When Leah Fuller received her associate's degree from Owens Community College in 2001, she decided to take a break before continuing her studies at the University of Toledo.
"I wanted to take a year off but I didn't want to just hang out," she said. "I wanted to do something useful with my time."
Ms. Fuller, 26, a Springfield Township resident and Toledo Christian High School graduate, found what she was looking for with Book of Hope. That one-year break as a volunteer turned into a full-time, globe-trotting job with the Florida-based missions group.
The nonprofit organization, headquartered in Pompano Beach, Fla., was founded in 1987 by the Rev. Bob Hoskins and his wife, Hazel, with a mission statement that says it seeks "to affect destiny by providing God's eternal Word to all the children and youth of the world."
The Book of Hope itself is a condensed version of the four Gospels that tells the story of Jesus' life in chronological order. It is written in a way that is relevant to children and printed in a colorful illustrated format similar to a comic book. More than 400 million copies of The Book of Hope have been printed in 70 languages and distributed in 120 countries in the last 19 years.
Ms. Fuller, who is home for the holidays to visit her parents, Lance and Jane Fuller of Springfield Township, has traveled to 27 countries in five years with Book of Hope. In August, she moved to a 3,000-acre game preserve in South Africa where she is part of a team that is establishing the ministry's first international base camp.
"Basically it allows us to send teams to the camp, and from there they can go out and serve all southern Africa," Ms. Fuller said. "It also allows us to get to know these areas quite well, to get to know the culture and the people."
The game farm on which Ms. Fuller and her colleagues live has four separate encampments and is still used to accommodate hunting and fishing guests.
Giraffes, zebras, ostriches, kudus, impalas, antelopes, and other African wildlife wander the grounds, but it does not have any of the "big five," Ms. Fuller said, the term used for elephants, lions, rhinos, water buffalo, and leopards.
Ms. Fuller did a lot of driving around southern Africa this year, however, and saw "tons" of elephants, hippos, rhinos, and other big game, particularly in Pilanesberg National Park, in the country's North West Province.
She carries a small photo album in her purse with pictures of lions, rhinos, elephants, and more exotic game from Pilanesberg.
"That was a very beautiful place," she said, and less "touristy" than the more well-known Kruger National Park.
Ms. Fuller often travels to Eastern Europe and said she likes West Africa and South America.
Her favorite city she's visited, by far, she said, is Belfast, Northern Ireland.
"The city is absolutely gorgeous," she said with a bright smile. "I think that is where my strongest passion is now. I just enjoy the people, and its history is so intriguing. If I had the opportunity to live anywhere, I'd be in Belfast in however long it takes to fly there."
She was in India earlier in 2006 and visited a place called Pipe City, near Hyderabad, where people are living in abandoned sewer pipes.
"People made homes out of the cement sewage pipes," she said. "There was a whole field of pipes, and I walked around for about 20 minutes and found a cul-de-sac where a whole family lived. One pipe was the kitchen, one was the dad's bedroom, one was the kids'. It was amazing."
Ms. Fuller said usually works with schools and churches in distributing The Book of Hope and has seen the books have dramatic impacts on children's lives.
In 2007, Book of Hope plans to distribute 63.5 million copies of the book, at a cost of 33 cents apiece.
The organization recently branched out by creating an animated video called The GodMan, which tells the story of Jesus using computer animation.
The film includes "live-action wraps" designed to fit the local culture, Ms. Fuller said, comparing the format to the movie The Princess Bride in which the main film is bracketed by scenes of a grandfather reading the book to a young boy.
In the African version of The GodMan, for example, the live segments feature children talking as they head to a soccer game, and in the Indian version the people are riding a train.
"We've always been a print medium, so when we came up with The GodMan a few years ago, it was a drastic change for Book of Hope," Ms. Fuller said. "But our mission is to spread the Word of God, it doesn't say just the print word. This is also a way of spreading the Gospel."
The video is an effective tool for children who can't read, and also for those who would prefer to watch a film than read a book.
While the missionary life includes trips to exotic locales, it is not exactly glamorous and there are numerous pressures that go with the job, Ms. Fuller pointed out.
"It can be very hard - people trying to attack your car, stealing things from you. Flat tires. Getting lost. Bad food," she said.
Ms. Fuller lives out of a suitcase about 10 months a year and said it's hard building relationships when she's on the go so much.
And there are financial pressures as well. She is responsible for raising her own financial support from churches and individuals, and her budget is set by Book of Hope at $2,500 per month.
"That can be stressful, hoping the money is coming in every month. You wonder who else you can ask, where else you can go to raise money," she said.
"And apart from all the normal stuff that can happen, there's this spiritual warfare going on," Ms. Fuller said. "We are blatantly going into the devil's territory. Knowing that there are people at home praying for you makes a big difference.''
More information is available at www.bookofhope.com and www.leahfuller.net.
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