BUFFALO, N.Y. — A teenage trip to earthquake-devastated Haiti in 2012 changed the life of Wisconsin senior defenseman Jake Bunz.
And it changed the direction of an orphanage in that poverty-stricken nation.
Bunz was named the recipient of the 2019 Hockey Humanitarian Award at a ceremony Friday afternoon at Harborcenter at the NCAA Frozen Four.
Returning home from that trip, Bunz had a motivation to help the orphanage, located in the small mountain village of Fond Blanc about a 25-mile drive from Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince.
That led to the formation of The Fond Blanc Foundation, with the goal of providing funding for food, medical supplies and education for about 40 orphans. Now more than 60 are being served at the orphanage, with 400 additional children receiving educational aid.
Bunz has been a part of raising more than $250,000 for the foundation.
The idea to go to Haiti came from Bunz’s mother Tia, who serves as the foundation’s executive director. She had taught her son and other teenagers about serving and helping others as part of a confirmation class at their church.
From the moment the plane landed on that first visit to the island nation, Bunz was deeply impacted by what he saw.
“It’s extremely eye-opening the first time you go down there,” said Bunz. “What I noticed the most over the course of that first week was the situation that these kids were in. There were 45 kids at the orphanage at that time.”
Life for the children was difficult, with many suffering from disease, parasites and malnutrition, and with little clothing or other possessions.
“They had maybe a pair of shorts, a shirt,” said Bunz. “A lot of them didn’t have shoes. They were getting meals when they could. There were no consistent meals.”
How the orphans adapted to their meager existence especially struck Bunz.
“Their passion for God and their love for life and love for each other — it was just ridiculous,” Bunz said. “They didn’t have anything, really, but they still enjoyed every day like it was their last. They loved each other and shared with each other when they would get food.
“It was really just eye-opening for me and the rest of the 30 people on that first trip to see what little they had, but how much they did enjoy life.”
On that first trip, Bunz and his friends also experienced some difficult conditions.
“We lived at the orphanage for a week straight. It’s tough work. It’s backbreaking,” said Bunz. “We were building the foundation for a large church that they were putting on the orphanage. And it was pickaxes and shoveling and a lot of sweating in 110-degree weather down there and not very comfortable.”
The comparison between the joy and love he saw for each other from the orphans and the sorts of things that make comparatively affluent Americans grumble was especially striking to Bunz.
“It just really puts things in perspective when you’re down there,” he said. “It kind of removes you from the world that we live in, and it kind of grounds you a little bit.”
Bunz has made about a dozen trips to Fond Blanc. Despite the discomfort, he is eager to return each time, including for a two-week trip slated for this summer.
With so many trips over the past several years, Bunz has grown close to children at the orphanage.
“Every time I come back and we get off the bus, all the kids that I like — obviously I love all the kids — but two kids in particular, Givenchy and Franklin, they’re sitting there at the end of the bus waiting. And they yell, ‘Jake, Jake, Jake!’ and it just brings a huge smile to my face,” he said. “I know that they haven’t forgotten about me, and obviously I haven’t forgotten about them and we do have this deep-rooted friendship.”
Bunz was understandably excited when he found out he was the recipient of the award, and the $2,500 that comes with it for The Fond Blanc Foundation.
“I told my mom right away and she was really excited too,” said Bunz. “[She] will always tell you that fundraising is the hardest part of any nonprofit or foundation. It’s just tough to get the money to make the orphanage sustainable so that helps so much.”
The affable Bunz has found a role in the foundation that suits his personality and abilities.
“I’m kind of just a goofball down there,” Bunz said. “All the kids are pretty young, so when you act like a goofball they kind of like that. I call my role at the foundation the ‘fun uncle.’ I don’t have to crunch the numbers or do any of the hard groundwork. I get to go down to the orphanage, hang out with the kids and have a fun time. I get to recruit people that come on the trips so they can experience it and serve and help.”
The path Bunz has taken is not the one he necessarily would have chosen. He had hoped to become a star player at Wisconsin, but often found himself watching from the stands, playing in just 33 games across five seasons.
Yet he saw a purpose even in his disappointment.
“I kind of realized that God had put me in Madison not to be a superstar hockey player but to use my platform to help the foundation as much as I can,” Bunz explained. “I was put in a perfect situation because I had access to the student-athlete community while at the same time being 15 minutes away from my parents’ house.
“Being a student-athlete at Wisconsin even though I didn’t get the playing time that I wanted allowed me time and gave me kind of a drive to help the foundation and serve.”
Bunz, who will graduate in May with a degree in real estate and urban land economics, is unsure of his future plans beyond the summer trip to Haiti, but hopes to become a developer and is interested in issues such as affordable housing and opportunity zones.
As with many others who have been recipients of the Hockey Humanitarian Award, Bunz’s service is informed by his faith.
In his acceptance speech Friday, Bunz shared part of a Bible verse that he and his family strive to live by from Luke 12:48: “From whom much is given, much is required.”
“I have so much to be happy and smile about my life,” Bunz said. “I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities. I should be serving, I should be giving back. Because God’s given to me, I want to give it back to Him. And so it’s all for His glory and without Him nothing would be possible.”
Bunz hopes that his award and the recognition of others by the Hockey Humanitarian Award Foundation will serve as an inspiration.
“Not only myself but the four other finalists for the Hockey Humanitarian Award and the 16 other nominees — everybody who’s done such great things. I think it should be an inspiration to student-athletes across the country — even younger high school students or middle school students — to get involved with what they’re passionate about and serve and help others,” Bunz said.
“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you put in a little bit of time and a little bit of effort and help out with a cause that you care about.”