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Moving Forward in Faith

‘I Wanted to Give My Life to the Poor’

Janelle Keller’s journey from Moody Bible Institute to leading a ministry rescuing Mexican children from poverty, abuse and abandonment.
  • Jeff Smith
  • September 16, 2022

Her face still stained by the tears that had flowed that evening, Janelle Keller couldn’t believe the words she had just written in her personal journal.

“I wrote that I wanted to give my life to serving the people of Mexico,” Keller recalled.

A few days earlier, Keller could never have imagined reaching that life-altering conclusion. Shortly after Moody Bible Institute’s graduation in 1999, she had launched her ministry career as administrator for the outreach and extension ministries at Park Community Church in Chicago. A self-described farm girl from rural Perry, New York, Keller’s dream was to direct church ministries—“to be in the important meetings where decisions were made,” as she had envisioned.

As part of her new responsibilities at Park, Keller was accompanying a church group on a mission trip to Baja California in Mexico in November of 2000. The weeklong service project at a children’s orphanage operated by Foundation For His Ministry (FFHM) left a lifelong impression. Keller’s entire outlook changed as she befriended the residents of Baja, witnessed the stark poverty they lived in and cared for the kids in the orphanage and community.

“The people’s homes were tiny shacks with no running water, no electricity, little food, no modern conveniences, and a public outhouse—it deeply impacted me,” Keller recalled.

Janelle Keller holds a childAt the close of the mission trip, a 3-year-old girl fell asleep on Keller’s lap during FFHM’s showing of the JESUS film to local field workers and their families. After the movie ended, parents gathered their children to go home, except no one came to pick up the young girl. Unsure of what to do, members of FFHM’s staff escorted Keller and the child door to door in the nearby village searching for the girl’s parents.

Eventually a distraught woman approached the group in the street and confessed that the child was her daughter. She explained the gut-wrenching choice she had made not to retrieve her daughter in hopes that someone would adopt the girl into their family. As she wept, the mother confided she couldn’t afford to support her daughter any longer.

“She was so overwhelmed,” Keller said. “It was such an emotional moment. Everyone was crying. I was totally wrecked by it. The woman ended up taking her daughter home, but I was so impacted by this experience and the hopelessness of this woman and girl. It was the first time I had seen such an extreme level of poverty.

“I was never the same after that. I knew I wanted to give my life to the poor.”

Unexpected new purpose

Some 22 years later, Keller still shakes her head in amazement at the trajectory of events that unfolded since that defining trip, eventually leading to her assuming the role of FFHM executive director in 2015.

“It’s been a journey I didn’t expect, but looking back, God prepared me every step of the way,” Keller said.

From 2000 to 2006, Keller continued working at Park Community Church and leading church groups on mission trips to FFHM’s mission bases in Baja and Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico. Then in 2007 she decided to take the bold step of joining FFHM full time as an assistant at its Oaxaca mission base.

Keller and her roommate, Jill Smith, loaded their belongings inside Keller’s two-door Honda Civic and drove more than 2,400 miles with their 6-foot-2, 220-pound landlord from Chicago to Oaxaca. (For safety reasons FFHM asked the women to travel through Mexico with a man.) Smith continues working with FFHM today as director of operations.

After a few months as an assistant, Keller accepted an offer to become director of FFHM’s Oaxaca mission base, serving in this capacity until 2011. In 2012 her career took a different path when she was named executive assistant to FFHM’s founder and executive director, Charla Pereau, and worked out of the ministry’s US offices in San Clemente, California.

Three years later, when Pereau retired, Keller agreed to replace her. Keller recently completed her seventh year as executive director of the organization that opened her eyes to the pressing needs and opportunities to help the poor in Mexico.

“Janelle is a visionary leader,” said Cheryl Trevor, school director at FFHM’s Baja mission base. “She wants to make sure everything we do is with a clear purpose. She clearly communicates goals and vision so we can all be on the same page. She’s a great administrator, communicator and fundraiser. Most of our budget comes from donations, and she’s brought great financial stability to the ministry. If she didn’t do all the things she does, we wouldn’t even have a ministry. There’s no doubt that God led her to this ministry.”

A safe place for children to grow

Since its founding in 1966, FFHM has remained devoted to the same mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ by rescuing children, reaching the lost and restoring the broken. To achieve this multi-faceted mission, FFHM is invested in a variety of initiatives, such as Rancho de Cristo (drug and alcohol rehabilitation), Rafa’s House (a program supporting men after addiction recovery or deportation), Sinaloa Base (evangelism to migrant camps), prison ministries, and a church-planting outreach to unreached indigenous people groups in Oaxaca.

Two girls smileHowever, FFHM’s central vision is to transform communities starting with kids. To pursue this vision, FFHM runs children’s homes at its mission bases in Baja, Oaxaca, and Tijuana, providing round-the-clock support and care for boys and girls unable to live with their families because of being orphaned, abandoned, neglected or abused.

Many kids arrive at the children’s home in dire shape physically, emotionally and educationally. At ages 7 and 10, brothers Adolfo and Samuel were begging for money to survive on the streets in Oaxaca in 2018 when one of FFHM’s missionaries noticed their plight and called the police. The siblings were brought to the Oaxaca children’s home, where the staff discovered they had suffered acute physical abuse from their parents that manifested itself in feelings of fear, insecurity and inability to trust others.

“Four years later, after hard work by our staff in every area of these children’s lives, God changed their hearts tremendously,” said Jonathan Deras, director of FFHM’s Oaxaca mission base. “Now they are doing great as students and as mature boys growing up into young men. They are living examples of God’s miracle.”

Besides children’s homes, FFHM operates free daycare programs for indigent families, nurseries for orphaned newborns and toddlers, and schools for its children’s homes that give students a quality education, a vital component to breaking the cycle of poverty.

To fill a void left unmet by Mexico’s public schools, FFHM also recently established a special education learning center in Baja for kids with special needs. In addition, FFHM maintains student apartments in Tijuana that help orphaned teens from its children’s homes gain the skills and support to transition into adulthood. Along with orphans, FFHM meets the needs of children in the poverty-stricken villages surrounding its Baja mission base by providing nutritious meals, weekly Bible classes, and crafts and games.

Lifting up children weighed down by severe hardship

As Keller observed firsthand on her initial mission trip to Baja, millions of children suffer under abject physical and financial hardships in Mexico. More than 40 percent of families live at or below the country’s poverty line of $111 a month in rural communities and $170 a month in urban centers.

Staff members talk to a childBy contrast, 11 percent of Americans live below the single-earner income level of $12,880 a year, a figure which would be considered middle income in Mexico. Just 62 percent of Mexico’s children reach high school, and only 42 percent earn high school diplomas, principally because of poverty and their family’s need for additional income to survive.

Making matters worse, no social safety net exists for children in Mexico. Government services to meet basic living necessities are inconsequential at best. A foster care system hasn’t been created, international adoption has been outlawed since the 1980s because of the influence of human traffickers, and in-country adoption is rare due largely to widespread poverty. Child abuse, abandonment and neglect are prevalent issues in the country.

As a result, millions of children and teens suffer from a range of disorders—anxiety, depression, malnutrition, learning disabilities and debilitating trauma stemming from emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

‘She is valued and loved’

Six years ago, a 5-year-old girl named Maribel was admitted to the Baja children’s home exhibiting most of these disorders. She had been sexually abused and severely neglected while living with an older couple posing as her parents.

“She looked like she had been living on the street,” Trevor said. “She was messy, dirty, distracted, couldn’t sit still, and tore her papers, pencils and books to pieces in class. She was so emotionally distressed, anxious and lacked focus that she’d pull on her hair and color her hands and arms black up to her elbows with a marker. How to sit, listen, or follow instructions was hard for her.

“We’ve learned for kids dealing with such serious trauma to give them their space to cool down and not consider that they’re just being disrespectful. After being triggered, they need a moment to pull it together. If we can get them to a safe space where they can cool down, that makes a big difference. When we pay attention to their emotional side they become like sponges academically.”

For the last six years, teachers and house mothers have patiently and lovingly invested in her emotional, spiritual and academic development. As a result, Maribel has radically changed.

“She is now a fifth-grader who runs in our cross country club, is in the color guard and has absolutely figured out that she is valued and loved,” Trevor said. “She’s grown academically, is stable emotionally and has great relationships with her friends and teachers. I am so proud of her.”

Unlikely path to executive director

Keller’s journey to becoming FFHM’s executive director has helped her identify with the serious obstacles confronting kids and families in Mexico. Growing up on a dairy farm, Keller interacted with Oaxacan field workers employed by her father.

Janelle plays with a child“A lot of the Oaxacans immigrate from Mexico and end up in the dairy industry. They’re one of the poorest people groups in Mexico,” Keller said. “We’d have them in our home for meals. One year we hosted them for Thanksgiving. It’s interesting that God set things up in my life to open my heart to the Mexican people and go to Oaxaca.”

Though not nearly as underprivileged as the people that FFHM serves, Keller’s upbringing in a modest farm family instilled her with lessons in dependence and faith, especially when she was a student struggling to pay her college expenses.

“I remember once going to class when I was worried about finances. It must have been clear on my face because my professor asked me in front of the whole class what was going on,” she said. “I told him, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to pay my expenses for next semester.’ He said, ‘If God wants you here, trust that He will provide.’ Then he said, ‘We’re going to pass the hat around.’

“What a sight it was to see fellow students who were also poor passing a hat around for me. They collected $220. It put me super close to having the money I needed to cover expenses for the next semester. I saw that same thing happen in Mexico. At FFHM we’ve learned to depend on God for everything.”

Learning on the fly

When Keller was hired in 2007 to direct FFHM’s Oaxaca mission base, she encountered one immediate problem: her Spanish-speaking skills were minimal.

“I spoke Spanish as a 5 year old,” she said with a laugh. “About 80 percent of our staff are Mexican nationals, so I accepted the job offer and prayed a lot that I would learn Spanish quickly. A tutor worked with me twice a week. I studied a lot of Spanish at night, listened to worship music in Spanish, and watched movies in Spanish with subtitles. It took six months to learn Spanish fluently. It helped that I studied it in high school.”

As a first-time director, Keller also learned how to manage a large, diverse staff representing every aspect of the Oaxaca mission base—the children’s home and school, the church-planting outreach, the rehabilitation programs for local inmates, and the finance, operations, food service, and maintenance teams.

“I made sure they had what they needed, created budgets and did the vision work that comes with leadership,” Keller said. “I had a great staff. Everyone lives together at the mission base in staff housing. I lived and ate with the people I was also leading.”

Keller’s time as FFHM’s Oaxaca director was a valuable learning experience. “God taught me so much as director,” she said. “As Americans we really value independence and sufficiency. The Mexican people highly value community, relationships, and family. I wanted to run everything well. They just wanted to be together.

“The biggest thing I learned is dependence on God. I was director in 2008 during the Great Recession. I was watching how God continued to provide. We just had to depend on Him. We were doing work where we depended on God to do it or else it simply wouldn’t happen. With 95 percent of our budget coming from donors’ giving, we learned a deep dependence on God.”

Filling the founder’s shoes

Janelle with two teenagersAfter four years as a director and three years as executive assistant, Keller accepted the greatest challenge of her career when she was hired in 2015 to replace Pereau, FFHM’s founder and its executive director the previous 49 years.

“Charla is a huge visionary,” Keller said. “She grew FFHM to three locations with children’s homes, outreach ministries, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and prison ministries. Taking over for her was like taking over for Mother Teresa! She’s very respected and full of faith. It was great that I had three years working as her assistant. Not a lot of ministries survive the transition from founder to successor. We’ve been blessed that FFHM has continued to grow and people have transitioned their trust to me.”

Meeting more needs than ever

FFHM has continued to thrive under Keller’s executive leadership. One shining example is its free daycare program in Baja for the children of indigent field workers. In 2018 the program moved into an expansive new facility donated to FFHM by Mexico’s government. The bigger building enabled FFHM to increase the number of kids served each day from 30 to 100.

Janelle with a group of children“We told the government we’ll take good care of the kids and educate them, but we’ll also tell the kids and their families about Jesus. They said, ‘That’s fine; you have a good reputation in the area,’” Keller said. “Kids ages 6 and under come at 6 a.m. and stay till as late as five or six o’clock. The program is free; their parents do back-breaking work in poor conditions for $8 a day to support their families. We also have prayer meetings with their mothers on Saturday mornings. God has provided in such an amazing way.”

FFHM also broadened its services to teens in 2020, purchasing apartment buildings in the state of Tijuana so that young adults graduating from its children’s homes can continue to receive training and support while attending college. At the same time, FFHM opened a shelter for 14- to 17-year-old girls who need to be equipped to withstand the dangers of sex trafficking and drug cartels when they reach adulthood.

With Tijuana’s state government preparing to begin Mexico’s first foster care system—though, unlike in the US, it will not supply financial support to foster parents—Keller and the FFHM board of directors are organizing a new program with local churches. The initiative will connect girls in FFHM’s children’s homes with families willing to serve as foster parents. “As foster care is established, we want to be a part of that,” Keller said.

Under Keller’s direction, FFHM also opened its fourth mission base in the state of Sinaloa in central Mexico. FFHM teams are visiting migrant camps surrounding the capital city of Culicán, distributing Bibles and Christian materials and telling families and individuals how they can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Sinaloa is deeply impacted by drug cartels,” Keller said. “There are drug war orphans living with older siblings or grandparents because their parents are in a drug cartel. We offer an outreach of hope to these families.”

Creating a sense of family for orphans

As executive director, Keller presents FFHM’s vision and mission to prospective donor families and churches across the US and Canada. Through her fundraising efforts, FFHM has continued to expand the donor base to its child sponsorship program. FFHM depends on monthly support to sustain the needs of over 500 kids and teens directly cared for in its children’s homes as well as its shelters, daycare and nursery.

“Eight to 10 kids are in each home at the children’s homes,” Keller said. “They live in individual houses to keep numbers down and create a family environment. Besides our schools, we do events, camping and trips—things you would do as a family—that create memories for the children. The staff and house parents are very involved with the kids, helping them feel chosen and loved. We do the best we can outside of foster care. Foster care would be the next best option, with adoption as the best option.”

Unlike most other international child sponsorship programs, since FFHM’s sponsors are predominantly from the US and Canada, about half of all donors travel to Mexico to meet the kids they support, either on a mission trip or a sponsor visit to a children’s home. This personal connection is crucial to the children’s all-around growth.

“All of the kids have faced abandonment or abuse in some way where a parent can’t take care of them and they end up in our homes. Feeling chosen by their sponsors is part of their healing process,” Keller said. “Because of our proximity to the states, the kids see their sponsors as uncles and aunts who are important parts of their lives—writing to them, praying for them and some even visiting them.”

Helping Rubi accomplish her dream

FFHM’s emphasis on building a family atmosphere for orphans has made a tangible difference in countless children’s lives. As one example, Keller remembers two brothers joining the Oaxaca children’s home in 2010 when their parents were sent to prison. The brothers frequently talked about having an older sister named Rubi, prompting the staff to track her down. When they found her, she was living on the streets fending for herself after undergoing severe physical abuse from her aunt and running away.

“Rubi told us her dream was to be an OB-GYN,” Keller said. “I thought it was a big dream for someone who came to the home at age 16 and was far behind in her education. But she had a great work ethic and great sponsors praying for her and staying connected to her.”

Rubi operates on a patientToday, Rubi is 28, has graduated from medical school and is studying to be an OB-GYN.

“She’s active in her church and loves Jesus. To see what God has done in her life is amazing,” Keller said. “She’s a medical doctor, Doctora Garcia. She recently performed a C-section. Her sponsors are still part of her life. They visited her one weekend recently.”

Garcia said she never would have accomplished her dream without the support of her teachers, house mothers and sponsors at FFHM.

“Everyone at Foundation For His Ministry received me with so much affection,” Garcia said. “They spoke to me about the love of God. The most beautiful part is they showed me that love with acts, including my sponsors, whose support has meant so much. I want to thank all of them. I have the tools to change my destiny, the first tool being my faith in Jesus Christ, and the second my university education. I am currently doing what brings me the most passion: after working as a general practitioner in the IMSS hospital in Oaxaca, I have begun my specialty in gynecology and obstetrics.”

Read more about Rubi's story in 'Dream Come True.'

Moving forward in faith

As FFHM continues seeking to meet the ever-growing needs of children in Mexico, Keller said the chief challenge confronting the organization is filling key leadership positions with Mexican nationals.

“We want our ministries to be ideally run by Mexican nationals who understand the culture,” Keller said. “We especially need additional staff, leadership, and great house parents who can mentor the kids. We need to find good people and empower them.”

While rising inflation in the US and Mexico is another significant hurdle to climb—Mexico’s consumer prices are identical to those in America in spite of the nation’s substantially lower income levels—Keller also sees these economic woes as an open door to Mexican residents’ hearts.

Janelle with another group of children

“People being worried about the economic crisis in a country that already has a lot of poverty, that gives us more opportunities for ministry,” she said. “When people are at the end of their rope as poverty and the violence of the drug cartels increases, they’re more receptive to Jesus and the good news of the gospel. The question then becomes how we can minister well to the needs of the culture and to people’s day-to-day lives.”

Keller’s faith-filled, Christ-focused leadership style in the face of Mexico’s difficulties sets a positive, hopeful tone felt throughout FFHM’s ministry.

“My favorite thing about Janelle is how steady she is, her trust in the Lord, and the perspective she brings to the things happening in the ministry and even in my own life,” FFHM Communication Manager Sean Little said. “She doesn’t react; she takes things in, thinks about them, and when she speaks, it holds weight. I have a great respect for her and am dedicated to God’s work and the way she inspires me to continue creating.”

About the Author

  • Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is editorial manager of Marketing Communications with Moody Bible Institute. After earning a BA in Journalism from Eastern Illinois University, Jeff worked for 11 years in the newspaper industry as a news reporter, sportswriter, and sports editor before serving for eight years as editorial manager of Marketing and Corporate Communications with Awana Clubs International.