The Zahir School stands at the end of a road that "dissolves into a cow trail" in the remote village of Turiqica, Kosovo, a half mile from the Serbian border in a place heavily impacted by recent civil strife. Elder Sam Juncker and his wife, Sister Andrea Juncker, humanitarian service missionaries assigned to the Skopje, Macedonia, area found the families of this Kosovo community "in dire poverty" with virtually no employment. Twenty-five children in the village were attending the school that they describe as being in "horrendous shape" and, according to Elder Juncker, on the verge of being closed by the village because of its poor condition.
"We prayed about it a lot and wondered what could we do to get these children an education," Sister Juncker said. The missionary couple sought help for five months until "somebody said, 'I'll go and restore the electricity to the school.' Somebody else said, 'I'll donate some chairs and tables to the school.' Somebody else donated six used computers to that school."
However, the cost was too high to replace the school's floor, in some places worn down to the dirt below. That's when a man who took care of a local building the Church rents as a meetinghouse in Pristina, Kosovo, heard of the effort to assist the village and brought his floor contractor to the school. "They literally almost shed tears and said, 'We didn't know there was anything like this,'" Sister Juncker said.
The men set a reasonable price to fix the floors, which the humanitarian services budget covered, and, without extra cost, built up the thresholds, put new metal underneath the wood stove, tiled the entryway, made bookcases and built walls where boards were previously nailed together to divide classrooms. The community found money to replace the broken windows, Church Humanitarian Services donated school supplies and members from Macedonia donated clothes and toys for the children. The students and their families responded with gratitude and love.
Sister Juncker said whenever they visited the village, the children brought them little tokens of appreciation, such as a bowl of apples or strawberries. The Junckers also "received many hugs from the children" the day they brought the clothing and toys.
According to the Junckers, the school had eight teachers but "they were paid very little." Sister Juncker said that when she met with the one teacher who spoke English, she had a list of two or three things the school needed. "Other than the floors," Sister Juncker asked, "what about scissors and glue and paper and art supplies? She [the teacher] looked at me with the funniest look on her face and said, 'Scissors? We've never had a pair of scissors in the school.' We were able to get a lot of stuff like that."
Since 2004, Brother Juncker, a former judicial district administrator in Minnesota, had been working on a United States Agency for International Development Rule of Law project in the capital of Skopje while Sister Juncker volunteered in the schools. Upon their retirement in July 2010, they were called to serve as humanitarian service missionaries in Macedonia and Kosovo, part of the Europe Area. The Junckers, of the Princeton Ward, St. Cloud Minnesota Stake, returned from their mission in July.
During their mission, building relationships with the local people was their first priority. They started volunteering at a soup kitchen in Skopje, working with a group that sponsored the effort formed a number of years ago by Mother Teresa. "Andrea made a wonderful soup for a hundred, every Monday morning," Brother Juncker said. "I peeled potatoes."
"I think there was an understanding between the sisters and us that hadn't existed before," Sister Juncker said after nearly two years of weekly service there.
As part of their mission, the Junckers worked as local managers with Church Humanitarian Services to organize the neonatal training and wheelchair donation efforts in Macedonia and Kosovo. Trained medical personnel from the Church implemented the neonatal training for local doctors, nurses and midwives. The Church provided 275 wheelchairs in Kosovo, and Handikos, a partnering organization, fit the wheelchairs to individuals in need. Additionally there were other humanitarian efforts, such as Church's donation of five Braille writer machines for Dimitar Vlakov School for the Blind in Skopje, hygiene kits for impoverished elderly individuals at the Bardoci Retirement Home in Skopje and emergency food packets to distribute through Red Cross homeless shelters after a severe winter storm in Kosovo.
During one school presentation, Elder Juncker was explaining that they represented The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Sister Juncker recalled that "the director of the school threw his hands up and said, 'You don't have to tell me any more. I've heard all about you. I know what you are doing in Kosovo.' That was probably one of the greatest things on our mission — to let others see what the gospel is and what we do," she said.
Although they did not proselyte, they welcomed Elder Russell M. Nelson to Skopje where, on Sept. 9, 2010, he offered a prayer for the land of Macedonia and blessed its people. They also hosted sacrament and other Church meetings in their rented home every week for the 20 or so members and investigators, including a Russian sister who came up their driveway unable to speak Macedonian or English, waving her temple recommend.
"In February this year, we were incorporated into the newly formed Adriatic South Mission," Brother Juncker said. After two elders were assigned to Skopje several former colleagues told him they'd seen "those Mormon boys around town."