Bill and Kelli Luallen build faith and relationships in Nicaragua
By Catherine Whittier
»Little Jordan Cajina stood in line waiting to have his face painted during the missions carnival at Puente de Amistad, the orphanage in El Canyon, Nicaragua. Kelli Luallen (then Kelli Rau) smiled, spoke cheerfully and tipped the chin of the brown-eyed boy upward as she painted a colorful butterfly on his cheek. Many faces passed through Kelli’s hands before she noticed that Cajina sat before her again. Oddly, the butterfly painting had been wiped off his cheek. When he came through the line a third time, Kelli really took notice. The curious orphan, who had never met his parents, had come back once again to experience Kelli’s gentle touch and warm smile.
Kelli was one of two leaders on that trip to El Canyon, the small impoverished village that sits atop a dormant volcano, just south of Managua, Nicaragua, in June 2005. As one of the staff members in charge of student ministries and missions at New Hope Church in Greenwood, she had asked a small group of students to research the best location to experience their first foreign mission trip. The students settled on Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Kelli went to work planning. She checked administrative boxes to be sure health forms were signed and safety measures were in place; she reserved flights; secured accommodations; and made sure that purposeful work was planned. There was only one thing she left out. She didn’t plan for the change that was about to take place in her own heart. She didn’t know that when she wrapped her arms around Nicaragua’s orphaned children that her heart would be broken and that this single event would alter the next 10 years of her life. She wouldn’t have dreamed that her visit would plant a seed, which would take root and grow into an organization that would lead to sustainable hope and change for the Nicaraguan people, or that she would one day marry the influential man who would be instrumental in making those changes happen.
Now 10 years later, Bill and Kelli Luallen, married since 2011, settle into the couch of their Center Grove home to talk about Hope Road Nicaragua, the not-for-profit organization they founded, which focuses on meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the Nicaraguan people. Combined, Bill and Kelli have taken nearly 100 trips to Nicaragua, and as they share their story, it becomes clear that the two draw the energy to maintain their demanding schedules from the deep love they have for the Nicaraguan people and from their Christian faith, which is at the center of all they do.
Bill and Kelli’s marriage brought six children and two grandchildren together. “Family is our main ministry and main priority,” says Kelli. Lauren, a senior, and Maddy, a sophomore, both attend Center Grove High School and travel to Nicaragua two to three times per year. The older of Bill and Kelli’s children, Whitney, Kelsey, Alex and Jordan, now “have careers or families, which makes travel more challenging,” Kelli says. “But all six feel a special connection to the mission and to the people in Nicaragua.”
After Kelli returned from that first mission trip in 2005, she continued to plan and lead mission trips to El Canyon. The momentum and dedication grew among those she accompanied, and Greg Ponchot, the pastor of New Hope Church during those years, responded by trying to find a way his church could help the Nicaraguan people in a broader and more sustainable way.
In 2007, Greg approached Bill to ask him to consider taking a trip to help determine how the church might get more involved; Bill wasn’t remotely interested. He stayed busy as a senior partner for the global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, and he was also deeply engaged with a long-term commitment to lead and encourage 38 young Center Grove High School football players, which he considered to be his ministry.
There was considerable pressure from several other church members for Bill to accept the invitation, which only served to make him more reluctant, until one Sunday morning, “and I will never forget this,” Bill says, as he describes Greg’s surprising request for the congregation to pray for him that day. “Literally, the entire congregation put their hands on me and prayed. It was like a domino effect, and I got the message really quick.”
Bill and Greg’s first stop in Nicaragua would be a visit to an orphanage in El Canyon. The primitive, dirt road led them into the area, where they would see many problems related to poverty. Some of the children’s hair had turned orange, indicating that they suffered from malnutrition, and there were the cobbled together shacks some called home. There was dirty water, lack of access to education, unemployment and the Puma gang, which controlled the canyon. They found a lack of basic resources at every turn.
As they began to process all they had seen, Greg had an idea: A road into the canyon might change things; it would allow for commerce to flow, as well as give the municipality police access to the area, which could change everything.
Throughout his work, Bill was accustomed to dealing with big problems attached to big numbers, so when Greg suggested a road, Bill didn’t flinch. That day, Hope Road was conceived. The road would open the way to sweeping changes for Nicaraguans in El Canyon and the surrounding communities.
The key to the successful completion of Hope Road can be traced back to the forging of a successful partnership with the local government, which Bill pursued, in spite of the skepticism expressed by others. But Bill did form a partnership with the local municipality in El Crucero, and a contract specified that the municipality would provide all the labor. “We would provide all the concrete mix, all the rebar, the tools, the boots, the pants and the shirts for the workers,” explains Bill.
The $108,000 project took nine months to complete and employed 20 to 22 men from the canyon. “They built a mile and a quarter long road, all with a pick ax and a shovel,” he says.
With the completion of the road came hope. “I don’t know how else to describe it,” says Bill. Teenagers were able to leave the canyon to attend high school. A bus stop was placed at the top of the hill where the road was, then there were multiple bus stops, and then there were sheltered bus stops, taxis and access to the university in Managua. “It just created a whole different vibrancy.”
The successful completion of Hope Road was “like a rifle shot across the mission community in Nicaragua, as well as in the actual government itself,” Bill says. “It was an example of how an American church came in and partnered to help bring commerce, safety, security and sustenance, to a church, a school and an orphanage that were the foundation of that little community.”
The construction of the road was only the beginning of the transformative work that would take place in the years that followed, but before any of those projects would begin, Bill and Kelli would finally have to discover one another. Mutual friends suggested the two meet for a date, which eventually led to a relationship, and later, to Bill proposing to Kelli in Nicaragua in December 2010.
“When we got married, the ministry exploded,” Bill says. There was a desire among other churches to partner in continuing efforts. Simultaneously, a change in leadership at New Hope Church meant a dissolution of the organization that had previously formed. This change put critical projects and partnerships that were beginning to grow at risk.
In 2012, in response to the changes, Bill and Kelli took a huge step and formed the not-for-profit Hope Road Nicaragua, assuming all the responsibilities and promises that had been made under the prior organization. “We felt that we needed to stay the course,” Kelli says. “We felt a very heavy responsibility. There were a lot of different obligations.
“One of the things we have done well is invite partners in,” Kelli explains. “We have partnered with a lot of different organizations in Nicaragua as well. As a result it (Hope Road Nicaragua) has grown. It has grown so fast, we can’t keep up with it.”
Emmanuel Church, located in Greenwood, provided partnership and a new place to call home for the Luallens and their ministry. Other churches, organizations and businesses throughout Indianapolis and the country are also among Hope Road Nicaragua’s partners.
One Mission Society, headquartered in Greenwood, has provided pastoral education and training for 16 new churches that have roots with Hope Road Nicaragua. Since 2011, other collaborative efforts have resulted in the operation of two hospitals, 26 mobile clinics, five feeding programs, an orphan program, three community centers and more. The Hope Road Farm in El Canyon grows plantains, papaya, avocado, mangoes, coconut, cacao and coffee, and serves the local community and orphanage, as well as four additional co-ops in nearby villages. An agriculture education program teaches sustainable farming and production techniques to adults and children in the area.
Don Line, owner of Aqua Systems in Greenwood, and Bill spent a great deal of time sitting in the bleachers together while their daughters played basketball. During one of their many conversations, Don realized that his business might be able to help the Nicaraguan people. Aqua Systems in Greenwood has installed six clean water filtration systems in Nicaragua and is scheduled to install six to 10 more in coming months. “I’m really impressed by how a little bit of American money can go a very long way there,” Don says. He and his family joined Hope Road Nicaragua for their first mission trip in March. During that trip, he was impressed by the Luallens’ “purity of effort,” he says. “They are truly about bringing people to Jesus by loving them and taking care of them. I don’t think they ever say no to anyone in need.”