Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cancer Survivor Terry Schwartz

Despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer two years ago, Terry Schwartz of Lincoln continues to build schools in Latin American and African countries through Maranatha Volunteers International.

According to his nominator, Steve Wiley: "Terry said, ‘If I only have a short while to live, I'm going to live it doing what I love.'"

And so he does.

Schwartz's efforts, primarily as a construction superintendent for Maranatha, produce positive changes for the people who benefit from the schools and churches that are built. But those efforts also produce positive changes in the volunteers that Schwartz takes on Maranatha trips.

The volunteer crew members sometimes include troubled youths who undergo a life-changing experience from seeing their work through Maranatha produce positive results for others.

"For me, it's more about changing the lives of the volunteers than it is leaving things better in the communities we work in," says Schwartz. "It's just something that's important to my wife Dina and I. If not for our family here in Lincoln, we'd probably stay over there."

It's not as though Schwartz, 57, needs more things to do. When he is in Lincoln, he works as vice president of the Racquet Club, which is owned by his father, Marlyn. The family also has a partnership in the Old Cheney Center and owns Old Cheney Plaza and other properties nearby, so Terry manages approximately 50 business tenants.

He owned and operated Schwartz Construction until nine years ago, when his father asked him to work with him.

"I told him I like doing mission trips, and I'd work for him if he didn't make me feel guilty for taking trips," Schwartz says. "He had no idea what he was agreeing to!"

Last year, Terry and Dina spent a month in India and five and one-half months in Africa. In the past five years, they have gone on five to six Maranatha mission trips every year.

"I've been gearing my life around it," Schwartz says.

Each year, some of those trips involve leading a group of 40 inner-city youths from large metropolitan areas. Most would be in jail if they weren't signed up for the trip as a community service project, Schwartz says.

"When we start the trip, these kids have unbelievable gang attitudes and carry knives, have bad vices and freely admit they will work harder to get out of work than work," he says. "But the trips are a life-changing experience for many of them."

A former prostitute turned her life around after going on a mission trip and is studying to be a physician, Schwartz says. A former gang member is now a corpsman in the U.S. Navy. Another young man was failing at a military academy and in trouble for drug-related crimes before volunteering to serve on a mission trip led by Schwartz.

"He came with us, and in two years he went to the top of his class at the academy," Schwartz says. "He said the trip was the turning point in his life. It's fun to be a part of that kind of life-changing experience for those kids."

Not all of the trips are with inner-city youth in trouble with the law. Earlier this year, Schwartz led a group of 30 "really good kids" from Nebraska and Kansas to Choluteca, Honduras.

"It was pretty cool that 30 Kansas and Nebraska kids built three buildings in five days," Schwartz says. The group was the third of eight from Maranatha scheduled to help construct a nine-building K-12 school complex.

Schwartz has been volunteering for mission trips through many organizations, including Maranatha, since 1969, when he joined his father on a mission to Mexico.

The prospects of continuing such mission trips seemed dim on May 22, 2009, when Schwartz was diagnosed with prostate cancer that had spread to bones.

"From there it goes to the liver and lungs," he says. "On the Gleason scale of one to nine, I was a nine. There is no 10. That means you're dead."

Dr. Misop Han, a urologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, excised the prostate in surgery but told Schwartz that even after surgery, statistics indicate he would still have less than a 1 percent chance of living longer than 90 days.

"He told me he had never excised a prostate as tumor-ridden as mine," Schwartz says. "It's amazing to me that I'm still here after having all this stuff. There's no doubt in my mind that prayer is the reason I'm still here. Not just my own prayers, but other people's too. God has given me some additional time."

Schwartz says that when he is on a mission trip, he feels productive enough that he can forget about his health issues.

"God has plans for every one of us," he says. "I feel that doing these trips is part of God's plan in my life. Even when I don't feel like going or I don't feel like we can afford to go, when Maranatha calls us, we're going to go. I really enjoy the change it makes in our lives as well as the lives of the people we help and the volunteers."

Maranatha volunteers have completed projects in Lincoln as well, Schwartz notes. The People's City Mission, nonprofit Christian Heritage and building renovations at Union College are examples.

After Hurricane Katrina, Schwartz joined a group that spent six weeks in Louisiana rebuilding a school.

"Maranatha has a lot of work in the U.S. for people who don't like to travel outside of the states," he says.

When he travels, Schwartz, an avid photographer, enjoys shooting photos and sharing them with the local residents.

"In Zambia, I gave over 800 people photos of themselves," he says. "Not one of them had ever had a photo taken before. Those people have absolutely no material possessions, but they're such happy people."

On such mission trips to Africa, Schwartz brings along fellow photography enthusiast Dick Dirkson, host of the Maranatha Mission Stories TV program on 3ABN Christian TV and the Hope Channel.

"We spend a week after the construction shooting photos on Safari," Schwartz says.

Schwartz's parents, Marlyn and Sharon, and brother, Bruce, often join Terry and Dina on mission trips as well.

Schwartz notes that Maranatha mission trips are open to everyone, and he has had volunteer helpers from under age 10 to over 90. No skills are necessary. "We train people and make sure they have fun so they'll keep coming back," he says.