Three years ago, at the end of his sixth-grade year, my former student, Willard Appell, left with his family to go on the mission field. He returned with his family last year during the height of Covid-19 and is planning to go back on the mission field soon.
I recently had ice cream with Willard and my former Teacher’s Assistant as we sat in a pavilion overlooking the Erie Canal. He filled me in on his adventures, and I am sure you would be interested to hear his story. First, I would like to mention that Willard is an unusual young man from a remarkable family. Now, at sixteen, he towers over me, but I was glad to see that he was still talkative and friendly, and undaunted by chatting with adults.
“What makes Willard unusual?” you may be thinking. He is second oldest of nine children, and he has spent a third of his life living in developing (third world) countries.
Willard was only six when his family first went on the mission field. Before he left for Papua New Guinea (PNG) with his parents and four siblings, he made the most important decision of his life. While he was helping his mother make dough in the kitchen, she turned the event into a Gospel lesson. She quoted the Bible verse, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (ESV). Willard wanted to become a child of God. He asked Jesus to forgive his sins and to come into his life.
You might be interested to know why the Appell family chose PNG. Willard’s father, Jed, had gone on a year-long short-term mission trip to PNG as a single, young man and had always wanted to go back to help reach people who had never heard about Christ or had a Bible in their own language.
Willard remembers the trip to Papua New Guinea as long and exhausting. It took a total of 40 hours for the Appells to arrive in their new country.
They arrived in the 3rd month (2nd term) of the school year which was hard on Willard. He had already started first grade, but he, along with his parents, decided it was best for him to be put back into kindergarten which made him feel more secure.
Willard and his family moved into a fenced center owned by the mission. Many other missionaries and their families lived there as well. The center also housed the school where Willard and his siblings attended, and where his father was a teacher of both missionary and national children.
Willard’s favorite memory from Papua New Guinea was visiting their “bush house.” The Appells became good friends with a woman they had hired as a “work meri” (a native woman who helped Willard’s mother with housekeeping and learning the language in exchange for learning English.) She and her husband allowed Willard’s family to build a small house on a parcel of their land so his family could come and visit them on weekends and school breaks to get a better understanding of how they lived.
“We had to walk a few miles up trails, over a river, and through a small village to get there,” Willard said. “We had to carry all our supplies, but we would only stay a few days because there was no fresh water, electricity or plumbing.”
Willard also enjoyed going to the market that would be set up outside of the compound certain days of the week. He loved looking at the variety of fruits and veggies. Some vendors displayed seashells and rocks. “We weren’t like the stereotypical American children who would go to the store and beg for a new toy; we would beg our mother to buy us a new kind of fruit to try,” Willard said.
Another memory Willard has from their time in Papua New Guinea was his mother returning to America for months at a time to give birth to another sibling because the medical system in PNG is not advanced. Willard stayed with some of his siblings and his father back in PNG while his mother was away. This happened twice in the three and a half years they were there.
Willard said that many families invited them over for meals when his mother was gone. Even at his young age, he recognized that his church family was reaching out to them in Christian love. “But Wi even today I do not like rice and beans or peanut butter and jelly since I ate so much of them when my mother was gone,” Willard said.
After three and half years, the Appells returned to the US for a “home assignment,” and Willard’s father became the principal at Mohawk Valley Christian Academy (MVCA) where I taught Middle School. The first day that Willard walked into my classroom, he was surprised that our class was already familiar with him. While the Appells had been on the mission field, their name had been on my prayer board and my class had been praying for him and his family.
During this time, I had the blessing of getting to know the whole Appell family. While I was teaching Willard and his sister in the Middle School Learning Center, Mr. Appell was teaching my youngest daughter in the Sr. High Learning Center, and his younger children were in my Sunday school class. I got a first-hand glimpse into the lives of this incredible family. You would think with so many children, that they would be absorbed with the needs of their large family, but that wasn’t the case. They had an amazing ability to balance the needs of their family with ministry. They would frequently invite neighbors, church friends, and students into their home for meals or special occasions. And they never missed a chance to share the Gospel.
“One of the best things about being back in the States was being able to see my family again,” Willard said. Willard is from a large family and has many aunts, uncles, and cousins in New York State and other parts of the country.
Willard enjoyed the archery program and field trips at MVCA. His favorite trips were to Fort Stanwix and Fort Knox. But his most memorable school event was helping his father and a crew of volunteers knock down a wall between two classrooms to make a large learning center. Also, he loved the classroom aquarium.
While Willard was in my class, his mother gave birth again. After his mother had flown across the world to deliver the last two children, the Appells didn’t think anything could possibly go wrong. But the birth of their eighth child was truly unforgettable. Otto was born in their van on the way to the hospital.
The Appells were originally planning to stay in the US for two years and then head back to the same place in PNG where they had been. They spent most of their second year preparing for this plan, but God closed the door to return to PNG, so they stayed in the US another year. Their mission agency found another assignment for them, this time in a country in the Asia Pacific close to PNG.
“Going to a different country was harder because we had no expectations. It was the unknown. When we went to PNG, my father already knew people there,” Willard said.
This time the Appells were moving across the world with a family of ten, the children ranging in age from 1 to 15. “My Aunt, my mother’s twin sister, who is also a missionary in the Asia-Pacific region met us at the airport in the capital near where she lives. We were able to spend a few hours with her, and she helped us get through the airport and onto our domestic flight to our destination which was another five-hour plane ride,” Willard said.
The Appells settled into a house in the small city down the hill from the large school where Willard attended, and where Mr. Appell taught. “The school was on a large campus with lots of buildings, ”Willard said.
While in the Asia-Pacific, the Appells faced many challenges. After they were there only a few months, following a week of severe rains, there was a landslide from the mountain overlooking the school and city. Boulders the size of houses and cars tumbled down the mountain along with tons of silt, causing the river to overflow. Over a hundred people were killed, and others were left homeless. The school complex opened as a temporary shelter where the teachers served 24/7 caring for the needs of the many national people who had been flooded out.
Willard was able to help by sorting and distributing donated food and other necessities. He also helped shovel silt out of the home of another missionary who lived nearby. “Silt is heavier than snow,” Willard said. “It was very difficult.”
During the same week as the flood, Willard’s mother, Amy, contracted an eye infection. She first checked with a national medical clinic on a compound nearby and was given some medicine which didn’t help. Her eye was getting worse fast, so she was advised to get immediate care at a local national hospital. The doctor there told her to seek care at a specialized eye clinic in the capital city or go back to America, so she flew to the capital, accompanied by her oldest daughter, Ruth.
The treatment in the capital didn’t help either, so Willard's Aunt (the one who is also a missionary in the Asia-Pacific) connected her with a pastor in Singapore. The head eye doctor from a hospital in Singapore was in his congregation. Amy and Ruth flew to Singapore for Amy to receive treatments from this doctor. The pastor and his family hosted Amy and Ruth for over a week, drove them to doctor’s appointments, cared for and fed them while she received the medical care that she needed. The treatments were successful, and at the end of the time, the Pastor’s church in Singapore took up a love offering for Amy. She received the exact amount to pay the hospital bill.
Also during the week of the flood, Amy found out she was pregnant with her ninth child. After much prayer, the Appells decided that Amy would give birth in in the Asia-Pacific. This would be their first child not born in the US. The medical care was more advanced than in PNG, so they felt it would be best to stay together and have the baby on the mission field.
When Mrs. Appell came home from having the baby at the hospital, the Appells invited the neighbors over to hold the baby and to enjoy fellowship. “The national people were shocked, but they loved it. Over there, they have the baby and keep it inside all bundled up and safe away from others for many months,” Willard said.
Just as in the US, the schools in Asia-Pacific went remote when Covid-19 swept across the world. The Appells finished the school year and were planning to fly back to the States. After many delays, they were finally able to fly back in mid-July, 2020, in the height of the pandemic.
This past year, the Appells have been traveling and visiting churches to raise support to return to the mission field. “When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate going around to the different churches, “ Willard said, “but now I love it. I have made many friends that I will miss when I go back.”
I asked Willard what it was like being a missionary. “As a missionary you learn to trust in God in all situations,” he said, “Plans are always changing and being delayed. You go for long periods of time not knowing what you are going to do.” The Appells are experiencing one of those delays now. They are planning to head back to the Asia-Pacific as soon as possible, but their visas have been delayed due to Covid.
Perhaps Willard’s best commentary on being a missionary is found in a poem he wrote for a school project.
Trials are fire;
They can blister and burn,
But can seal a wound,
And infection spurn.
Trials are rain:
They can drench and chill,
Or water your garden,
And your cup fill.
Trials are wind:
They can uproot and demolish,
But freshen your day,
And heat abolish
Trials are trees:
They crush and invade,
But clean the air and give you shade,
Trials are tools to make you bend and fold,
But if you push through,
You’ll come out as gold.
The Appells serve with Ethnos360. To support the Appells through prayer or through financial contributions, click on the following link:
*Photo credit for portrait Mrs. Shiho Tadano
*Photo credit for background photo: Pixabay