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A Gift Exchange and Lives Changed (#ShareYourStOOry)

What's in a gift? For our #ShareYourStOOry guest Jack Koetje, a simple gift exchange became a life-changing moment. We're honored to share his story today.

On Saturday October 20, 2018, with bags clenched tightly, mind racing, and emotions on overdrive, I stumbled through security at Gerald R Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids Michigan, for the first of many flights bound for Latvia. There was no turning back, I was going on a mission trip!

Months prior to departure, I had been hearing an advertisement play on WCSG, a local radio station, which told about an opportunity to work with Orphan Outreach and serve in the country of Latvia. A mission trip was something I had always been interested in, but never thought would actually happen. Every time I got in my car for weeks, the ad would play again, always tugging at my attention and curiosity slightly more. One day after hearing about the trip yet again, I decided to research where exactly Latvia was and the country’s history. I learned about their long story of occupation by others, and my heart ached as I poured over how terrible the impact was when the Soviet Union pulled out after its collapse in 1991. While Latvia gained independence, they were dealt a heavy hand of poverty and many people still struggled. Every time I heard the trip advertised from that day on, my curiosity was replaced with prayer. Prayer that I would be open to how God could use me for his glory, and prayer that if he’s telling me to go on this trip that he’d give me a sign.

One afternoon at work, I decided to listen to some late sermons from my pastor. I couldn’t tell you today what the sermon was about then, but I know for certain the last words were meant for me. While my pastor’s voice delivered them, God spoke these words, “We are called to move and make a difference in this world.” I prayed for a sign, and he delivered! Immediately, I went to WCSG’s website and applied for the trip without hesitation. The days that followed were full of excitement and nerves as I found out I was chosen to proceed further. Eventually, I was scheduled to interview at the WCSG studio, and shortly after found out I was chosen to be part of the team bound for Latvia! In the weeks and months to follow, through many meetings, fund raising, schedule planning and trip preparation, I was finally ready to take a huge step out of my comfort zone and do this! The idea of traveling to a foreign country with a group of people I’d met a handful of times was terrifying, but I trusted in God and the outcome was more than I could have ever hoped for.

“God, Use Me”

Latvia is seven hours ahead of Michigan so when the team landed in the capital city of Riga, we were exhausted. The following day started with a 3-hour drive to Liepaja, a port city on the Baltic Sea, and home to the Day Center where we would spend the week serving and ministering to the children in the area; an area which used to be a naval base, now stricken with poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and very little hope.

When we arrived, even before checking into our hotel, we were eager to meet the staff and team of the Day Center. It was amazing hearing how God was moving in this community reaching the lives and hearts of children and their families through Orphan Outreach and the Day Center. We unpacked our supplies, donations, and other goods for the center and began preparing for the days to come. Before leaving we ended in prayer. This would be the first of many prayers that began to literally change my life. It suddenly hit me that I was given the chance to influence, guide, and love the lives of children that would be coming from abuse, neglect, or situations where they had literally nothing. I fought back tears as the prayer finished, and before I knew it, we were at the hotel wrapping up our day. As night set in, I calmed my thoughts with a prayer I say every day “God, use me as your hands and feet anyway you see fit, and let me listen.” I was completely unprepared for just how he would in the days to come.

“God has promised.”

Our mission team had spent many hours preparing a vacation bible school style curriculum for our week with the kids. While our goal was to teach a lesson each day, it became abundantly clear that what these kids really needed was love. One boy, Jeremy*, and I became extremely good buddies fast. While playing football, he continuously told me about the medals he won with his team and it was obvious how proud they made him feel. As our group got ready to leave and the kids went home, I had this deep sense of sadness wash over me, because I may think I know what these kids are going home to, but I can’t even imagine. It was all I could think of even when we got back to our hotel, so I took a long walk around the city and prayed. I kept praying. I wanted to get all of my emotions laid before God and begged him to use me in any way He saw fit to make these kid’s lives even just a little better.

When I returned back to my room, I had an email waiting from my prayer partner Jim who had no idea I was in Latvia, I got goosebumps as I read:

“Hey, Jack, I just wanted to remind you that you are being prayed for. God has promised to bless your efforts as you witness to the students around you every day.”

It was a beautiful reminder that He’s in control, and no matter what He’s holding the whole thing in His arms, and He will answer your prayers! I felt guilty eating dinner that night. Guilty that I had a nice warm bed to sleep in. Guilty that I have parents who love me no matter what, and guilty that my worries are far less than theirs can ever be. It brought me to tears when I tried to express these feelings to my team member and now lifelong friend Lindsey, but I was thankful for them. There are things in this world crying over, things that deserve all the love you can give, and when it feels like you have nothing left, turn to God for the strength to love more. God loved you first, and God is love.

The Honor of Praying

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On the third day, we visited some of the homes of kids we’ve been serving; words cannot express the feelings and emotions from that experience. The team went shopping for basic household items and food for the families we’d see, and in turn hear their stories or prayer requests. One home belonged to a pair of brothers from the boy group I had been working with along with their three sisters. We met both parents who were very friendly and I got to talk with their dad (it’s very rare when a father is in the picture) who was very friendly. Altogether, seven family members lived in a space where I saw only two beds in a tiny room, a skinny little kitchen, and a closet...no bathroom or shower anywhere to be seen. They live in social housing because they lost their apartment. The other residences were very much the same, but all with their own story

I got the honor of praying for and over these families, and at the home of my new best buddy Jeremy, they literally had nothing. He had nothing, but before we left, he insisted I take his football medal which I’d heard so much about. I told him I couldn’t accept it, but our translator told me he was shocked because he wanted to make sure I remembered him forever. So, we struck a deal for the last day we’d be together, and I’ll get to that soon. Before we left, he wanted to pray. What our translator said later was he prayed thanks for getting to meet us, and thanks that they got to clean his house. I didn’t dare take pictures out of respect, and I wish I could fully share how this experience looked and felt. Aside from visiting the homes, we got to share our struggles and worries with the kids who in turn would share if they wished. It was heartbreaking and amazing at the same time to form that bond with children you’ve known so briefly. Some of the kids really opened up when they heard our stories, and realized they weren’t so different than theirs.


The last day had come for our team from Orphan Outreach to spend at the Day Center. Time flew so fast, our lessons were all but the blink of an eye, and the energy level would not allow for arts and crafts, so I took a group of boys outside to play. This mission trip had been an emotional roller coaster for me. At first, I was so nervous to go, but after the first day spent with the kids, those nerves were lifted and replaced with pure love—so much love that I didn’t want to leave these kids, and my heart ached for their situation. The one boy especially who I dreaded having to say goodbye to was Jeremy. The weather all week had been cloudy, cold, and filled with a dreary mist that stuck to your clothes uninvited. The sun showed up today, and before too long, everyone was outside playing, blowing bubbles, and having fun. Our minds and hearts were temporarily lifted of the fact that in a few short hours we would have to say goodbye to these precious children and staff that we’ve grown to love so dear. When Jeremy arrived, he immediately ran right up with his medal, eager for me to take it, but our deal was he had to take something of mine in return. I’ve had a backpack for years that travels with me anywhere and everywhere. This bag has quite the character adorned with buttons, pins and patches of all kinds. Two items live in my backpack and I don’t go anywhere without them. The cross bracelet that belonged to my Grandmother, and a Harley Davidson bandana from my late uncle Don who loved life’s journey to the fullest. I asked Masha who worked with our group to please translate, and I told Jeremy the story behind these two precious items and that they will always keep him safe wherever he goes. I told him I will always remember him, and that we will forever be brothers in Christ Jesus and I love him. He started to tear up, so I quickly initiated a game of basketball. We still had a day with these kids, and I couldn’t be a sobbing mess just yet! The day went on and hours at the Day Center drew to a close; it was time for final goodbyes. I was asked and given the honor to lead prayer as we circled around all the kids one last time. The words flowed so effortlessly, and I could feel the strength of God’s loving Holy Spirit moving through the moment.

Afterwards, most of the team members were in tears as the kids kept asking us to tell them we loved them one more time. Minutes before our bus was to leave, I found Jeremy one more time and knelt down in front of him. Some conversations don’t need translation as I gave him one last fist bump and told him I loved him. Tears were streaming down both our cheeks as I held him in a long hug and prayed. I prayed for his safety and well-being and that God would always watch over him. As I stood up to leave, Jeremy pointed up to the sun breaking through clouds again and in Latvian said, “Jesus!” Praise God, you can’t make this stuff up! The three-hour drive back to Riga was completely silent. We all had so much to process, and pray for, and the heartbreak of leaving the kids was painful. Time was but a blur, and before long I was on another flight heading home. I was taking with me stories, memories, life experiences, and a football medal that will now travel with me everywhere I go.

A Life Changed

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This mission trip to Latvia has changed my life, and I will never be the same. My heart will live there forever with the children, their families, and the amazing people of the Day Center. I witnessed God do amazing things through incredible people and moments and had so many prayers answered it was overwhelming! The work Orphan Outreach is doing in Latvia and other countries through mission trips and supporting nurturing places like the Day Center is vital. I looked into the lives of kids in a community with such little hope and love, but God is there and he’s doing great things! When I got home from the trip, I immediately went to Orphan Outreach’s website and made the decision to sponsor Jeremy. Every dollar goes directly toward making sure he and the other children have enough food, so the decision was easy since for most of the kids that’s the only meal they eat all day. I still pray every day that God will use me as his hands and feet for his kingdom come, and that I will listen. God can do some amazing things if you just say no to your fears, take a giant step, truly listen and let him.

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