Esperança gives hope to folks in Arizona and abroad

By Alison Bailin Batz

It’s amazing what one can see when really looking.

Rewind to 1960.

Dr. James Tupper, a 26-year-old Naval officer who had recently graduated from Wisconsin Medical School, sat on an icebreaker, a specialty Navy vessel that cuts through ice so it can sail.

Along the way to its destination, Antarctica, the ship docked in several ports along South America’s west coast. When Tupper disembarked, he witnessed extreme poverty.

There were families living in shacks built on islands of garbage and sewage. Children with swollen stomachs sat in front of pathetic houses made of clay and stick, without the strength to play. The adults coughed and spit blood.

After fulfilling his military duties, Tupper began his surgical residency at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Driven by what he saw on that trip, Tupper gave up a promising career as a surgeon. By 30, he entered the Franciscan order to begin his path as a medical missionary in Brazil.

Over the next six years, Tupper finished his education; studying philosophy, theology, and perfecting his Portuguese. On subsequent visits he learned diseases such appendicitis or whooping cough and other medical emergencies such as burns and snake bites, could easily be treated but were often fatal to these people due to lack of care.

In 1969 and now an ordained priest, Tupper was determined to carry out this mission. He soon realized he lacked the necessary resources including medical supplies, laboratory facilities, surgical equipment and standard medication to truly make an impact.

Inspired, his family stepped in to help.

The following year, his brother, a Valley attorney, founded Esperança Inc.—a homage to the Portuguese word for “hope”—to raise funds, services and medical supplies to help these people. Just a year later, Father Tupper returned to the Amazon and launched an immunization program.

“Within five months, 5,000 people were immunized. Over the next two years, more than 71,000 Amazonian inhabitants would be immunized against the seven major diseases,” says Jeri Royce, president and CEO of Esperança.

The mission continues

Today, Esperança has two very distinct functions.

“Globally, Esperança  continues to work within some of the poorest communities in the world, including Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, Mozambique and Ecuador, by coordinating volunteer surgical missions and working with local partners on such issues as ecological housing, disease prevention and education, food security and access to clean water,” says Royce, noting “partner” is key to the Esperança model.

Esperança, she says, takes great pride in seeking out indigenous nonprofit organizations that are already working to help their populations; those intimately in tune with the local culture, their people and their needs.

“Our mission is to expand on and enhance services to people, not to come in and dictate entirely new protocols and programming. It is about serving with integrity, and serving with respect,” Royce says.

Its other function is a little closer to home. The domestic-based program takes a hard look at where they were needed, just as the global mission does.

“While conducting our global missions, we realized there were many more people that could benefit from our services—many of which are located in the Phoenix area,” Royce says. “In 2000, Esperança launched the domestic program in order to serve our community’s most under-resourced children, adults and seniors.”

By partnering with Title I schools, dental clinics and community centers, Esperança’s bilingual and bicultural health educators provide children with oral health literacy, referrals for free or low-cost dental care and daily health and wellness exercises. They stress the importance of nutrition and physical activity, providing information in a language and at a level the kids can understand.

Known as Salud con Sabor Latino (Health with a Latin Flavor), adult classes stress families can be healthy without losing touch with their culture. Participants engage in hands-on activities, such as cooking sessions and tours of local grocery stores. Further, the team offers parent-ambassador training, which teaches parents about public health and how to be a strong advocate for their children.

“Whether local or international, we don’t enter communities with the intention to disrupt their way of life, rather we listen to their needs and give them the tools, training and support they need to succeed,” Royce says.

After nearly 50 years, the world will see what Esperança does thanks to PBS. In late 2018, a film crew traveled with Esperança to the Andes of Peru and visited its homebase in Phoenix to film a full-length documentary for the upcoming season of PBS’ acclaimed “The Visionaries.”  The award-winning public television series, hosted by actor Sam Waterston of HBO’s “The Newsroom” and, famously, of “Law & Order,” focuses on nonprofit and public service organizations from around the world and is released to PBS stations.

“Our documentary will run early this fall and will kick off Esperança’s 50th anniversary celebration,” Royce says. “The time has never been better to get involved with us and make a difference.”

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