By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published June 13, 2019
ATLANTA—Mike Barry, former parishioner of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, has made dozens of mission trips to Ghana, forging a bond with the people of the West African nation.
Initially inspired by the mission work of his late wife, Danise, Barry volunteered at an orphanage in the Volta region of Ghana in the summer of 2014. Moved by the “gratefulness, charity and sincerity” of the Ghanaian people and needs of children there, he started the Pope Francis Outreach Program.
The Barrys sold their family real estate business in 2009 when their youngest daughter went to college. Their plan was to take on mission work full time, but then Danise was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. She died in 2012.
She had made her first mission trip to Honduras to visit St. Philip Benizi’s sister parish in the early 2000s. After her death, Mike Barry thought going to Ghana would be a good way to honor her dedication to others.
“That was sort of the focus. The storyline sort of switched to the children,” he said.
Through his parish priest, Barry met the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, of the Diocese of Ho, Ghana. The sisters work at the Margret Marquart Catholic Hospital in Kpando and belong to a religious congregation started in 1971 in Ghana.
Sister Justine Ayivor, community health nurse in the children’s ward at the hospital, introduced Barry to many children who had acquired HIV at birth. Most are orphans, having lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.
“The children are with extended family or whoever will take them in. But because of poverty, many die of starvation, not AIDS,” said Barry.
The courage and spirit of the people of Ghana moves Barry.
“I literally fell in love with the people. They’re so spiritually driven,” he said.
Since the fall of 2014, the Pope Francis Outreach Program has been providing medical care, housing, school tuition, food and transportation for children in need.
But what the Sisters of Mary needed most was a home where they could provide continuous care and monitoring of HIV-positive children, as well as nutritious meals. HIV medications are available but must be taken with food.
Later that year, Barry partnered with the Diocese of Ho to create the Pope Francis Children’s Home and School (PFCHS) project. The project has nonprofit status in the United States. Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, diocesan administrator for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Savannah Bishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., serve on its advisory board. Bishop Hartmayer is a former pastor of St. Philip Benizi.
Barry, who now lives in Arizona near his daughters and grandchildren, bought 12 acres of land in the village of Avenui, Ghana.
“The U.S. dollar goes a long way,” he said.
Barry named the home and school after the Holy Father, inspired by the pope’s call to serve the poor.
The Holy Spirit’s work
In March, Bishop Konzen celebrated Mass and hosted a gala for the children’s home at the Chancery of the archdiocese. The event helped Barry share critical details of the needs of children in Ghana and how Catholics could help.
In a video interview, available on the children’s home website, Sister Justine explains her passion for helping HIV-positive children, a work she has undertaken for the past 15 years.
“I want to alleviate their suffering. They are also loved by God,” she said.
The greatest needs for the children are food, clean drinking water, vitamins and constant health monitoring.
Young patients most often come to the hospital with severe malnutrition. But with proper care in a home environment, their immune systems would improve, according to Sister Justine.
“That will prevent them from getting opportunistic infections,” she said. “They will grow, like any other normal children. They will attend school and develop their full potential.”
Tim Doyle of Atlanta, a parishioner of the Cathedral of Christ the King, also serves on the home’s advisory board.
“When I met with Mike and he took me through his plans to help orphans with HIV/AIDS in Ghana, I was both touched and impressed,” said Doyle in an email.
A retired Coca-Cola executive, Doyle said collaborating with the sisters and the Ho Diocese makes the home and school project sustainable.
“With that kind of local support and blessing, PFCHS is set for success to help those who are least able to help themselves,” he said.
Some 90 nuns of the Sisters of Mary congregation who work in the fields of nursing, social work and teaching, will be involved in the work of PFCHS, said Barry.
In his career, Doyle held leadership roles with Coca-Cola Southern Africa and eventually was vice president and chief financial officer for the Coca-Cola Africa Group, with responsibility for directing the finance teams across the more than 50 countries on the continent. He was one of the founding trustees of The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation.
Doyle’s work allowed him to witness great needs as children with HIV are dying due to lack of food and stable care.
“The hard part is figuring out what to do about it. With so many needy children it can seem so daunting that it is easy to just give up,” said Doyle.
He said the Pope Francis Children’s Home and School is an opportunity to help one child at a time in a lasting, transformational way.
“It will be one of the first children’s homes and schools to provide for children afflicted with HIV in the Volta region of Ghana,” he said. “This is truly the Holy Spirit at work.”
In his retirement, Doyle is a Eucharistic minister and caseworker for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He also serves on committees of the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia, the Mercy Care Foundation and Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School. Doyle is a member of the advisory council for St. Peter Claver Regional School, Decatur.
In March, Barry announced that construction would begin on the first phase of the project, building two dormitories, a medical clinic, a kitchen and housing for the sisters. Most of the first phase cost of $300,000 has been secured.
The overall project includes 10 buildings, housing for 100 children, a school and St. Francis Chapel. Total cost is $1.5 million, said Barry. He expects the total project to be completed in early 2020.
Volunteer grant writers and researchers are needed. Schools can organize drives to benefit the children in Ghana. Our Lady of Victory School, Tyrone, and St. John the Evangelist School, Hapeville, have sent shipments of food, school supplies and medicines. Barry said there are opportunities available to sponsor children.
Barry is organizing an Oct. 21-29 trip to Ghana for “Catholic mission work plus cultural adventure.” The trip will include a ribbon-cutting for PFCHS, a visit with the children, lunch with the Sisters of Mary and daily Mass.
Barry’s own loss has become a story of hope, and when home in the U.S. he feels connected to the people of the West African nation.
“I’m half Ghanaian,” he said.