Carol and Paul R. Yoder Jr. trace their charitable impulses to their respective sets of parents.
“My parents always tithed, plus,” says Paul, referring to giving more than the biblical standard of 10 percent of one’s income. “They were farmers when I was growing up… I remember them borrowing money to support the missionaries until their wheat check came in.” After Paul’s father stopped farming in mid-life, he shifted to pastoring and then (late in life) to fundraising for Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).
Carol’s parents were also farmers and they too tithed religiously. “In every way, we’ve been blessed,” she says. “How can we not give?”
Paul cites a favorite quotation: “It is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
After 48 years of marriage, these 1963 graduates of EMU exude a sense of comfortable companionship. They wait respectfully in joint conversations, making space for the other to wrap up his or her set of sentences, before offering a new thought.
He is an eye surgeon; she used to be an operating room nurse. They live in a large all-brick house on a hill overlooking their own lake on the outskirts of Harrisonburg. But the Yoders’ demeanor is unassuming—one could almost see each of them helping with haying or hanging out the laundry, way back when.
After decades of quietly funneling large sums to many worthy projects in the Harrisonburg area—and to some outside of the region—Carol and Paul have at last allowed themselves to be publicly recognized this year as the “Philanthropists of the Year” by the Shenandoah chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
What induced them to step into the spotlight? “We do understand the power of examples of philanthropy in encouraging others to give,” says Yoder. “And we are finally off all of the local boards on which we have served.”
When one or the other of them was on the governing committee of Rockingham Memorial Hospital, Eastern Mennonite High School, Eastern Mennonite University, Park View Church, Virginia Mission Board and a local bank, the Yoders felt that “detractors might say we were using our positions for personal gain or power—to push our own agenda.” They also wanted their two daughters—Liesel and Nicole—to be able to blend into the student population at their Mennonite schools and colleges, rather than being perceived as offspring of one of the institutions’ underwriters. So they simply gave without fanfare.
The Yoders began their lifelong commitment to cross-cultural service when they went to Nepal in 1968. Needing to do alternative service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Paul chose to work as a newly minted physician—he was between his internship and residency—under the United Mission to Nepal. When Carol and Paul returned home in three years later, they were carrying Liesel, adopted in Nepal.
About a decade later—after Paul’s practice was established and their children were in elementary school—Carol read a book about Medical Ministry International (MMI), which had begun with a small group of volunteer eye surgeons. Paul and Carol signed on and have been on at least one service trip per year for a quarter of a century.
Paul explains the ripple effects of the program: “We started going to Ethiopia six years ago. We met two Ethiopian doctors in their first year of surgical residency—they came to us and said they wanted to be ophthalmologists. We [MMI] sent them to the Dominican Republic for a four-and-a-half-year training program. Then they went back and we helped them set up a clinic. The next time I went to Ethiopia, I was assisting them!”
Carol explains that “MMI serves the world’s poor by trying to lay the groundwork for lasting solutions to their lack of medical care.”
Though fit and active, both Yoders feel that it is time at age 70 to step aside from almost all of their public responsibilities, making room for a younger generation to step up. Paul enjoys running, golf, tennis and skiing. Carol ran miles daily until age 69 and now simply walks strenuously. The secret of their robust health? “You just have to keep moving,” says Carol.
Paul is a member of EMU’s Commission for the Sciences, which is leading an initiative to renovate and enlarge the Suter Science Center.