For Wisconsin’s Jake Bunz, helping Haitian orphanage becomes a passion

By Benjamin Worgull

Jake Bunz would welcome the opportunity to lead a symposium for all incoming student-athletes at the collegiate level.

He would do so for all those who come in with dreams of being the team’s leading scorer, winning championships or garnering a professional contract, and let them know that failure to accomplish those goals don’t define a successful college experience.

Case in point: Jake Bunz.

Bunz was a midseason addition to the Wisconsin men’s hockey team in December 2014 and spent more time watching games in a suit and tie than in a Badgers sweater. A native of the Madison suburb of Middleton, Bunz played just 33 times in five seasons, including only six times this season.

“I know when I committed, I was really excited and really pumped to have a shot at playing college hockey,” Bunz said. “When you think about it before you show up, you think about the positives and glory you get of being on a prominent Division I hockey team … but there’s a lot more that goes into it. Everything is a lot harder than you are used to.”

But the goal of being a professional hockey player was more the dream. In reality, few achieve in college what Bunz was able to. Bunz followed in his dad’s footsteps as a UW hockey player (Garry played from 1984 to 1987), will graduate in May with a degree in real estate and had a life-changing moment that has morphed his life path in far-reaching ways.

The latter reason is why he was named one of five finalists for the 2019 Hockey Humanitarian Award, given annually to one of college hockey’s finest ambassadors. The award will be presented on April 12 at the men’s Frozen Four in Buffalo, New York.

Two years after the devastating 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake to the island nation of Haiti that killed over 230,000 Haitians, Bunz was part of a mission trip to Haiti to help improve an orphanage in the remote mountain village of Fond Blanc, a two-hour drive from Port-au-Prince. It was on this trip that Bunz’s heartstrings were pulled.

“Seeing the kids and how unhealthy they were, having scabies, lice, had the typical malnourished bellies, all measured under their height and weight class with how old they were because they weren’t getting regular meals and proteins,” Bunz said. “Even with their conditions, they were grateful for what they actually had. They weren’t down in the dust. They didn’t know any better. They had nothing, and they thanked God for what they did have. That was the huge eye-opening experience.”

Returning home, Bunz became heavily involved in the creation in 2012 of Middleton-based Fond Blanc Foundation, an organization that had the simple goal of helping with medical supplies, food and education for 40 children. For help, Bunz’s mom, Tia, who went with him on that trip, serves as the executive director of the non-profit.

“As we got on the bus to leave, I’m seeing all the kids and it just hit me, we’re going to go back and live this comfortable life back in the States and nothing is going to change for these kids,” Bunz said. “They’re going to stay in these same conditions. I looked at my mom and said, ‘You always told us not to turn our head from people in need. We need to do something about this.’ That was the catalyst and when the foundation started.”

The work Bunz has done since then through philanthropy and manpower is noteworthy. He has tapped into the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at Wisconsin to organize trips for chapter members to work at the orphanage and convinced the UW Athletics’ community outreach program, Badgers Give Back, to raise $75,000 over two years.

That has helped turned a shabby dwelling into a complex with multiple structures for shelter and education programs and sustainability projects with animal raising and farming.

In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Tia Bunz estimated that the Fond Blanc Foundation has raised a little under $500,000 for the orphanage and school, which have an operating cost of just under $100,000 per year. The foundation is all volunteer-based and doesn’t take any of the money donated.

Since that initial trip, the Fond Blanc Foundation has helped the orphanage grow to include around 60 children who get medical attention, education and consistent meals, not to mention provide education to over 400 kids in the surrounding community.

“We don’t want to be the people who swoop in and save the day down there,” said Bunz, who has made a dozen trips down to the island to help build buildings, renovate housing, upgrade bathrooms and much more. “We want to create a relationship with them and make the orphanage sustainable on itself. It’s been nice to see the transformation from 2012 when we first went there to now.”

His teammates have seen Bunz’s passion firsthand. Senior forward Matthew Freytag, a close friend of Bunz, went two years ago to Fort Blanc and experienced the initial shock of the extreme poverty and tough conditions not found in a first-world country. But on the same accord, Freytag points to Bunz’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and get to work that made the seven-day trip a life-changing experience.

“He’s always talking about it and always doing stuff for it,” Freytag said of Bunz. “I remember him telling stories when he was a kid that we need to do something for them. He’s always been that kind of guy who wants to help. If you need help, he’s there for you. It’s natural for him. It’s amazing to see.”

Bunz’s hockey career won’t be much more than a name in the school’s letterman list, likely not worth more than a glance paging through the record books. That’s OK in his eyes. He would much rather have his impact felt by the malnourished kids getting a meal or helping Swenson, the Haitian Bunz’s family is hosting in their home, study so he can return to Haiti and run the school.

“I wanted to be the go-to guy on the team and it really didn’t turn out like that,” Bunz said. “At first I was really frustrated as a freshman and sophomore, after that too, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much as me being here with the hockey as it’s God put me here to use my platform to help other people and get the word out there about what’s happening in Haiti.

“It hasn’t been what I’ve expected, but it’s been better than I could have asked for.”