Making your way around the streets of Las Peñitas, Nicaragua, is no easy task, and it only gets more difficult as you walk up the rocky, washed-out dirt paths into the fishing village where Fuller Center for Housing volunteers are helping hard-working families build simple, decent homes.
As hard as it is for volunteers to traverse those village trails that can only loosely be described as roads, it is even more difficult for Quell Jenkins. The 23-year-old is confined to a wheelchair.
But those who know Quell Jenkins were not surprised to see her volunteer to help build homes for those in need — nor were they shocked to see how hard she worked on the job site or how much inspiration she brought to every person she met along the way last month.
What Jenkins saw on those roads of Las Peñitas pales in comparison to what she has witnessed — and overcome — on the streets of New Orleans.
“I feel like God has helped me overcome a lot in my life,” the Ponchatoula, La., resident said.
What does she mean by “a lot”? Jenkins’ father died a few days before her second birthday. Her mother’s life was consumed by drugs. She grew up on the streets of New Orleans, in the projects and in the homes of various relatives. When she was 12, Hurricane Katrina struck and she lived a couple of months in California. As a teen, she joined a gang with some friends who lived in her housing project. Finally, she left the gang, got back into her grandmother’s church and recommitted herself to her schoolwork.
Then, at 17, she got into an argument with an ex-boyfriend. The young man shot her three times, leaving her paralyzed. She got out of the hospital three months before graduation, and the school allowed her to catch up on her studies and receive her diploma. But she was in a dark place.
“It paralyzed me and changed my whole life,” Jenkins said. “It was really hard for me during that time trying to figure out why God put me in this situation at such a young age. I was struggling with depression — hating myself and hating other people.”
Her sister invited her to join her church, First Baptist Church of New Orleans, in an effort to lift her spirits. There, she made friends who were full of joy and committed to serving others. Jenkins saw their Christian service as the power behind their enthusiasm for life. She began studying scriptures, was saved, and joined a church ministry to help the homeless of New Orleans.
“It was really hard for me during that time trying to figure out why God put me in this situation at such a young age. I was struggling with depression — hating myself and hating other people.” — Quell Jenkins
It was while feeding the homeless that she met Mike Chance, who was a pastor in New Jersey at the time.
“I shared my story with him, and we exchanged emails,” she recalled. “He came to New Orleans on several occasions with his family, and they’d always come pick me up. I didn’t know it, but God was tugging on his heart to take me in as his daughter.”
After the Chance family moved back to Ponchatoula, La., where Mike is a senior adult pastor at First Baptist Church, they welcomed then 19-year-old Quell into their family. She calls Linda and MIke Chance “Mom” and “Dad” and now has a brother and two sisters. But it was a new aunt in nearby Hammond, La. — Tamara Chance Danel — who inspired Jenkins to work in Nicaragua.
Working in Nicaragua
Danel, who leads the Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center in Hammond, La., held a local meeting to encourage people to join her on a Fuller Center Global Builders trip to Nicaragua. In rolled Jenkins, along with three friends — Sara Rehm, Zoia Carr and Reggie Taylor, all of whom wanted to help the families of Las Peñitas.
“It was actually my idea,” Jenkins said. “Honestly, I just love missions, and I love ministry. And I know a decent home is very, very important. Stability is vital to your future and the things you can accomplish.”
Jenkins developed strong relationships with the group’s homeowner partner in Nicaragua — Lourdes — as well as with fellow team members, other residents of Las Peñitas and with the staff of the local Fuller Center that made sure Jenkins could fully participate in the weeklong project.
“God just provided everything that we needed for her to be able to be productive,” Danel said. “She stayed busy sifting sand and gravel and tying rebar and that kind of stuff. She learned a lot about construction and just really got a lot out of the trip.”
“Because I’m in a wheelchair, wherever we went it was always a little extra hard for me to do things,” Jenkins said. “But the people tried to make it as easy as possible. The Fuller Center team went above and beyond to make sure that I was comfortable and that I was included in everything. (Construction leader Jose) Santos made sure at any given moment that I had something to do. He never made me feel like I couldn’t do anything. He was always like, ‘You can do it.’ I appreciated that.”
“Because they have so little, they’re so grateful for everything. They go above and beyond. I feel like that’s something a lot of us in America are now missing because we are so spoiled.” — Quell Jenkins, talking about the residents of Las Peñitas
Fuller Center experiences ultimately are more about people than about houses, and Jenkins found that to be especially true in Las Peñitas.
“I love the Nicaraguan people, and I’m hoping to go back again one day,” she said. “They’re amazing. Because they have so little, they’re so grateful for everything. They go above and beyond. I feel like that’s something a lot of us in America are now missing because we are so spoiled.”
Alberto Maradiaga, a staffer with the local Fuller Center managing the Las Peñitas project, was so inspired by witnessing Jenkins’ efforts that her departure brought him to tears.
“Well, Quell, for me, is a role model,” said Maradiaga, who was tasked with helping Jenkins get around the village, though her friends often took care of those duties. “For me, it was a very valuable experience to see her humility, devotion and not minding being in the sunshine working with the team. My friend inspires me to be a better person more dedicated to helping those in need. Her example will live forever in my heart. For the first time, I cried seeing a volunteer leave.”
Putting the Bible in more hands
Jenkins now reads Bible passages every day, and she encourages others to do the same. That effort has developed into a ministry in which she and her friend Sara raise money to buy Bibles and give them to those without.
“I grew up in the church, but I never really had the thirst to read the Bible, and when I got saved I still didn’t have the thirst to read the Bible on a daily basis,” Jenkins said. “Then I met my friend Sara, and she loves her Bible. She reads it every day and takes it everywhere. I used to poke at her like, ‘We’re at the beach! Put the Bible up!’
“But she kind of rubbed off on me, and I got a thirst for the Bible,” she continued. “It just changed my whole life. You think once you get saved that you’re living for God and that’s it, but you have to continue to grow. A lot of people don’t experience the fullness of the Bible and the Word of God. On different occasions, God has shown me how much need there is for the Bible and His Word.”
“You think once you get saved that you’re living for God and that’s it, but you have to continue to grow.” — Quell Jenkins
Her thirst for the Bible was reinforced by a relationship she struck up with a Rastafarian during a mission trip to New York City last year. The Rastafarian was impressed with the way Jenkins clung to and constantly referred to a pink Bible she had received from her friend Lydia when she was saved in New Orleans.
“She’d never really heard about Jesus,” Jenkins said. “She had a lot of questions for me about Jesus. She was just so amazed with my Bible. I’d written all over it and highlighted scriptures. It was very hard, but I wound up giving it to her. She really appreciated it. I stay in contact with her, and the Bible has really opened her up to God and what Christ did for us.”
Today, Jenkins continues to give away Bibles but on a larger scale. She has launched a Go Fund Me campaign to help her raise money for her mission.
“When I started reading the Bible every day, it just changed my life,” said Jenkins, who added that she wants everyone to know that same feeling.
“This girl is somebody to watch,” Danel said.