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Young couple traces unusual route to Kansas

Staff writer

Hillsboro residents may have noticed the Waldron family at events like Hillsboro High School and Tabor basketball games. The young couple, complete with an energetic 2-year-old in tow, is hard to miss, especially if daughter Lydia is dressed in her fuzzy Bluejay outfit.

Those same residents may have wondered how the Waldrons ended up in Central Kansas.

Neither Lee or Sara Jo grew up in Hillsboro.

Lee was raised in a small agriculture community near Bakersfield, Calif. And by small, he qualified that he was about five minutes away from a Wal-mart and there was a Starbucks in town.

Even though they are devout members of Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church — where Sara Jo serves as youth pastor — people often remark that Waldron is not even a Mennonite name.

Lee jokes that he is an imported Mennonite.

What persuaded the Waldrons to live in Kansas were good connections, a small town that featured a healthy number of young families, and a bit of financial help.

Still, the Waldrons had to make the most difficult decision of their lives.

Lee has never been the one to take the easy route. As a high school student, football was his life. He had a great season as a junior linebacker, compiling tackles and recruitment offers from small Division I and Division II schools in his home state.

The letters abruptly stopped when Lee tore ligaments in his knee early during his senior season. He thought his playing days were over and prepared for that reality. He decided to follow his faith and enrolled in Fresno Pacific University, a Mennonite Brethren school.

Then Lee’s youth pastor told him about Tabor, where the pastor had played football. In correspondence with the Tabor coaching staff, the Bluejays expressed interest in Lee and said he would have access to financial aid at the small college.

Faced with certain enrollment in Fresno or traveling to a tiny Kansas town he had never seen. Lee said he was called to Tabor and embarked to Hillsboro.

It was the right choice. Lee played an important role on the Bluejays dominant defenses from 2002 to 2006. He also gained lifelong friendships with teammates Robert Haude and Jake Schenk. He earned degrees in history and secondary education from the university. His first job out of school was in the Tabor admissions office working under Admissions Director Rusty Allen.

He also met Sara Jo. He was a junior, and she was a freshman. There was not much chance for a connection, however, before Sara Jo decided to pursue her education at Azuza Pacific University in California.

Two years later, in 2008, they were reunited at the wedding of Rob and Erica Haude. They hit it off immediately. Lee said they did not waste any time. They were married a year later, May 24, 2009. On July 20, 2010, Lydia was born.

All of these major life events happened in central California. After working for Tabor, Lee took jobs as a high school football coach and youth pastor in Reedly, Calif. He enjoyed both jobs, which provided the family sustenance.

However, Lee said, the writing was on the wall. Sara Jo was unhappy in Reedly because she wanted to be closer to her family in Chapman. Soon after they settled down in Reedly, Lee started looking for a job in Kansas.

Then the economy nose dived while they were in California. Teaching and coaching jobs were especially scarce.

Again, Tabor was the salvation. Lee and Allen kept in contact while Lee lived in California. Now the vice president for athletics and enrollment management, Allen told Lee that he an opening for an enrollment operations manager that he wanted Lee to fill.

Lee was faced with the 1,500-mile decision all over again, only now he was responsible for an entire family. He knew they would be happy in Hillsboro. They had very few bad memories from their time at Tabor. But there was the monumental task of moving their entire life, including the financial burden to do so.

Relief came with the Rural Opportunity Zone program. Lee said it was not the reason for the move but it offered annual payments for five years on his student loans. By September, $3,000 of his loans will be paid.

Loans were a burden Lee planned to bear. But now he has the opportunity to put student debt money towards credit card and mortgage payments.

“It’s a lot easier to not be smart about your money,” Lee said.

What really made the trip worth it was joining other young families in Hillsboro. Since they moved in the summer of 2011, Jake and Audra Schenk and Robert and Erica Haude have moved to Hillsboro.

“As much as I wanted to bank the government assistance, if this wasn’t a community I enjoyed, I wouldn’t want to be here,” Lee said.

Last modified Aug. 1, 2012

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