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Archives Sister Debbie retires from Mission of Hope

Aug. 31, 2022

By Shan Moore
Contributing Writer

PLATTSBURGH — It took all of Sister Debbie Blow's strength to take that first flight to Nicaragua.

Earlier this month, she drew from that same well as she stepped down as executive director of North Country Mission of Hope, the humanitarian aide organization that was fully born on that trip.

“You can know it's the right time,” Sister Debbie said, fighting back tears in her tidy home office, “but the mission is my heart, my passion.”

But a recent return of breast cancer, along with other personal challenges, persuaded the Dominican Sister of Hope to retire sooner than she'd ever planned.

Sister Debbie underwent a mastectomy in July, even as she continued caring for her mentor and longtime housemate Sister Stephanie Frenette and grieved the loss of her mother, Shirley Prevo; stepmother, Joan Blow; and others close to her.

“Part of letting go is honoring the grieving process, and I need to do that,” she said.

A faith-based, nonprofit corporation, North Country Mission of Hope works to empower the Nicaraguan poor through programs in education, health care, community and ecological sustainability.

Supported by grants, fundraisers and donations, it also steps up when needs arise locally and around the world.

“Many of our volunteers have already been involved in other organizations (so) it makes sense that we do what we can, where we can, when we can,” Sister Debbie said.

She smiled. “I love that phrase.”

Looking back, Sister Debbie marvels at the many connections that shaped her journey.

As St. Peter's School principal, she had welcomed Oscar and Yamilette Flores's three children after the family fled Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1990s.

With Yamilette and longtime friend Eve McGill — and then as Seton Catholic Central School’s campus minister — she worked with students on a clothing drive after Hurricane Mitch struck Nicaragua in fall 1998.

Her students raised $3,000 for further help, and Sister Debbie delivered a challenge to the community to match that amount.

Very quickly, some $30,000 piled up

By early 1999, Seton that first mission trip was ready to go — but without Sister Debbie.

As a teen, she'd been denied permission to travel with other students on a mission to South America; that plane had crashed, killing all aboard. And the young girl was left with an extreme fear of flying.

Sister Stephanie offered the wisdom that persuaded Sister Debbie to face her fear.

If she didn't go, that nun recalled telling her, “when the kids get back and are talking about their experiences, you're not going to know what they're talking about because you didn't experience it.”

Terror riding with her, Sister Debbie flew - again and again.

MOH’s success is directly tied to a dedication to building trust, both here and in Nicaragua, Sister Debbie said, and to being “a truly spiritual, humanitarian-based organization, welcoming of all.”

That effort has created the strong base of volunteers and support locally, has brought in grants that have improved conditions at a Nicaraguan disability center, educated young girls, fed thousands of children ...

And Sister Debbie has always trusted God would provide in other ways, too.

In a Managua airport, she sat on a conveyor belt, facing down officials who threatened to confiscate medical and other supplies. She prevailed.

With the entire contents of a closed military hospital in need of transport, Sister Debbie knew, against the odds, that a National Guard aircraft would transport it. It did.

MOH grew from a Seton project to include students from other schools, from a yearly trip to two then many more.

MOH first assisted one school; now 7,000 children are fed at 24; it helped one orphanage, one hospital, then more and more. The group partnered with Rotary, with other organizations and churches to accomplish even more.

After years of moving operations from one donated space to another locally, MOH bought its permanent home in Peru; the George Moore Foundation funded a permanent mission headquarters in Nicaragua.

The need, however, is never ending.

Perhaps the worst situation MOH witnessed was the Managua dump, where many scrounged out a pitiful existence.

There, Sister Debbie experienced one of countless “mission moments” that define the generosity of spirit of the Nicaraguan people and re-emphasized why MOH does what it does.

At the edge of a dangerous dropoff, she lost her footing, and a boy from the dump “literally shoved me back on the path,” she remembered. “I felt like he saved my life.”

He refused some money she offered as thanks.

“The kid looked at me and said (in Spanish), 'One does not pay for kindness.'”

Mission volunteers, whether in Nicaragua or helping from home, have taken their experiences to heart, many entering the human-service field and serving the poor.

Nicaraguan children sponsored by MOH donors have grown up to do the same.

“The seeds were planted, and all we did was help water them.”

Sister Debbie speaks of the strong women who influenced her life – the Virgin Mary; her mother; her grandmother Lillian Prevo; Sister Stephanie; Sister Pauline Plante; her spiritual director Sister Catherine Livers ...

“I have been incredibly blessed to have had their wisdom, to have their love, their knowledge and to have stood on their shoulders,” she said.

That, along with her vocation, is what gave her the strength to step aside, to let the mission continue under the guidance of someone else.

“As Dominican Sisters, we are about sharing hope … letting others run with hope and letting others feel that gift of hope.”

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