When Amy Duke made an announcement to Philadelphia Baptist Church (PBC) in Marshville, N.C., about an opportunity for families to sponsor a Wingate University volleyball player, she thought she might hear from a handful of interested church members.
Twenty minutes after service ended, all 18 athletes were matched up with families.
Dunja Sobot, an international student from Serbia, spends Thanksgiving with Kristi and Roger Cox, a sponsor family from Philadelphia Baptist Church in Marshville.
“There were more families wanting to participate than there were girls,” Duke said.
Duke coordinated the partnership between PBC and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Wingate, directed by Shannon Powell. Powell initially contacted PBC Pastor Caroll Anthony, searching for churches to sponsor each athletic team, said Duke.
“Caroll had been looking for a way to get onto campus to minister,” she said. “Caroll mentioned possibly doing something with Wingate, and before I even knew what it was, I said I wanted to do it!”
Duke’s daughter received a full scholarship to attend Wingate, and she too was looking for a way to give back to the school.
Sponsor families attended every home volleyball game, with some traveling to watch away games. They cheered the players on and stayed after games to talk to them. They took students to dinner, invited them into their homes, prayed for them and built relationships with them.
“‘Adopting’ the volleyball team at Wingate has been one of the best things we have done in a while,” said Anthony.
A home away from home
Kristi Cox, a PBC member, credited Anthony for creating a mission-minded church culture.
“Every door in the [church] building has a sign that says ‘mission field,’” Cox said. She recalled the first international trip PBC took to Honduras during Anthony’s first year as pastor. Cox went with her husband, Roger, and their two children who were in middle school at the time.
“It set the stage and opened our eyes to different people and cultures. We looked for opportunities like this – not only internationally, but opportunities to see from different perspectives.”
When Kristi and Roger learned the one international student on the team, Dunja Sobot, was from Serbia, they immediately chose to sponsor her. In February, the Cox family befriended another young woman from Serbia. Slavica Bambur was a certified nursing assistant who cared for Roger’s father as he battled complications from multiple myeloma.
“We loved her. She had great bedside manner. … We vowed to keep in touch even after my father-in-law went home to be with the Lord,” Cox said. “When we saw Dunja’s name on the team roster, also from Serbia, we felt certain God had a plan.”
Clay Bowers, 7, said he always wanted an older sister when his parents, Phillip and Carla, chose to sponsor Wingate University volleyball player Treslyn Ortiz. The Bowers now call Ortiz “a lifetime family member.”
Cox introduced Sobot to Bambur, and the two discovered they had plenty in common and even grew up in towns about one hour apart in Serbia.
Sobot recently spent Thanksgiving with the Cox family. “We have continued to enjoy and learn from our time spent with Dunja. We hope to give her a little taste of ‘home away from home,’” Cox said. “No one can replace a parent, but we feel like we can stand in, encourage her and support her.”
Cox also had the chance to get to know other players on the team from seeing them during games. “The whole church feels invested in the team,” she said.
Phillip and Carla Bowers have two sons, Clay, 7, and Drew, 3. Clay expressed the most excitement when they decided to sponsor Treslyn Ortiz, a student from Texas. “He said, ‘I always wanted a sister!’” Carla told the Biblical Recorder in an email.
“We thought we’d become a blessing to her, but it was the other way around. She has been a big inspiration to all of us, especially Clay,” she said.
“At first I just figured we would talk a little and pray for them, but this has turned out to be so much more,” Phillip added. “These girls have taught us so much about respect, teamwork and love. … Clay can’t wait for the next game or the next time he will get to see or talk to Treslyn. We thought this would be a one-year thing, but after the first meeting, we knew we had met a wonderful person and a lifetime family member, and now we have extended family in Texas.”
Duke, the program coordinator, agreed. She realized the relationships built between families and students would last longer than one volleyball season.
“These girls can be in our lives forever now if they choose to be.” She recently sent a text message to the player she sponsors, telling her she was praying for the team’s safety and health.
“She sends me back, ‘Thank you, Mama Duke. Thank you for being my second mama.’”