BY MARY KAY SWEIKAR
DANVILLE — Even when it’s a cold winter’s day in Danville, there’s a sense of the warm tropics at the home of Paul and Maria Sermersheim.
Around 5 p.m. each day, Maria is often preparing one of her family’s favorite Panamanian dishes, featuring a variety of mildly flavored fruits, vegetables and herbs.
The aromas of onion, garlic, cilantro and other spices are a tempting invitation to stay for dinner. And Maria always is willing to share her tasty meals with guests — even the unexpected ones.
“I learned to cook my country’s traditional food from my mother at age 9, while growing up in Panama,” Maria said. “I have nine siblings, so we all learned to cook in large quantities for the whole family.”
Panama is a small, narrow country located between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the southernmost nation in Central America.
The Sermersheims’ two daughters, Gloria, 10, and Suzet, 6, are eager helpers in the kitchen. They like to smash the garlic and plantains (green bananas) with a rock to help make the fried plantains, and they stretch out the pliable dough for the empanadas (meat and vegetable pies fried in canola oil).
Paul mostly enjoys test-tasting in the kitchen, but admits that he also likes to cook.
“My mother, Carol Sermersheim, has catered for more than 20 years, and she owned a restaurant before that,” he said. “You can say that my three brothers and I grew up with cooking all around us.”
The family often prepares their meals over the open flame of a wood fire in their back yard. “That’s the way they cook in Panama, and we love our food prepared this way,” Maria said.
The family has dedicated a section of their living room for displaying Panamanian memorabilia, including artwork made by a Kuna tribe, hand-sewn garments, a ceramic rice platter, and big-brimmed hats that are woven from palm leaves.
Maria is an excellent seamstress, honing her skills when she was a young girl in Panama. She also makes costume jewelry for a hobby and to sell.
Many family photos are displayed in their home, including a photo with six generations of women in Maria’s family. The Sermersheims visit Maria’s family frequently in Panama, and her relatives have spent summers in Danville — when the weather is warm and to their liking.
Maria has reached out to the community with her cooking talents in many ways. For the past six years she has been the family nutritionist with the Vermilion County Unit of the University of Illinois Extension Service. In her job she educates area fami-lies on basic nutrition, food safety, food budgeting and healthful lifestyles.
Maria donated a home-cooked authentic Panamanian dinner to the Vermilion County Peer Court Auction this year, and the winning bid exceeded $500.
Paul also has a strong connection with Panama. He volunteered with the Peace Corps there for three years, and then joined its training staff. That is where he met and then married Maria in 1996, within months of their first encounter.
When the couple met, Maria was working for a non-profit agency doing socio-economic studies. She has a degree in tropical agriculture from Earth College in Costa Rica.
Paul has a degree from Danville Area Community College in horticulture, so the Peace Corps placed him in that area of work — educating the farmers on planting and harvesting techniques and the use of pesticides.
After leaving Panama, the couple continued with volunteer work through a Catholic mission group. They joined the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus, completing six months of training in the Chicago area.
The Comboni missionaries reach out to the poorest and most abandoned areas of the world in order to introduce Christianity to the people living in the villages. Paul and Maria were sent to a very poor farming village in Mexico, which worked out well for them since they are both fluent in Spanish.
After 2½ years they decided to move back to Danville where they could find solid employment to support their growing family. “Gloria was born right before we left for our mission in Mexico, and people worried about us taking an infant to that undevel-oped area,” Maria said. “But the baby did fine. All 10 kids in my family grew up in similar conditions, and we all made it through.”
Paul has worked for the city of Danville for five years and has directed the county’s Peer Court program since 2005. Peer Court uses a teen jury system to bring together juvenile offenders, their peers and community agencies to determine logical and natural consequences for the offenses.
Suzet is in kindergarten at St. Paul’s Grade School and Gloria is in fifth grade there. Gloria is into basketball, volleyball, cheerleading and scholastic bowl. Her little sister hopes to follow in her footsteps.
Suzet takes swimming lessons at Turtle Run Golf Club and Gloria is on its swim team. Both girls speak fluent Spanish as well as English.
Paul and Maria are big community supporters, and they’re always ready to lend a helping hand. Maria uses her fluent Spanish and knowledge of Panama and Costa Rica to give presentations in the schools and to communicate with Spanish-speaking adults and children through her job with the extension service. She’s a board member of Your Family Resource Connection and Keep Vermilion County Beautiful, as well as the Comboni Missionaries.
Paul is a licensed auctioneer and has donated his services to many community groups, including Toys for Tots and the Vermilion County Animal Shelter Foundation. He’s also a member of the Boys & Girls Club board and the Lake Vermilion Water Quality Coalition board.
Paul’s familiar blue silk jacket, which he often wears at fund-raising events, depicts his unending enthusiasm and sense of community.
“The people in the Danville area are very generous,” he said, “and we have such willing volunteers here. I don’t think you will find this spirit of volunteerism anywhere else.”