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United Methodists give college assistance to Latvian youth

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Edgars Vimba

Edgars Vimba visits the site of the future World Trade Center Memorial in New York City.

June 23, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

When Edgars Vimba became an orphan at the age of 18, he wasn’t sure what would happen to him.

The Latvian youth was just about to start his senior year of high school when his mother succumbed to breast cancer. He had never known his father. “I pretty much was left alone, on my own,” he recalled.

Now, three years later, he is attending Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, living with a host family and actively participating in a United Methodist congregation.

The change in his life came through United Methodist connections, beginning with the church in Latvia, which was trying to develop some social service projects. One project focused on assisting students from families in need with school books and supplies.

In the Cesis area, where Vimba is from, the school system helped identify 56 children for assistance. With a one-time grant from the denomination’s Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty, the Latvian church was able to give $16 to each student.

Vimba was attending his mother’s funeral when the grants were dispersed. When Kevin and Carol Seckel met him a few days later to give him the money, he spoke of his desire to attend a university in the United States.

“In meeting him, it was obvious he was a bright, bright kid,” Kevin Seckel told United Methodist News Service. He and his wife were then serving as missionaries in Latvia through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

That impression grew as they got to know Vimba, who also had the recommendation of his grade school principal. “He really deserved a chance if he could get one,” he added.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Edgars Vimba

Edgars Vimba has become a member of St. John United Methodist Church in Anchorage, Alaska.
While the Seckels didn’t have any connections at Harvard – Vimba’s first choice – they promised to check on possible scholarships elsewhere during a three-month furlough back home.

Many schools turned them down because scholarships for international students only covered about half the expenses. But when they spoke to officials at Alaska Pacific University – formerly called Alaska Methodist – a full scholarship and on-campus job were offered, provided he was successful on an English proficiency test.

He still needed a place to live. The Seckels contacted church members in Anchorage and Ed and Carolyn Crouch, members of St. John United Methodist Church, offered to host him. They had been friends with the Crouches for years “and knew that would probably be a good match,” Kevin Seckel said.

Douglas United Methodist Church, near Juneau, agreed to cover his book costs and Vimba flew to Alaska for the 2004-2005 school year on donated frequent-flier miles.

“When I came here, it was really a drastic change,” Vimba said, contrasting his old life with the new. Although he had some awareness of Alaska, “I had an image in my mind of a remote place, probably underdeveloped, which turned out not to be true.”

He has grown so close to the Crouches that “I don’t call them host family any more, I call them family, which is pretty much what we are.”

Vimba had attended Christmas and Easter services at the Catholic Church in Cesis but he found St. John to be quite a different experience. “It was nothing like going to church back home, (it was) so friendly and community-oriented,” he explained.

This past February, he was baptized – an act that had been illegal in Latvia at the time of his birth, he said — and became a full-fledged member of the church.

His active participation in the university’s business club has allowed him to visit other parts of the United States, including Hawaii.

Vimba’s educational career in Alaska has been so successful that he also started taking MBA-level classes through the University of Alaska at Anchorage. He took the SAT in the fall of 2005 so he could apply to several larger business schools to further his education.

According to Kevin Seckel, “it all boils down to economics,” noting that it is difficult to find a university willing to fully fund an international student at the undergraduate level. Vimba’s best bet, he acknowledged, may be to finish his undergraduate degree in Alaska and pursue scholarships for graduate school.

Vimba said he still remains interested in Harvard, as well as the University of Chicago. He is thinking about getting a year of work experience in the United States at a consulting firm or bank and then pursing an MBA or master’s in economics.

In July, he will return to Latvia for a month to visit his aunt, who helped nurse his mother through her cancer, and celebrate the 800th anniversary of Cesis. Eventually, he expects to return to Latvia permanently and hopes to contribute to his own country’s progress.

For the Seckels, who currently are assigned as mission interpreters in residence for the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdiction, Vimba is a success story of the Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty.

“He has a real potential to impact both his country and the world,” Kevin Seckel said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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