First, Diane Wamhoff went to Brazil to work with children infected with AIDS to try to find what she had lost. She didn't find peace or purpose there. Then, in 2002, she joined a friend's mission trip to Honduras to help build a place for homeless girls. When a nun offered to take her and a few others to a remote mountain to visit a village, she continued on the search that had propelled her from her comfortable, suburban life.
Her only son, Timmy Ellison, had died in a car accident almost a decade earlier, when he was 23. There is a deep emptiness that accompanies that sort of loss.
She understood hardship from her own childhood. The eldest of eight children, Wamhoff remembers wondering why Santa left just one small gift for her while her friends received so much more. She grew up putting cardboard in her shoes to make them last longer.
But, on the mountain near the village of Guaymitas, she confronted the most abject poverty she had ever seen in her life.
Wamhoff stood there and saw children forced to eat grass and weeds to survive. When the nun asked if they would be able to help build the kitchen that the rundown school needed to provide government-funded rice and beans, Wamhoff recalls the church saying it didn't have the money. So, she raised her hand. "I'll do it." This was a way she could keep her son alive in people's hearts. Afterward, she considered it a message from her child and her God.
"Timmy was saying, 'This is it, Mom,' and God was saying, 'This is what you've been looking for.'" She came back home to St. Charles, Mo., where her husband runs a financial planning business, and told him: "Guess what, honey. We're going to take care of a hundred kids in Honduras."
"Okay, we'll have a golf tournament," he said. The moment changed their lives. A kitchen begot a generator, which helped power a new building, which turned into a vocational school, which eventually became a high school. Their golf tournaments and fundraisers have brought in about a million dollars over the past decade. They go to deliver money and supplies and work on projects about six times a year.
Wamhoff, 65, is an unlikely benefactor in this Central American republic. More than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. The murder rate is among the highest in the world, partly because of its pivotal spot in the drug traffic moving from South America into the United States. The country recently held its first open election since a coup overthrew the government in 2009.
The Wamhoffs recognize how much more dangerous the country has become since they started. They now hire three armed security guards to ride with them during the hourlong drive from the airport to the mountain, and have the armed guards stay at the compound with them. "It's kind of scary," she said, about the ride from the airport.
She only knows one word in Spanish, "bonita," and pronounces "tortilla" with an "l." She says knows the faces of the children in the school, although she can't remember their names.
The importance of keeping Timmy's memory alive to his mother is evident in how much is named in his honor. The initial project was called Angel Timmy's Kitchen, there is Angel Timmy Grade School and Angel Timmy's High School -- the mountain itself is now informally called Timmy's Mountain, Wamhoff said. The families there know who he is.
When she first arrived, there was one person on the mountain with a sixth-grade education, Wambuff said. Last year, more than 150 children attended the school and nutrition program. Eleven students have graduated from high school, seven of whom are going to college. One of her "kids" is in medical school, she says, as proud as if it's her own child's accomplishment.
The child she lost is as present in her life as ever. She talks to him frequently. "When I talk to Timmy I say, 'Well, I hope you're proud of your mother now.'"