The path that led to Angelica Caraballo Perez living in Indiana is part of the miracle that she calls life

By Sherri Lynn Dugger  | Photography by Josh Marshall

“Papa” RJ McConnell dropped Angelica “Ika” Andrea Caraballo Perez, then 22, at the IUPUI campus in downtown Indianapolis. Without a map, Ika wasn’t sure exactly where she was or which direction she needed to walk. She was the new kid at school, in a new city, a new country, and she was lost. “I started walking in circles,” she recalls, “and for some reason I ended up standing in front of the Indiana State Museum, on the complete other side of campus.”

Global Positioning Systems, Google maps … those were all new and weird concepts to her. “I just didn’t know how to use it,” she says of the technology that was available — though foreign to her — on her smartphone. “I sat at a park bench, looking in my phone contacts,” she says.

Ika needed someone to call, but “Mama” Karla McConnell, a retired fourth-grade schoolteacher who now works part time at Franklin College, wasn’t answering her phone. By now, Ika reasoned, Papa RJ would be busy at Bose, McKinney & Evans LLP, a law firm where he serves as a partner downtown.

“I had no other choice than keep walking,” she says. “Finally, I stopped and prayed. I said ‘Lord, you brought me here, stay with me and take me to the freaking classroom, ’cuz it’s late!’

“I turned — I don’t know why — and there was the campus center, where I got a map and finally got to my class.”

The Road to IUPUI

It was last January when Ika made her way to that first class, in her new school, on a new continent, which she now considered her new home. The series of events that brought Colombian-born Ika to live in Indiana might be said to have begun many years prior, when RJ and Karla McConnell, whom one might call her “adoptive parents,” began taking their own children on mission trips around the world.

As Christians, the McConnells have long felt a drive to serve others. The first trip for the McConnell family, to Honduras, was in 2003. By 2005, RJ and Karla began regularly attending Emmanuel Church of Greenwood, and RJ says he felt led to step into a leadership role supporting missions at the church. “We’ve gone to the Dominican Republic, to Nicaragua, to El Salvador, to Mexico and Haiti, but in 2007 we made our first trip to Cartagena, (Colombia),” RJ says. “Karla and I both felt like God was tugging at us there. When you’re in mission work — of course, I would go serve anywhere that God called — but God tends to call you to a certain place. You just sense it. Cartagena became something that my wife and I did together. We felt a connection to the city, to the people, to the work.”

By July of 2011, Emmanuel was officially sponsoring a church in Colombia, and RJ and Karla were back in Cartagena to serve. It was then that they first met Ika and when they first began considering the possibility of bringing her back to live with them in the States.

Ika was asked to join the McConnells’ group of missionaries as a last-minute fill-in. One of the already-scheduled translators was sick, and Ika knew how to speak English. She’d taught herself the language by listening to American music as a child. She received a phone call around midnight. When her friend asked her to work, Ika says, “I was like: ‘Are you out of your mind? Who told you I can translate?’ It was my very first time.”

But Ika went anyway. Early the next morning, her father first drove her to catch a bus, then she took a taxi, and eventually she made her way to Bente de Julio, the neighborhood where she was asked to serve as a translator for a Vacation Bible School where Karla was working. “When I got there, I was going down the hill,” Ika says. “I saw the blue tent and all the kids running around playing games. I remember the hula hoops and balls. And I thought, what a mess. I am definitely not doing this. And I started walking back up the hill.”

But another translator in the group recognized Ika and called to her from afar. She had to go.

Called to Serve

It was also in 2003 (the same year the McConnells took their first mission trip) when Ika celebrated her 12th birthday. That year her father, Angel David Caraballo Gómez, offered her a bracelet as a gift. Before he presented her with the gift, however, he read a verse out loud from the Bible, as was custom for Christians in Colombia:

“Before I formed you in the
womb I knew you;
Before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” – Jeremiah 1 

The meaning behind the verse was “kind of clear” to Ika at the time, she says, though it wasn’t until she turned 14 that she says she understood her purpose in life: to serve as a missionary. “I (felt) like this is what the Lord has decided I have to do,” she recalls. “This is my calling. This is my way.”

Ika is fearless when speaking to people, she says. She isn’t afraid to dance in front of others. “And the Lord has done so many great things in my life and in my family,” she explains. “I was like I can’t just be quiet with all this love. People need to know. I (have) really felt this since I was very little.”

By age 17, Ika was an official volunteer for Youth with a Mission (YWAM), a Christian missionary organization. She worked with at-risk youths. She was involved in her church. She served as a leader of a dance group. 

But her upbringing hadn’t always been easy. When she and her siblings (one sister and one brother, both younger) were still small, the family fought to find its way. Ika’s father was a musician. He and Ika’s mother, Yomaira Esther Pérez Buelvas, struggled with their marriage.

Things began to change, Ika explains, when the family started attending church. 

“My parents decided to accept Christ,” she says. “My dad, he gave up his music band. We just started walking in faith. We went through all kinds of things — oh my gosh — things like extreme poverty and very bad situations economically.” 

Ika describes Christmas dinners when all the family could afford were butter sandwiches and cups of hot chocolate for their holiday meals. “Even in those times, the Lord was with us,” she recalls. “People who knew us were always like, ‘Why are you always so joyful? Why are you so happy?’ and ‘If your son can’t even go to school or you can’t even eat two times a day, why are you so happy?’ We were like, ‘The Lord is good. God is good. The Lord is faithful with us.’” 

Step by step, she says, the family’s circumstances slowly improved. They moved into a new home in a better neighborhood. Eventually, they were able to afford a car. Ika and her siblings were able to go to college; her brother is still a student there. “My dad right now is a pastor, and my mom is supporting him, so they have an income from nowhere, and the Lord is keeping us there,” Ika explains. “Every month we see a miracle for how he keeps us.” 

‘She Has an Ability’

That hot July morning in 2011 when Ika cautiously made her way toward a crowd of children in Bente de Julio might now also seem like a miracle was in the making. It was then that Karla quickly began to take notice of Ika’s many talents. Faced with what she described as “chaos,” Ika found a speaker system, plugged in her phone, turned on her music and immediately engaged all of the children in dance. What, minutes before, were approximately 300 unruly children was now a captive audience under Ika’s direction.

“Both Karla and I had commented as
to how talented this young lady was,”
RJ recalls. 

“And then we kind of looked at each other and thought: ‘She reminds us of Mary,’” Karla adds. Mary, the couple’s youngest daughter, was about Ika’s age. Ika and Mary are similar in height and size, and similar also, the two say, in potential. 

By 2012, Ika was again back with the group as a translator. This time, she took more of a lead role, and she continued to impress the McConnells. “When we needed something important translated, we would ask for Ika,” RJ recalls. “It’s about more than translation. You’ve got to understand what the person is trying to say. It’s knowing the intent behind it.”

Beyond her ability to translate, Ika had other talents, but “she had nowhere to further develop that where she was,” RJ says. “She is an awesome photographer and videographer. But she had taken all the training she could take. And — even in the social strata that they (Ika’s family) have risen to — there are not a lot of opportunities and not a lot of resources for her there.”

“She has a ‘Mary’ level of talent,” Karla explains. “That’s how we look at it.” 

“What if Mary was stuck, not able to advance, despite the best intentions of her parents,” RJ says. “She (Ika) has an ability that is beyond the norm and an ability to serve God. And an ability to communicate. And work with kids. And in photography. And in videography. And to teach herself English. Karla and I just kept thinking we’ve got to do something.” 

The last night the McConnells were in Cartagena in 2012, they invited Ika to dinner. “We said we don’t know how to do this,” RJ recalls, “but we think we need to, if you’re interested, we need to help you continue your education in the States.” 

The offer, for Ika to move in with the McConnells and to pursue higher education in Indiana, was a dream come true for the young Colombian. 

By December 2013, Ika’s birth parents had come to know and trust her future American “parents.” Ika’s college transcripts has been transcribed into English. She had passed the English entrance exam at IUPUI, without ever having received any training, and she was standing outside Indianapolis International Airport, tasting, for the first time in her life, snow. 

“When she walked out of the airport, she stopped and put her tongue out, to taste the snow, to touch it,” Karla recalls. “I asked her if she had a coat. She said, ‘Well, my grandma gave me a jacket to bring.’ And I said, ‘OK, you’ll need to show that to me.’ It was a sweater. I said, ‘Oh honey, you’re going to have to have a lot warmer clothes.’”

Since moving to the U.S., Ika has enrolled in the college’s School of Informatics, where she received all A’s and B’s during her first semester. She has learned to drive — she now has her driver’s license — and she has moved into a dorm room at the Shepherd Community Center in Greenwood, where she volunteers part of her time in return for her room.

“The way I see this wonderful miracle that happened in my life,” she says. “I’m super thankful for it. I love what the Lord has done for me. When I told my parents (about the offer to come to the States), we all cried together, and we all said, ‘Well, this is from the Lord,’ because this doesn’t happen in real life. My life doesn’t happen in real life.” 

The possibilities for the 23-year-old are now endless. And no matter what she does with her career, she says, she will always do mission work. “It is in my heart.”