Family continues legacy of mission work
February 16, 2011 - Michael Sutherland's final wish was for his family's mission work to continue.
That wish will be fulfilled, said his daughter Jennifer Sutherland of Independence Township.
"He spent his whole life taking care of me – the least I can do is help his legacy to live on," Jennifer said.
Michael and his wife, Emily, co-founded ESTHERS Children in 2006. The mission, Equipping, Strengthening, Training, Healing, Educating, Restoring, and Sending Children, serves children at risk internationally.
Michael, who passed away Jan. 25, volunteered for mission work starting in the 1990s. He was inspired by Jack Byers, a member of the family's church, Clarkston United Methodist.
"After hearing his stories, my dad said that when he retired, he wanted to be like Jack and be involved in missions," Jennifer said.
He went on his first mission trip in 1998 to Nicaragua with Kensington Community Church. In the medical field with expertise in prosthetics, he made prosthetic limbs for land-mine victims.
He went on a Kensington mission with Emily and Jennifer to the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia in 1999, working with the World Servants organization.
In 2000, he and Emily went to South Africa with Kensington to help pioneer the African Christian Ministry, working with AIDS orphans.
In 2002, he joined Emily on mission trips to Brazil, at first in a supporting role.
"Dad worked three jobs in order to make ends meet," Jennifer said. "The group receives donations, but when there weren't enough, dad would find a side job to make things happen."
In 2009, Michael was inspired to take a more active role during an ESTHERS trip to Brazil with Emily, when they visited the 17 girls in the mission, now 4-15 years old.
"He walked down their street in mud up to his knees," Jennifer said.
A bus driver asked where they had been, to get so muddy. When told, the driver said he never goes there because it's too dangerous.
"From then on, he knew he had to do something to help the girls," Jennifer said. "He told mom, 'we have to be here.'"
He made a plan to retire in January 2012 to work fulltime on the ministry. He and Emily would live six months in Independence Township and six months in Brazil.
But in July 2010, his doctor noticed alarming symptoms. An MRI scan revealed a brain tumor. A few days later, a mole on his back was tested and shown to be stage 4 melanoma.
"He knew it was really bad, but he believed he would get better," Jennifer said. "He told us, 'with or without me, continue the work.'"
Focused on family and his mission work, he spent his remaining days with his family, including three grandsons, and visited the ESTHERS girls in Brazil in July.
A flight delay resulted in airline tickets in compensation, and they took a trip to Hawaii in December – a blessing for the family, Jennifer said.
"He had a good week from Christmas to New Year's, but he knew the end was coming," Jennifer said. "Even in his last days, he'd look us in the eye and say we can't give up, we have to keep going."
Emily will continue with the plan to spend half the year in Brazil.
"It's my calling, my passion, the thing I'm supposed to do with my life," she said. "It will be harder, but I'll continue. I can't imagine not doing it."
Michael never took credit for the work he did, but always had an impact on those he met, Jennifer said.
"Dad was always very humble, humble to a fault," she said. "He had a quiet strength, the strength behind what we do. His whole life, he served God and others, always worried about mom, family, the kids in Brazil."
Paulo Carvalho traveled from London, England, to pay his respects.
"When I heard about his illness last year, I tried hard to come here," said Carvalho, who met him in 2002. "Mike was a really good friend of mine. I'd do anything for him."
He worked with him in Brazil for five years, constructing buildings for the mission.
"It was not what he did, but how he did it, with soul, heart, passion," Carvalho said. "You would see in his eyes, inside his heart, the passion to make a difference. You can't change the world – the world is too big. But he could change things close to him, do something here and now, and he did."
Jennifer hopes her father's story and legacy inspires others to make a difference.
"We truly believe his life was a sacrifice so that many more children all over the world would be able to be helped because of him," she said. "If it's with ESTHERS Children, great. If it's somewhere else, that's fine too. "
Emily and Jennifer plan to return to Brazil next month.
"We'll go forward with the marching orders my dad gave us," Jennifer said. "It will be difficult at first, but we won't give up."
Plans include building a community center, library, and computer lab, where they will offer tutoring for the girls, as well as job training and social services for their parents.
"We'll teach skills and trades to the parents, help them find employment and how to be dignified parents," she said. "We'll work with the kids in the arts, develop their passion."
They'll also offer cooking classes to help start a baking business, and other enrichment classes.
"We believe that to transform a community, start with the kids," Jennifer said.
ESTHERS partners with local businesses and organizes fund raisers to support the mission work.
"We have s golf outing in May – that was his (Michael's) baby," Jennifer said. "He loved the outing. He already started planning this year's."
It will continue, now named the Mike Sutherland Memorial Golf Outing, she said.
Memorials may be made in Mike's memory to continue his work, at ESTHERS Children, PO Box 995, Clarkston, MI 48347.
To make a donation, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 248-202-5910. Items in need include girls clothing and shoes, new or gently used, all sizes, toys, school supplies, medical supplies, toothpaste and toothbrushes.
Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.