Family's 'leap of faith' rewarded

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Todd and LaDonna Urick got a jump on the traditional count-your-blessings sentiment of the holiday season when they returned to Albany Sept. 10 after a yearlong mission trip to Eleuthera in the Bahamas.

"We had to go through what I'm calling 'reculturization' when we got home," Todd Urick said. "And the adjustment has been tough. I've told a few people this, but when I look at all we have in America, it's like everyone here has won the lottery and they don't even know it.

"I just don't think the people here realize how good they have it."

The Uricks are well-known in Southwest Georgia for their charity work with the needy and the less fortunate in the region. They founded the nonprofit Mission:Change to try and address some of the issues confronting the homeless and the hungry.

But it took a real leap of faith to gather their two young daughters -- Emma, 8, and Lily, 5 -- and leave their comfortable lives behind to spend a year working with the disaster relief organization Bahamas Methodist Habitat.

"We were invited to spend two weeks in Eleuthera before making a commitment to spend the year there to see if it was something we could adjust to," LaDonna Urick said. "Todd had visited before, and I knew it was something he really wanted to do. The make-it or break-it for me, though, was how the girls felt about leaving their friends behind to come to a place where they didn't know anyone.

"After we'd been there a while, Emma walked in one day and said, 'So, when are we moving here?' In a short period of time, our girls felt like they belonged. So we made the commitment."

Todd and LaDonna Urick met at Westover High School. He was a Class of '93 graduate; she followed suit in 1996. Just after Todd graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor's degree in marketing, the couple were married. He left a job at Phillip Morris in Atlanta to come back home.

In Albany, Todd Urick bought out an existing landscaping business, while his new bride worked at Albany Bank and Trust. LaDonna Urick worked her way up from teller to human resources executive, but she left the banking industry in 2005 when she bought the Clay Spot, a make-your-own crafts business.

When the Uricks heard of the plight of area youngster Easton Blanchard, who needed funds for a costly transplant operation, they wanted to help. LaDonna Urick made unique necklaces at the business, and she decided to sell them and donate the proceeds to help Easton.

Through sales of her jewelry and other items at the Clay Spot, the Uricks raised more than $6,000.

"We realized this is something we wanted to do," Todd Urick said. "I grew up with Ryan (his special needs brother), so I was always involved in the Special Olympics, and my mother had a therepeutic equestrian center. I was always involved to giving back."

LaDonna Urick said she too was exposed to helping others through her family.

"Both of our families always helped other people," she said, "and we were able to see how serving those in need made a difference in the way you look at life."

Todd Urick sold Lawnscapes in 2008 to start Mission:Change, a nonfaith-based organization aimed at helping those in need. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit worked, often behind the scenes, to raise funds that supported the efforts of other such organizations. Mission:Change became more widely known for its signature fundraiser "Hope for the Hungry and Homeless Sleep Out," an event that allows persons to leave their comfortable beds for a night and sleep in a cardboard box in the elements in an effort to "experience" homelessness.

In April of 2009, Mission:Change started conducting monthly mission projects in which its volunteers offered support to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, the Albany Rescue Mission and Faith Community Outreach Center. Mission:Change volunteers also conducted outreach programs through which they worked with inner-city children and provided meals and other needs for the city's homeless.

A mobile shower trailer, which will provide the homeless a place to take a shower and wash their clothes, is being constructed and will be delivered soon. The trailer was funded through Mission:Change's sleep outs.

A friend of the Uricks called them shortly after they'd started Mission:Change and asked Todd Urick if he'd be willing to come to the Bahamas to offer landscaping consultation. That three-day trip planted a seed that would lead the young family to their yearlong mission trip.

"When Todd came back, he talked about the experience nonstop," LaDonna Urick said.

Some "acquaintances who later became freinds" told the Uricks about a children's home director position in the Bahamas, and that led to a series of conversations about a possible mission trip. When an invitation came to spend a two-week get-acquainted period was offered, the Uricks accepted.

"I think what convinced me was I got a call one day at the Clay Spot from a woman who said she wanted to bring a group of kids by," LaDonna Urick said. "It turns out she had about 25 Indian, Asian and African kids who were part of a touring group. I was amazed and asked her how she got the OK from all the parents of those children.

She said they all were orphans.

"Before she left, she told me 'Whatever the Lord tells you to do, listen. I never even considered doing something like this, but it's turned into such a blessing'."

When the Uricks decided they were ready to commit to the mission trip, a couple of issues arose. The position for children's home director had been filled, and there was the business to consider.

The former was taken care of when Emily Bagwell, who had first contacted Todd Urick seeking a landscaping consult, mentioned that someone would need to take her place as settlement host for Bahamas Methodist Habitat when she left. The Uricks became a perfect replacement choice.

The latter? Well, that's where LaDonna Urick said the couple received divine intervention.

"In March of 2009, we committed to leaving for Eleuthera in August," she said. "We put the Clay Spot up for sale in April."

"We had people telling us we were crazy for a couple of reasons," Todd Urick said. "They said we shouldn't give up a successful business in the lousy economy, which they also noted, made it hard to find a buyer."

LaDonna Urick interviewed a number of potential buyers for her business, but she said she didn't feel that they were right to take it over. Finally, she said, the right person walked in the door.

"When I met Anita Riggle, I knew she was the one," LaDonna Urick said. "She was called there ... God had a hand in it."

On July 15, just over a month before the Uricks were to leave for the Bahamas, they closed on the sale of the Clay Spot.

In what Todd Urick called the "real Bahamas," the young American family settled in a 500-square-foot cottage -- a far cry from the 2,200-square-foot home they left behind -- in the James Cistern settlement. There was no TV and few of the creature comforts they and their girls had grown used to in America.

The Uricks hosted some 800 volunteers over the course of their year in Eleuthera, directing groups that came to the island to help rebuild substandard housing.

"It was amazing seeing these volunteers, many of them college-age kids who gave up their spring break to help others, making a difference in people's lives," LaDonna Urick said. "Families were getting running water and electricity for the first time. ... It was just a wonderful experience."

The Americans learned they didn't have to lock their vehicle at night, their kids could safely wander around the settlement, making new friends, and people who "lived paycheck-to-paycheck" were more than willing to share whatever they had with their neighbors.

And the girls loved going to school, even though it lacked amenities Emma said she has at her "fancy school" in Albany, Lake Park Elementary.

"We'd get an hour for lunch, and we could order take-out from someone's home or go home to eat," Emma said. "Our school didn't have lights, air conditioning, electric bathrooms (automatic flush), a gym or a cafeteria like the school here, but we had fun."

The stay in the Bahamas touched the Uricks, and they leave no doubt that they'd like to go back again.

"They really need some type of community center for the kids down there, and one of my goals is to find a way to build one for them," Todd Urick said.

Until they do return, the Uricks are back at work with Mission:Change. They took part in last week's third Help for the Hungry and Homeless Sleep Out, and they're preparing meals this week to take to the homeless. Emma and Lily are making cards to deliver to residents at senior centers in the city.

"One of the big things they say (in Eleuthera) is 'No worries'," Todd Urick says. "That's a pretty good way of looking at things. It's tough to leave that and get back to the hustle and bustle here, where our girls can't go out and ride their bikes in the front yard without one of us with them.

"We learned to live day-to-day while we were overseas, to appreciate what we were given. We learned to appreciate every day what God had created."