Thursday, May 31, 2007

Awilda's Story

Terror flooded her eyes. “I don’t want them to cut off my foot....”

* * * *

It was Friday, and we were exhausted. My coworkers Jennifer, Deron, Sarah, Jacob, Erin and I had been in the Dominican Republic for a full week. It was a non-stop flurry of activity as we visited the areas served by Children International’s sponsorship program and interviewed children and their families. Our cameraman, Jacob, and I sat outside as Deron, one of Children International’s writers, interviewed one last family in their home.

“Well, I think we’re done,” I murmured to Jacob. Both of us felt a wave of relief. Although it’s always great to be in the field, the cases we deal with are often pretty emotionally overwhelming, and we were bone tired.

About that time, the rest of the group returned from their interview. Someone looked at the schedule. “Oops. Looks like we’ve still got one more to go....” Wearily, we got up and trudged off, making our way to a simple concrete house with a small covered porch.

But the dazzling smile that met us at the door soon chased our weariness away. Awilda, a pretty 14-year-old, invited us into her home. As we entered the living room, Awilda attempted to move the chairs around so we could be seated. I say "attempted"...because she was in a wheelchair. Quietly, Deron helped arrange the chairs and we were seated. We later learned that Awilda cleans the house and does the dishes, all from her wheelchair.

Awilda’s bubbly personality and quiet grace belied the years of tragedy she had endured. As I translated, Deron and Jennifer gently encouraged her to share her story with us, while Dr. Vargas, our agency doctor, sat on the sofa and filled in the details as needed.

Awilda was born with a herniation of the marrow of the spinal column. I know there’s a mile-long name for her medical condition, but I’m no doctor. The surgery her condition required damaged the nerves controlling her feet, legs, bladder and bowel function, leaving her a paraplegic who must wear diapers at all times.

As a testament to her determination, Awilda can get around on crutches pretty well. Years ago (so long ago she can’t remember the day it happened), she was playing outside and cut her foot. Hours later her mother got home and took her to the hospital, but by that time it was too late. Severe infection had set in.

Due to poor circulation and other side effects of her surgery, the wound never healed. The infection soon progressed to osteomyelitis, a severe infection of the bone. “The orthopedic surgeon is insisting that the best course of treatment is to amputate her leg,” said Dr. Vargas. But then, fiercely, she continued, “But we don’t want that.”

Terror flooded Awilda’s eyes. “I don’t want them to cut off my foot...” she whispered, desperately.

For a moment, Awilda was gone, and my own 14-year-old daughter back in Kansas City took her place.

“What are some of the things you like to do?” I heard Deron asking, snapping back to reality as I realized I had to translate. “I like to hear music…sing,” said Awilda. Then her smile turned to dejection, but she spoke without bitterness. “I like to dance, play ball...all the things I can’t do.”

“We are all hoping for the best, but...what will you do if – God forbid – they do have to amputate?” I asked, hesitantly.

Awilda seemed to try to form words, but instead she lapsed into silence. Tears welled up in her mother’s eyes. “She’s already said she’ll never leave the house again if they amputate her foot. She’s afraid people will look at her strangely,” she murmured.

My role as a translator was forgotten and replaced by the father within me. I tried to communicate with her that having or not having a foot has nothing to do with the beauty that emanates from her soul. That regardless of the outcome of her treatment, the Awilda that people know and love lives on the inside. I had to stop for a moment and choke back my emotions; Jennifer, Deron and I studiously avoided looking at each other, each of us struggling to retain our composure.

Awilda’s mom had been with us the whole time. Her dad, an unemployed bus driver, had just entered the room and now stood behind her. With a tenderness that was surprising for his gruff exterior, he broke the tension of the moment with a teasing remark. “I have some good news, though. She’s already got a boyfriend!”

The old sparkle returned to Awilda’s eyes. “I’m not lying,” she declared. “Yesterday I was over at my aunt’s house....There were ten boys flirting with me!”

It hardly seems fair that the only sensation Awilda can feel in her paralyzed feet is pain, which means the infection is much worse.

Awilda needs help urgently. Thanks to a special donation, she’s getting a new wheelchair. Her generous sponsor has gone above and beyond to make sure her basic needs are met. But she needs to be hospitalized so her infection can be brought under control. And she has dreams, too: she wants to study English...and computers...and guitar.

We always try to help with these critical cases we discover on our trips, but finding the funds among so many urgent needs can be a real challenge.

I promised her we would not forget.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Zambian Enterprise

Posted on behalf of Clementina Chapusha

Just a five minute drive from the beautiful, modern and well-kept streets of Lusaka’s town center is Chibolya. To visit this place would make one think they have suddenly gone back in time. Chibolya is a dusty, overcrowded shantytown where people live in abject poverty. It’s amazing that in just five minutes people can live such different kinds of lives.

Children International has been in the Lusaka region of Zambia since 2003. Over 6,500 children receive benefits and badly needed services, like dental care and educational aide. The demand for Children International’s services is so immense in Zambia that Children International is constructing its second area center in Chibolya. Around 1,900 children have enrolled even before the center has even opened. Until the new center opens, the children in the area and their parents walk four kilometers to get to the Kanyama Service Area Center for CI services.

Problems abound in Chibolya. Even greater than the hunger for food in this community is a hunger for opportunity. To really fix poverty, people must have access to work. When work is not there you must create it. With this in mind a brainstorm was initiated. Parents of sponsored children (who are also committed CI volunteers) organized themselves into a group of twelve. They united to find ways improve their economic situation and help motivate each other.

The idea of a chicken-rearing project was conceived. With the help of local Children International staff a business plan was written and a request for funding was made. The volunteers were awarded a total of US$1,000 from Children International’s micro-enterprise grant program. Their idea was now able to hatch.

They began their project with 200 broiler chicks in a small rented building, which they used as a chicken run. They secured a source for food and clean water and medicines to keep the birds healthy.

Children International has encouraged the team and inspired them to work hard towards making their project a success. Christine Nantufya is a chairperson for the group; she explains how they would like this great opportunity to grow. “This project will help all the parents who have children on the CI program. It is a group project, but after making profit we intend to give individual loans for individual businesses to empower ourselves.”

These new business people take tremendous pride in their chickens. They take tremendous pride in their new skills. All the volunteers are undergoing training in bookkeeping, entrepreneurship and proper chicken care. They have opened a bank account with a recognized bank. The account will have three signatories comprised of two volunteers and their field officer.

The project has already experienced success. The group of twelve has sold all of the 200 chickens they started with. 250 chicks have been purchased for the next round.

Clementina Chapusha is Children International’s communications coordinator in Lusaka, Zambia.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Your Blogging Questions Answered...

I hope everyone had a long and wonderful weekend! We received a number of “how to” questions last week, so I thought I’d share some Blogger insight with you…

Isn’t the internet wonderful? I think most of us would agree it is, but nothing can be more frustrating than when you have something to say and you just can’t figure out how to post a comment on Blogger!

Here at Children International we are always conscientious with spending generously donated dollars, therefore we use Blogger, a free service! Every once in a while we experience a technical hiccup with Blogger. Don’t be discouraged, give it a few hours and check back…it’ll probably be working correctly.

Some of you have mentioned that you are “blocked”. Blogs are sometimes blocked by employers. Check with your employer and try accessing the blog at home.

At the end of every post, you should see some information that looks like this:

With the exception of “Posted by” and “Labels”, these are all clickable links. If you want to post a comment, click on the number of comments. The comment window will open and you are presented with a few options about how you would like to post. If you want to share a comment but don’t want to publish it on the blog, you can email us, the moderators, at

When posting a comment, Blogger gives you three choices: you can use your registered account Google/Blogger identity, an anonymous name or by clicking “other” use any name you would like. Blogger will ask for a web page when using the other option, but it is not a required field to post.

Maybe a story has really touched your heart and you would like to share this with a friend. Simply click the small envelope with the arrow and you’ll be on your way to emailing the post.

Has a post sparked your interest in reading other posts about the same subject? By clicking on any of the labels, you’ll enter the blog archive and be able to look at all relevant posts to the label that interested you.

One of the coolest features is RSS. By signing up for RSS, you can have the blog delivered to any reader (My Yahoo!, Google, etc.,) you choose. You’ll never miss a new post again. Subscribe to this feature today! Click on the RSS link to the right.

And don’t forget, if you have questions feel free to email us at

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Courageous Spirit of Guatemala - Part 4 of 4

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook

I’m not sure if one should enter into the blog trivial travel events such as a serious leak from the air conditioner in my hotel room, which resulted in lots of water coming into my room. I discovered it at 2:00 in the morning when I thought it was raining as I made my way across the room to an appointment with nature. An hour later, two nice repair guys had the leak fixed, and the only thing that kept this from all being a dream was the wet carpet, which was indubitably real.

So this was Friday and my last day in country. I had two important appointments …one with the U.S. Ambassador at the Embassy and the second with my other sponsored child—actually a youth—at the Guatemala City central office.

Roxana had come to the office with her mom and sister and her sister’s baby. Roxana is 16 and is lovely…cute, petite and obviously full of energy and life. We all had a very nice time and good conversation. Roxana was understandably a bit shy but asked a lot of questions and gave me a good glimpse into her life. She hopes to become a lawyer. Quite a goal, and one I hope she achieves.

So I had now visited two of my family’s sponsored children on this visit…one 6, the other 16. Both visits were wonderfully enriching and both girls couldn’t have been sweeter or nicer or more appreciative. Many times when I read sponsors’ accounts of their visits to their sponsored children, they write that they receive much more from their sponsorship than the children do. After meeting the two remarkable Guatemalan girls, I echo that sentiment!

After a quick tour of the central office and the opportunity to greet and be greeted by the entire staff, I headed over to the U.S. Embassy. Traffic was brutal, but we made it.

Ambassador James Derham saw me right on time. Nice man. In spite of the somewhat formal office, he was very at ease and we were able to have a good, wide-ranging conversation about Guatemala and Children International’s activities here. I mentioned that we would invite him and other Embassy representatives to the opening of the center in Patulul, and he indicated he hoped he could attend, as he really enjoyed getting out and seeing various activities around the country.

That pretty much concluded a relatively short but extremely rewarding and enlightening visit to Guatemala. It is so apparent the difference our sponsors and staff are making in the lives of the children who are growing up in the clutches of poverty.

Everywhere I went I saw the clear signs of our help. Children wearing shoes they had received for Christmas…seeing doctors and dentists…learning computer skills to give them job skills for the future. And finally, knowing that the sponsorship program and the staff at our community centers represent support and a safe place to go.

As I’ve noted before, I saw so much that encouraged me, yet so much discouraging, stark poverty that I return home all the more determined to reach more people who would become sponsors for the many Guatemalan children who need so much the help we can all provide.

And I can report unequivocally that one of my goals – to “get dirty” – was successfully accomplished…with absolutely no regrets!

Jim Cook is the president and CEO of Children International.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Courageous Spirit of Guatemala - Part 3 of 4

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook.

This morning, the agency requested to pick me up from the hotel at 6:00 a.m. These guys would make great duck hunters, arising at that early hour! And I thought yesterday’s 7:00 a.m. departure was a bit early. But okay...when in Rome....

Off we a place west of Guatemala City called Patulul, where we take care of nearly 4,000 sponsored children in this town of about 35,000.

I noted that the roads in Guatemala had improved substantially (even if the driving habits hadn’t). Mind you, this is based upon two days’ travel only. But they were the same routes I’d taken many times before with far more jostling and careening around large potholes.

Arriving at Patulul, we went to a Children International community center. “Community center” is a pretty sterile term for what is really the heartbeat of the Children International sponsorship field efforts and the focus of the community where each center is located.

These community centers include a clinic, pharmacy, dental office, library and homework center, feeding area, warehouse for gifts and material benefits, local staff offices and more. THIS is where sponsorship happens!

I met the staff and said “hi” to a bunch of mothers and their children who were either waiting for the doctor and dentist or writing letters to their sponsors. But what I noticed most was how we had outgrown that center. Badly. That center has served us quite well for a long time, but the community deserves a new, modern center and fortunately, one is in the works.

I traveled a few blocks to see the land where a new center will be built if we can find funding for it. I spoke with the architect about the design, stressing that I’m a big fan of playgrounds for the children AND the parents, having found great solace in taking my own children to them not that many years ago. The plans look great and I sincerely hope we can get the funding to enable the poor children’s (and their parents’) dreams to come true in Patulul.

With that, we moved on to the river named Madre Vieja, or, literally, The Old Mother. Well, the old mother wreaked havoc on the poor people living along this river when Hurricane Stan came calling in 2005. I spoke to an elderly woman who described in great and poignant detail the horror as the river rose and ultimately took everything she and her husband owned. She indicated that she is doing okay now…okay being a relative term.

It was on the banks of that river that the Mayor of Patulul caught up with us…the Honorable Gilberto Perez, a youngish mayor with a lot of contagious enthusiasm. (I expect when you’re my age, “youngish” encompasses a lot more people than it used to!)

He expressed his profound thanks for the assistance we’re providing to a significant portion of the children in the town. I thanked him for his considerable help in enabling us to secure land and a building permit at no cost for the new center. In these small towns, it is good to work with the local leaders, which is far easier and more productive than trying to communicate with bureaucrats at higher governmental levels.

After that visit we headed up to the slightly higher elevation (and thankfully cooler temperatures) of the lovely small town of Antigua. If you come to Guatemala and only have one day to spend, visit Antigua. It’s surrounded by volcanoes, making it very picturesque and charming. The shopping, if you’re so inclined, is excellent for the colorful local clothing and crafts.

But it’s also poor. We have a center there, but the most interesting part was visiting the home of volunteer mother Luisa, who was hosting yet another sponsorship activity – this time a letter writing effort where children write their sponsors. I joined in the fun by sitting with some of the sponsored children and writing part of this blog there. That might have been the first blog entry created at Luisa’s, but you never know!

Then we headed back to “The Capital,” as Guatemala City is referred to. About an hour later I was in my hotel room reflecting on what an emotionally charged and satisfying, yet challenging, two days it had been.

After all that I’ve seen, the bottom line is that we need more sponsors to reach more children…here in Guatemala as well as around the world.

More later.

Jim Cook is the president and CEO of Children International. Check back tomorrow for more personal commentary on his recent experience in Guatemala.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Courageous Spirit of Guatemala: Part 2 of 4

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook. This post is a continuation of Day 1 of Jim's recent visit to Guatemala.

After leaving the home of the woman suffering from cancer, the next visit promised to be a bit more uplifting, as we toured new homes we constructed for four families who lost everything in Hurricane Stan two years ago.

It was uplifting…to a point. The problem is, a family’s challenges don’t end when they move into their new dwelling. True, the families I visited are truly blessed with sturdy new homes. But each of them still suffered from a lack of income.

And one family’s situation particularly makes me ache.

Hilda is her name. She’s 17. She was 15 when the hurricane took her mother, her sister, her home, all the family’s belonging…and her hope. Leaving her to look after her four younger brothers and sisters while putting up with a father who spends most of his time drunk.

As Hilda recounted her story she fought back tears, mentioning the word “lonely” a number of times. And who wouldn’t be, when your only loving parent was snatched away in the night along with your entire world? My own eyes, as well as those of the staff with me, filled with tears as we witnessed her grief, which was tempered by her love for – and unqualified devotion to – her siblings.

She can’t go to school because she supports her brothers and sisters. Her youthful teen years were cruelly taken from her; but with unparalleled stoicism, she has met the challenge.

On a happier note, yesterday’s activities included a visit to the home of one of my family’s special sponsored children, Heidy Viviana. Heidy lives with her family – mom, dad and sister, Milvia – in a home surrounded by fields of beans, maize and strawberries. Lots and lots of strawberries.

When I unfolded myself from the back of the van and managed to somewhat painfully straighten up to my full height, what to my wondering eyes should appear [credit and apologies to Clement Clarke Moore!] but one tiny package of energy running to my side and giving me a hug that belied her six years and slight frame.

So much for these shy Guatemalan children. What a delight Heidy is! We exchanged gifts – though I fear the large basket of fresh strawberries and peaches her family bestowed upon me far exceeded my generosity. However, Heidy did clutch her new doll pretty tightly.

Visiting my sponsored child and her family was really a way to fully complete the sponsorship experience…an opportunity that I hope many more sponsors are able to have!

As we headed back to Guatemala City that night, my thoughts kept returning to Hilda. I had to ask myself: where is the justice in a world where a young woman like her unselfishly toils away in obscurity, dealing with uninvited devastation and pain, while the latest teen mega-star melts down with the eyes of the world trained in her direction? And is fawned over. I’m reminded yet again of how unfair and unforgiving the world can be.

It’s been quite a day. Uplifting and depressing. Satisfying and frustrating. But through it all there’s hope. We’re doing a lot, that is clear. But there is so much more to be done.

More later.

Jim Cook is the president and CEO of Children International. Check back tomorrow for more personal commentary on his recent experience in Guatemala.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Courageous Spirit of Guatemala: Part 1 of 4

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook

After a long winter, punctuated by short trips to cut ribbons on great new community centers and meet with dignitaries, I needed to get into the field in my blue jeans and running shoes. I needed to get grimy and dirty in the barrios and communities and the homes where our sponsored children live to recharge my batteries for our great cause.

I’d call day one of that effort an unqualified success.

After a late arrival in Guatemala and a short night’s rest, we departed from the hotel at 7:00 a.m. On the way to the sub-agency office in Chimaltenango, one of the social workers warned me that the children are pretty shy. Especially, I thought to myself, when facing a very different-looking, white-haired gringo!

As we walked into the center to a hearty greeting, a 7-year-old boy named Selvyn walked right up to me and stuck out his hand in a very spontaneous moment – like he said to himself, “I’m not sure what that is, but I’d like to meet it.” Cute kid…and not so shy!

In the clinic, the doctor and I talked even as she gave a boy named Henry his annual checkup and looked at a small rash he’d acquired. A recently sponsored child was making his first trip – and quite apparently not his last one – to the project dentist. But he was a brave little guy!

All in all, that community center experience was great…and it really is a lot of what our sponsors make possible for these wonderful but born-into-poverty children. In those centers, children receive the benefits and services they deserve. And their appreciation is clearly etched in their faces and the faces of the moms and dads.

We left the center to pay a visit to a young man named Osman who, in a small, frail frame, has more courage than about anyone I’ve met. Osman suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as “brittle bone” disorder.

Osman is pretty much confined to bed and is likely in more pain than he’ll ever let on. He had been sponsored for some time before this crippling disease entered his life. His family greeted all of us with big smiles and happiness that is reflected in the modest home and Osman himself, in spite of his challenge.

But there is another reason for the warm greeting…the staff has been exceptional in doing whatever needed to be done to make Osman’s plight more endurable. Besides coordinating the doctors and hospitals and medicines, Lily, one of the staff, arranged through a local radio program to have a Guatemalan soccer (known as fútbol here) hero pay a visit to Osman. That was a good day for him!

One of the staff mentioned that often when Osman is really hurting from this painful condition, he won’t tell his mother because he doesn’t want to burden her any more than she already is.

And this is just one courageous individual I met on this memorable day.

We then traveled to Tecpán, where we visited another center, this one with activities in full swing as children received fluoride treatments administered by volunteer mothers. Benjamin, the computer instructor, was giving a quiz in Excel to some of his students, while another, a young lady in her early teens was writing her autobiography! I was and am impressed. I’d love to read it when it’s complete.

We then made a number of home visits, all of which remain very memorable, but two stand out. I’ll share the first one now and the second one in my next entry.

At the first, in what only charitably could be called a home and more appropriately a hovel, a mother was breast-feeding her infant while four other very young children (two of whom are sponsored) huddled about her.

She explained that her infant was born early because she has uterine cancer and she is putting off the surgery she needs because she doesn’t know who will care for the children because her husband has to work. She says they have plans to sell “half the house” in order to get some of the $2,000 needed for the surgery. But care of the children is still a problem.

Note to myself on the way out of her home: “Figure something out for this woman and family.”

More later.

Jim Cook is the president and CEO of Children International. Check back tomorrow for more personal commentary on his recent experience in Guatemala.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A World of Thanks

“Synergy” is one of those buzz words that runs the risk of losing its credibility because it is so often overused (and abused). But when viewed objectively, it presents a concept that is powerful: many people working together can accomplish exponentially more than the same number of people working by themselves.

Working for Children International has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Knowledge of poverty by itself only breeds greater misery; but knowledge of poverty coupled with the ability to do something about it brings the satisfaction of knowing you are making a real difference, one life at a time.

Here at CI we are keenly aware that our ability to change lives is predicated entirely on the generosity and engagement of our sponsors. That’s why I want to take a moment to stop and say “thanks” to you, our critical team members and partners in change.

Children International operates in 11 countries. (Can you name them? Colombia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States, and Zambia.) By working together with our sponsors and our field staff, we are positively affecting the lives of over 320,000 children and their families in these countries.

Please take a moment to check out this video about Children International’s work around the world, and then take another moment to give yourself a pat on the back from your teammates at CI.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Meet María, from Quito, Ecuador:

"I would like to know my sponsor, because he is very generous to my family and me. I hope that my sponsor is very happy, and I would like to send him a big hug."

Photo by Andrés Barreno, Children International's communications coordinator in Quito, Ecuador.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A New Perspective on Life

Posted on behalf of Dayanara Reyes

Last Friday I was on my way home from work – in the rain – thinking about all I had experienced during the week. I was reflecting on the people here in the Dominican Republic who have jobs that are hard but pay little. I thought about the sicknesses, malnutrition, lack of basic and personal necessities…and how, in spite of all this, these people remain optimistic, with a desire to better themselves and a hope for change.

All of this came to mind after my bosses asked me to talk about my childhood and how my life has changed since I began my duties, as part of a possible feature for Children International, the organization I work for. Hmmmm…that question demanded an answer, but it was not a simple answer. It was a deep reflection…. God has given me the opportunity to have and experience great things; I’m fortunate to have food, clothing, a good education, a good salary for the work I do and – even better – the ability to help and create in others a consciousness of those who have not been as fortunate as I have.

I’ve often received emails with pictures of people doing special types of work and children who live in extreme poverty; these are intended to cause people to appreciate the things they have in life. Allow me to show you a few pictures that I took myself, and let me share with you the experiences I had the privilege of having last week – experiences that cause you to ask yourself some tough questions.

You’ve probably heard on a number of occasions (as I had) about the “divers” (people who work in garbage dumps); they have no other way to make a living…no other choice. They work without gloves, under terrible conditions and exposed to diseases. I show you these pictures as just a few examples of the many people I saw when we visited the city dump last week. These people scrounge around in the trash for materials they can sell to recyclers – and sometimes they search for food for their families.

I’ve learned a lot since coming to work for Children International. I’ve visited areas of my own city that I never even knew existed. I’ve seen the raw ugliness of poverty, walked down parasite-infested streets where little children run barefoot, listened to crippled children talk about their dreams…and this has created in me a determination to do everything within my power to bring about change.

Dayanara is the communications coordinator for our agency in Santiago. She accompanied the Children International team that was in the Dominican Republic last week. These pictures were taken on the visit to the dump that Sarah wrote about in her post last Wednesday, Down in the Dump.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Happy Mother's Day!

There is no doubt about it, mothers are special. While spending time with my own mom on Mother’s Day, I was thinking about all the moms in our program who unselfishly give their time volunteering. We have thousands of volunteers around the world and without them our program wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Most are women like Mayra Bohórquez. Mayra lives in Guayaquil, Ecuador. With training that she received at her local community center, she learned how to prepare nutritious food with very little money. And now she teaches other moms in the community -- especially those with malnourished children -- how to cook dishes that are inexpensive and healthy.

“If the children don’t like carrots, I show the moms how to make a carrot cake that the children will eat for sure,” Mayra explains.

Mayra’s other volunteer duties include measuring children for their shoe size during gift distributions. But her heart is obviously in her cooking, a job she clearly loves.

“I enjoy sharing my knowledge with family and friends,” Mayra said.

Thanks to all of the moms just like Mayra who help to make our program special!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Comprehending Poverty…and Sponsorship

Posted on behalf of Deron Denton.

This is the second time I’ve been to the Dominican Republic – both times have been as a writer with Children International. Although I have been deeply affected and moved each time we enter a family’s home, this was a little different. That’s because Thursday, I visited my own sponsored child.

I met Nelson two years ago outside the Mao community center. Then, I learned about how difficult his brief 10 years on earth had been…about his mother who suffers from mental illness and cannot care for him…about how terribly malnourished he had been…and about his illness. Nelson has neurofibromatosis – a genetic disorder affecting the development of nerve cell tissues. Although it can become life threatening, he also has a reasonable chance of living a normal life…“normal”, aside from the stark poverty in which he lives.

After we returned home from that first trip, I discovered that Nelson didn’t currently have a sponsor. Instantly, I decided to sponsor him. So this was my first visit as a sponsor. He and I have corresponded through letters since then, and have grown to know one another a little better. I mentally prepared, or tried to prepare, for a more emotionally involved visit.

Nelson and Deron talk a little baseball.

Before coming back to the Dominican Republic, I remembered that, like virtually all Dominican children, Nelson loved to play baseball. But, also like so many, he had never actually owned a ball or glove. That just seemed to be the perfect gift to bring him, along with a baseball cap.

Allow me a brief side note before I tell you about my visit with him: A good friend emailed me a long passage he had read which he thought might be apropos to the work we are doing this week. In it, the author writes about the Latin roots of the word “comprehend.” It comes from the roots “cum,” meaning “with” and “prehendere,” meaning “to grasp it.” When I read those words earlier this week, I thought about how difficult it is to grasp the depth and extent of poverty we see on these trips. Although it is our job to convey this through the words and photos we share with you, nothing really compares with seeing it for yourself.

Framed by poverty: Nelson calls this dark room home.

After visiting with Nelson at his home, I now understand something else that is equally difficult to comprehend without direct experience – the bond that can develop between sponsor and child.

Deron tries out his fastball...

...But he´s no match for this pro in the making!

We played catch with his new glove and one of his new baseballs. Nelson showed me his pet fish, where he sleeps (sharing a twin-sized bed with his father), and where his sister cooks for them. He also showed me where he bathes. It is a crude structure made with a scrap of tin siding and wood. There is a faucet rising about three feet off the bare earth and a bucket to hold the water. The comfort – and privacy – that most of us take for granted when we bathe is unknown to Nelson.

This corner of Nelson's tiny back yard is where he takes a shower.

As I was leaving, Nelson’s father called to him from the area that serves as their kitchen. When Nelson came back out, he was holding four eggs in his small hands. They were eggs that their own hen had laid. He handed them to me as a gift. Whatever sense of “professional detachment” I had maintained to that point was gone. My eyes welled up. This was food the family could not afford to do without. Yet they were offering them to me.

As I started to explain that I had no way of preserving them, Kelly spoke up, suggesting that Nelson eat them for me. Everyone agreed that was a great idea.

Nelson, his sister and his father shared a few moments of happiness when Nelson's sponsor, Deron, dropped in for a visit.

Nelson and his family probably have no idea of the actual gift they have given me. It is a gift that will last as long as I do. It is a kinship with two new families: My fellow sponsors…and Nelson’s.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Pervasiveness of Poverty

Posted on behalf of Erin Fitzgerald

Poverty transcends borders. It’s not bound by language, culture or race. And it’s merciless.

As we drove through neighborhoods in Santiago, Dominican Republic, this week, we could have been driving in any number of communities Children International serves in Latin America.

We walked along dirt roads with typical tiny shacks cobbled together with scrap wood and pieces of corrugated metal. As usual, we spotted children wandering barefoot over trash-strewn streets where animals like dogs, cats and chickens ran freely.

When we entered the homes of our sponsored families, we found what we usually do – a couple beds, a table, a few chairs and not much else. The more fortunate families have a decent bathroom, a stove to cook on and access to clean water. Others go without.

The struggles poor people in Santiago face aren’t unique. They’re the same challenges that families in our agencies across the globe face. They long for decent work so they can adequately feed their children. They struggle with common health conditions like parasites and respiratory infections that unhygienic living conditions breed. And they wish they had money for the little extras that bring so much joy – like a simple gift to celebrate a birthday.

Despite the overwhelming obstacles these families face, they make the most of what they are given and are overwhelmed with gratitude at the support sponsorship provides – medical care, gifts for special occasions and educational programs. I’ve heard more words of thanks on this trip than I can count. These families don’t long for money or success but simply for the tools to achieve a decent way of life and ultimately help others like them.

As Leidy, a sponsored youth served by our Santiago agency explained to me, “It’s not about getting a job where I can have a big house, get rich and have lots of cars. It’s more about helping other people and being able to give back.”

There’s no doubt that poverty is pervasive and indiscriminate. Let’s hope that when we finally put a stop to it, the cure will be too.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Down in the Dump

Posted on behalf of Sarah Trapp

Five months into my job with Children International, I was sent to Santiago, Dominican Republic, to get my feet wet. Yesterday, we spent the morning in La Mosca (The Fly) Garbage Dump interviewing sponsored families and others who work there. Needless to say, my feet ended up a little more than just wet.

Starting in the community that lies at the bottom of La Mosca, it took us nearly 30 minutes to reach the actual dump. With each treacherous step towards the heart of the dump, the putrid stench of decay intensified, and we knew we were getting closer. The previous night’s rainstorm made it nearly impossible to navigate the steep, muddy path. Don Antonio, a man who works in the dump, guided us over a creek of greenish “water” and farther into the dump. Don Antonio also served as our bodyguard, offering us protection from men who often come to work intoxicated in order to stand the disgusting, grueling work of sorting through trash day by day.

The sight of the dump is unbelievable, and not in a good way. There is no dirt, no real paths; only what seem to be miles of foul-smelling muck and garbage – medical waste, shoes, plastic, food, diapers, old appliances…the list of discarded items is endless. When we finally reached the center of the dump where several parents and children work, we asked one of our field officers to explain what they were doing. Nuris, a field worker from our Cien Fuegos community center, explained that they come to La Mosca because there is no work anywhere else. They come to sort plastics from metal, to find items to sell, and even to find food. I can’t think of a worse job, but as Don Antonio explained to me, when people are hungry and there is no regular work to be found, you do what you have to do to survive.

It’s dangerous work, not only for the obvious hazard of broken glass and other sharp objects, but also because of the sheer number of flies and other disease carriers, including parasites. And humans aren’t the only ones working in the dump. To my surprise, there was a small herd of cattle lazily grazing on what appeared to be old shoes and other unappetizing rubbish. I quickly made friends with the numerous garbage dump dogs, who without any coaxing made their way to my side and hung out during our interviews.

I can’t tell you how long we spent in the dump. Appropriately, my watch stopped – on what seemed like an endless morning. Some time later, we made our way back down the slippery hills and back to the community. From the pinched looks on our coworkers’ faces as we climbed into the van it was unanimous – we stunk!

We spent the rest of the day interviewing Youth Corps members, a happier task, which renewed our hope for an improved life for our families. At the end of the day it was a relief to return to the hotel and wash off the dirt and grime of La Mosca. The memories of the garbage workers will not be so easily washed away.

The team manages a smile for the camera after spending the morning in the La Mosca dump.

Monday, May 7, 2007

On the Ground in the Dominican Republic

This week we’ll go back to one of the places that stands out most in my memory because of its incredibly ugly poverty – and I’ve been to a lot of poor places.

Before you read any further, please take a look at this video. Then I want to share a couple of things about it.

Did you notice the two young boys standing in a doorway in the first few frames? In particular, did you notice the little black spots that seemed to be moving all over their faces and hair?

They were moving.

The little black dots are flies. These little boys live in the community you see in the next frames of the video, the one with the blue-green houses and families standing around in the street. The community is in the Dominican Republic and its name is La Mosca, which in Spanish means “The Fly.”

I was part of the team that was in La Mosca the day that video was filmed. As I mentioned to you in a previous post, I grew up in an impoverished country and am no stranger to desperately poor neighborhoods. But I’ve never seen anywhere worse than La Mosca.

I don’t know if you noticed…there appears to be a small mountain in the background of the shot of the blue-green houses. It is a mountain – but not a mountain of dirt and rocks. The mountain you see is garbage, because La Mosca is literally built in the city dump.

You’re almost afraid to open your mouth in La Mosca for fear of swallowing flies. They are everywhere, swarming in thick black clouds, crawling on people’s faces, in their eyes and ears…and the weary residents of this stark community no longer seem to notice them, they’ve been exposed to them for so long.

Left to right: Jacob, Kelly, Sarah, Erin, Jennifer and Deron just prior to leaving Kansas City for the Dominican Republic.

Jennifer and Deron were also there that day. Now we’re back in the Dominican Republic, along with Erin, Sarah and Jacob. We’ll be posting throughout the week to keep you updated as we visit the children and their families in the sponsorship communities.

Deron’s comments will be particularly interesting, so be on the lookout for them. He’ll be talking about his own sponsored child – among other things – and how we came across him on our last visit. It’s a very moving story.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Meet Raul!

From sponsored child Raul, age 6, in Valparaiso, Chile:

What do you like to do for fun? What makes you happy or sad?

I like to play with toy cars and horses and with play do. My favorite food is chocolate ice cream. It makes me sad when my mom leaves..that's all.

What do you want to be when you grow up and why?

I would like to be a dentist, because I like to see how the mouth is on the inside.

What you would like to say to your sponsor for the help he or she provides you? What do you want your sponsor to know about you?

I would tell him thank you for all that he has given me and I would tell him that we are a big family, we are 8 in total and we live in a small house.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Behind the Scenes: You’ve Got Mail!

One of the most thrilling parts of sponsoring a child is receiving letters and drawings from the child you sponsor. These letters and drawings form an emotional connection between sponsor and child and provide memories that last a lifetime.

But receiving that envelope in your mailbox is just the culmination of a pretty involved process – a process that begins at a Children International community center half a world away. In today’s post I want to give you a peek at what it takes for you to receive a letter from your sponsored child.

Often, the journey begins when your sponsored child visits the Children International community center in his or her area to write you a letter. Children who are too young to write will be accompanied by an older family member who will do the writing for them, but older children write the letters themselves. Many of our community centers serve around 5,000 children, so you can imagine the hustle and bustle at letter writing time!

When all the children have written their letters, the letters are collected and taken to the agency’s central office for scanning. Then they are boxed up and shipped to Kansas City. Just to give you an idea of the volume of letters, Jessica estimates that she handles 40-60,000 pieces of child-related correspondence every month!

Once Jessica receives the shipments of letters from the agencies (all 18 of them), she launches a complex process that involves scanning the letters again, creating an envelope file, printing the envelopes, folding the letters and matching letters with envelopes. To ensure accuracy and quality, each child letter envelope is hand-stuffed and double-checked before finally being mailed out to the sponsor.

You might think that, after handling so many letters from children to sponsors, child letters might lose their magic for our employees who handle the mail – many of whom are sponsors themselves. But Jessica assures us that’s not the case. “[The letters from my sponsored child] would have to be the letters that really touch me personally and I read over and over, and I can’t wait for the next one to come in the mail,” she insists.

There’s another unique angle to Jessica’s work, though. She is not the first person in her family to handle letters from children to sponsors. Until her retirement late last year after 41 years of service, Jessica’s grandmother, Dorothy Koch, also worked with child correspondence. And besides making sure you received your child’s letters, Dorothy always took care of another very important responsibility here at Children International: She was the one who put the coffee on to brew in the morning!

“I like to think that I have filled her shoes well,” says Jessica of her grandmother. “I think that she has helped me become the hard worker that I am today. Children International has a special place in her heart and I believe it does hold the same special place in mine.”

Jessica is carrying on her grandmother’s work in more ways than one. Your child’s letters are still reaching you safe and sound…and the coffee is still brewed fresh every morning.

Top: Jessica is a vital link between sponsors and their sponsored children.

Middle: Jessica and the smiling "Letter Ladies" of Children International.

Bottom: Dorothy seals 41 years of faithful service with a cake and the best wishes of all her co-workers.