Deng Jongkuch spoke of the horrors he survived, and the children he later helped, as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. But his story of Africa inspired more than 300 teachers and administrators in Cedar Springs.
At a back-to-school assembly for school faculty, Jongkuch told of fleeing from civil war in Sudan as a child, traversing 1,000 miles with more than 20,000 other children to a refugee camp in Kenya. He eventually made his way to Grand Rapids, returned to his home village and built a school for its impoverished children. He also administered a hospital supported by West Michigan churches and individuals.
He offered his experience and that of other Lost Boys as examples of what a difference caring adults can make for children.
“Any child in a classroom, that child may be poor,” Jongkuch told the educators. “But you have the power in your hand to change the life of that child.”
‘If he can come from where he’s come from and do what he’s done, we can move mountains with our kids.’ – Superintendent Laura VanDuyn
His message hit home powerfully on a tough welcome-back day for Cedar Springs staffers. Superintendent Laura VanDuyn opened the assembly with a moment of silence for a student whose sudden, tragic death two days before stunned the school community. Another student and a father of three died over the summer, she said, fighting tears.
Noting the senior class theme of unity, VanDuyn told the group, “As we face tragedy at Cedar Springs Public Schools, we’ll focus on unity, as our students will this year.”
District Hit Hard by Tragedy
It was an emotional return to the school year for the close-knit community, which last year also grieved the death of teacher Scott Hazel. After the assembly, teachers said they were moved by Jongkuch’s talk in the midst of their mourning.
The grit and heart shown by Jongkuch is a moving reminder of an educator’s mission, said Virginia Valentine, a high school Spanish teacher.
“In all the political turmoil, sometimes we forget how seminally important our job as teachers is, and that it does make a difference what we do,” Valentine said. “It helps me remember.”
Jongkuch spoke along with Dave Bowman, founder of Partners in Compassionate Care, a West Michigan-based ministry providing spiritual support, health care and development aid to southern Sudan. VanDuyn said she invited the two after hearing them speak at a Cedar Springs Rotary meeting. Coincidentally, her father-in-law had provided signs for the ministry’s Memorial Christian Hospital in South Sudan.
Jongkuch’s journey from terror to success holds lessons for Cedar Springs schools, she said afterward. He earned an associate’s degree from Grand Rapids Community College and holds a master’s degree in public health.
“If he can come from where he’s come from and do what he’s done, we can move mountains with our kids,” VanDuyn said.
Surviving Terror to Serve Students
Jongkuch’s story put perspective on the challenges faced by students here. He spoke of children being killed by crocodiles, drowning and starving on their flight from civil war in the late 1980s. At the Kenyan refugee camp, they ate one meal a day and went to school under a tree. Ten students would share one math book.
It took him seven interviews to be approved for immigration to America in 2001. Confounded by technology and confused by the English language, he held down a night job as a security guard while attending college. “I was determined to survive in America,” he said. “It was real hard.”
Returning to Sudan in 2006, he found children still studying on dirt. He returned to the U.S. determined to help and found the courage to ask for it. People responded with funding for a new school and student uniforms.
“There are 470 kids in that school now,” he said, to warm applause.
Meanwhile, Partners in Compassionate Care, for whom Jongkuch now works, built a hospital that has treated more than 65,000 Sudanese with eyesight-saving surgery, X-rays and other services.
‘You have the power in your hand to change the life of that child.’ – Deng Jongkuch
Shelley Bauer works with teen parents in the district’s Parents as Teachers program, and with her husband, Tim, runs a ministry to help international refugees. She said she resonated with Jongkuch’s story of persevering over great odds, thinking of what her students deal with.
“Look what he went through,” Bauer said. “These kids certainly can do it if they want to.”