by the Christian Brothers, his teachers at De La Salle High School in Kansas City.

Mother Teresa
From the CFCA archives: Bob Hentzen with Mother Teresa.

After high school, Bob entered La Salle Institute, a house of formation for the Christian Brothers in Glencoe, Mo., and in 1957 graduated from a Christian Brothers College, Saint Mary's in Winona, Minn. That same year he began teaching at a Catholic high school in Chicago.

His call to serve became his life's work — walking with and learning from poor and marginalized families. He began his life of service as a Christian Brother in Colombia, South America, from 1959 to 1963, and he served in Guatemala from 1967 to 1973.

"For Bob, it wasn't theoretical," Paul Pearce, CFCA director of global strategy said. "He fell in love with the poor through personal encounters. He could never be the same after that."

Bob taught in the St. Louis area after leaving the Christian Brothers, but the families he met during his time in Guatemala and Colombia continued to live in his heart. He wanted to introduce others to the families who inspired him, which led to his decision to leave teaching and begin a new journey.

A new beginning

Bob-Cartagena
From the CFCA archives: Bob Hentzen with
a family in Cartagena, Colombia.

In 1981, Bob was working at a charitable organization with Jerry Tolle, a former Jesuit priest who had served in Honduras. Their common histories serving the marginalized communities in Latin America gave birth to a shared dream. They made a bold choice to step out on their own and began planting the seeds of a relationship-centered sponsorship program, which allowed people to connect with families like those Bob and Jerry had come to know and love.

Beginning in Bob's basement, and with the help of his three siblings, they launched what became CFCA. Their grassroots approach began with a carefully crafted letter to their personal Christmas card lists asking their friends and family to support their work.

"CFCA was born in the heart of each of us," Bob said, "and in the hearts of the poor whom we are called to serve."

Their dream started out small. The first sponsored children from Colombia and Honduras received assistance with food, clothing and school fees. Sponsors were encouraged to write to their new friends and offer them encouragement and support. It wasn't uncommon for a sponsor to receive a personal call or a handwritten note from Bob about their sponsored child, whom he had visited on his travels.

In the early years, Bob, Jerry, Jim, Bud and Nadine spoke about sponsorship to anyone who would listen. The only requirement for their first marketing piece was that it would fit in a shirt pocket. Their passion for the work and belief in these families inspired others to get involved.

The beginning was tough and growth was slow, but their commitment to the families transcended each challenge. Eventually, CFCA began speaking in Catholic parishes around the United States, and the program began to grow. More and more children and aging people entered the program as more and more sponsors wanted to help.

CFCA expanded over the years but never lost sight of the core of its mission — connecting people across cultural, geographic, religious and economic divides to change one family at a time.

A pilgrimage of faith

At age 60, in 1996, Bob walked out of the renovated warehouse that serves as CFCA's home in Kansas City, Kan., and headed south. His destination: Guatemala — 4,000 miles away.

When asked why he walked, he said it was simple: "I walk because I love them."

shoes
Bob's personalized shoes from his walk to
Guatemala.

"Walking is the humblest form of transportation," Bob said. "Every day, people living on the margins walk because they have no other choice."

He arrived in Guatemala nine months later and chose to make Guatemala his home. He could think of no better way for a president of an international organization to live — as close to the families it serves as possible.

Thirteen years later, in December 2009, with more than 300,000 children and aging adults in the program, Bob embarked on Walk2gether, an 8,000-mile journey from Guatemala City, Guatemala, to Valparaiso, Chile.

He was joined by Cristina and a small team of dedicated staff members.

Bob completed his second trek 18 months later, walking through 12 countries where more than 183,000 CFCA families live, and visiting with many of them along the way.

"If there's anybody on earth who understands pilgrimage it's these people," Bob said. "Because pilgrimage implies hope, it implies sacrifice, it implies a lot of faith, it implies a vision that you try for and you try to do it together."

Wisdom of mothers

Under Bob's leadership, CFCA has evolved a highly personalized sponsorship model into a movement that is creating transformation, empowerment and opportunity for families in the program.

India-AT
Bob and Cristina meet with mothers on a 2012 awareness trip to India.

"One of Bob's greatest legacies was his gentle, balanced leadership, and the example he gave to CFCA staff all over the world," Laney Haake, director of U.S. Outreach said. "He didn't just talk about it, he lived it."

Bob believed in the wisdom of mothers living in poverty. He had seen firsthand the creativity and initiative of women living on the margins.

Mothers groups started in CFCA's India projects and expanded to other countries around the CFCA world. The innovative and successful approach of bringing small groups of mothers together to support one another and help their children and their communities revolutionized CFCA's model of sponsorship. It unlocked the potential of children and families to create their own paths to a better life.

"Through Bob's effort and example," Paul said, "more than 700,000 people on the margins of society believe in themselves."

Living the dream

In September, Bob traveled to New York for CFCA's "Rise and Dream" documentary film tour.

Shaima
CFCA awareness trip to the Philippines 2013: Bob with his sponsored
child Shaima, second from right; her brother, far right; mother, Jean, left;
and a friend from Zamboanga, second from left.

At each event Bob spoke to those who had gathered. He pulled a folded, hand-addressed envelope out of his shirt pocket and read a letter to the crowd.

The letter was a message from one of his seven sponsored children, 14-year old Shaima. She described a math competition in which she had participated with some of the most gifted children in the Philippines. She wanted to let him know she had received high marks and placed high in the competition and won a full college scholarship.

Shaima's success was Bob's joy.

An example for us all

Bob was a non-traditional president.His office was the road. The home of a sponsored child and family was his boardroom. His office attire was a well-worn shirt and pair of sandals. He walked the walk each and every day. He got to know people as individuals and genuinely cared about them.

"Bob helped everyone experience a different definition of wealth," Paul said. "He went to the field to teach and became the student."

Bob often said that CFCA begins where the road ends. He encouraged each and every staff member at CFCA to get out of the office and make the daily walk into the homes and hearts of the families in the CFCA program.

"Bob loved the marginalized. He inspired more than 1,500 staff from around the world to follow in his footsteps," Paul said. "He is alive in our continued commitment."

Bob-Paul
Bob Hentzen and Paul Pearce on Walk2gether.

Bob has now completed his final walk — his journey home.

But his spirit lives on in the lives of those he touched and in the hearts of those he loved.

Godspeed, Don Roberto.

Bob is survived by his wife, Cristina, San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala; sisters Doris Edmonds, Blue Springs, Mo., and Barbara Hentzen, Georgetown, Texas; six children and spouses: Luz and Brian Collins, Bloomingdale, Ill.; Ana and Jorge Martinez, Independence, Mo.; Sandra Yanes and Thomas Harrison, Olathe, Kan.; Gina Cobb, Oak Harbor, Wash.; Cesar and Kerri Yanes, Overland Park, Kan.; Robert Jacob and Hanna Hentzen, Leawood, Kan.; 11 grandchildren; seven sponsored children and numerous nieces and nephews.

Bob will be buried in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, close to the people he loved. Memorial services will be held around the globe for this humble servant and beloved leader. He truly lived a life of service, a life that is an example for us all.

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