Monday, March 31, 2008

Behind the Scenes: Painting Poverty

Posted on behalf of Scott Cotter.

I admit it. I don’t have a stitch of artistic talent. None.

I’ve tried my hand at water colors, oils, pottery, sculpting, sketching and anything else you can think of. I guess it’s just not happening for me.

That’s why talented painters like Lynyrd Paras have always amazed me. They take something they see in their heads and will their hands to create it. Whereas I see images in my head but when my brain sends the signal to my hands, they interpret it much differently than how I imagined it.

And consider this. Lynyrd grew up in what he professes to be very painful circumstances. Hunger, stress, scarce resources, despair. These were the calling cards of his childhood. For many, whatever inspiration they had, whatever dreams flickered to life in a situation like that, soon dies along with hopes for anything better.

Not so for Lynyrd. He found the storyline for his paintings in the poverty he witnessed as a child. And he credits sponsorship with helping him tell that story.

Now, amazingly, he paints incredible, deeply personal images that speak to people everywhere, and he has become quite popular among Philippines celebrities. In fact, he held a public showing in Manila recently and walked away empty handed. That is, he had no paintings left to carry back to his Manila studio after selling every single piece.

Now he has been booked for another show and is busily trying to create new images to share with others.

It’s quite a leap from poor kid growing up in a rural part of the Philippines, relying on sponsorship to fill in the gaps, to becoming a well-known artist with a growing international reputation.

But Lynyrd is definitely up to the task.

Starting Tuesday afternoon, April 1, please visit our home page, take a few minutes to look through the pictures taken during his recent showing and let us know what you think of his skill with the brush.

Scott Cotter has been a writer with Children International since 2001. To read more articles by Scott, please visit and browse our archives.

Friday, March 28, 2008

In the News: Graduating with HOPE

Posted on behalf of Priscila O'Shee

Thanks to being awarded a HOPE Scholarship during 2007, more than 90 sponsored youth were able to finish vocational courses taken during the summer. Auto mechanics, cuisine techniques, customer service and English, electrical installation and Web design were the courses offered.

“I took the web design course since I am studying the specialty of design at my technical high school, but this course was much better; I learned to use new programs my school would have never taught me because it has much fewer resources”, said Priscilla Rojas, one of the graduates.

Taking these courses offers our sponsored youth more possibilities of getting a job after graduating from high school, and it also gives them guidance regarding what they would like to do in the future since it gets them interested in a specific field.

Priscila O'Shee is the Communications Coordinator for Children International's agency in Valparaíso, Chile.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Question of the Month

While there is no right or wrong answer, we'd love to hear what you think. Each month we will post a thought provoking question to gauge the collective opinions of the Children International community.

Look for an analysis of this question and the next "Question of the Month"... well, in a month!

We'd love to continue the conversation in the "comments" section below.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Very Dear Friend

Posted on behalf of Patricia Huerta.

Receiving a special donation is a rare and special treat for most sponsored children. Even rarer and more special is when they receive visits from their sponsors.

That’s why Katherine, from Guayaquil, Ecuador, is such a lucky girl.

Besides receiving an abundance of special donations such as groceries, clothing, household supplies, furniture, mattresses, construction materials to improve her house and even cakes for her birthday parties and her graduation, she has received help with special training in computers and also with her college education. But most importantly, her sponsor visits her at least once a year.

Katherine dearly appreciates the gifts she has received, but there is something else she values even more: the privilege of having a friend who cares about her, who visits her and writes her affectionately. In fact, her sponsor, Gary, is like a grandfather to her.

“I feel so happy and grateful that my sponsor chose me,” states Katherine.

Gary’s help has made a tangible difference in Katherine’s life. For most of her life, she avoided smiling. “I didn’t like to smile; I started smiling when I was 17,” says Katherine, who is now 19. But her sponsor helped her obtain orthodontic treatment, and now she shares her beautiful smile with everyone.

To add to her reason for smiling, Katherine, who recently finished high school, is now studying Foreign Trade – with help from her sponsor – at Vicente Rocafuerte Secular University.

It means a lot to Katherine when Gary writes. “He’s the only person who writes to me….He’s very affectionate – he’s like a grandfather to me….He speaks only English and I need a translator to talk to him, but now at the university I’ll take English classes. I really want to learn to speak with my sponsor”.

Katherine’s mother, Eufemia, braved a bout with the dengue fever to meet with us and let us know how much she appreciates Children International and her daughter’s sponsor – and what they have done for Katherine.

“The help Children International gives is fabulous,” declares Eufemia. “People like my daughter’s sponsor get involved to help our Ecuadorian children. The affection they show the children is so great…we feel blessed.”

In Katherine’s words, “My sponsor is one of the greatest people in the world! I want to let people know that other children would feel as fortunate as I do if they could have a sponsor to be their friend, to show them that there are people out there who care about them.”

Patricia Huerta is the communications coordinator for Children International's agency in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Defying the Swamp

"I keep thinking, 'I get to leave...but these people live here.'"

Lisa (the sponsor who traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, last week to join us on the filming trip) looked pretty sober when she said that. Not one of us in the group felt any differently, either.

Cartagena's La Ciénaga de la Virgen ("The Swamp of the Virgin") has got to be one of the grimmest places I've ever visited -- and I've been to some pretty grim places. It's amazing that even plants -- much less animals and people -- are able to survive in its fetid wastelands. That's why I couldn't help but grin when I read a travel brochure's glowing description of the ecological wonders of the swamp. That's one travel writer that's obviously never been to the parts of the swamp I'm familiar with.

People too desperately poor to locate elsewhere buy "plots" in the back recesses of the swamp. The problem is, more often than not, when they buy these plots they are still under water. So before they can even begin to raise up the stark shacks of plastic sheeting or lumber scraps that become their homes, they must first pay for truckloads of dirt to be brought in and then transferred by wheelbarrow so they can have a semi-firm footing on which to build.

And every year the rains come...the water rises...and their flimsy houses are destroyed. They evacuate to schools or other temporary shelters until the water recedes, and then they come back and build again, knowing that in a few months they'll be repeating the process.

Stinking piles of trash...thick, green, bubbling water...and dogs. Everywhere you look are dogs. The trails are literally covered in feces. Watching the children run and play barefoot through all of this makes it crystal clear why our antiparasite campaign is so vital to communities like this one.

Crime is rampant. Differences here in the swamp are settled with guns, knives and machetes. The evil tentacles of the drug trade have crept all the way back here.

Luznery is a lovely 5-year-old girl whose mother is fighting hard to get her three children out of the swamp. Her mom walks over 14 kilometers each morning (varicose veins make each step agony) selling coffee so she can try to feed her children, but has so little left over after she buys tomorrow's coffee that she sometimes doesn't get to eat at all. At this rate, leaving the swamp is just a distant dream...but she's desperate. Tragedy has touched her children once, and she's determined it won't happen again.

Please keep Luznery and her family in your thoughts and prayers. Sponsorship just came to them last week. I watched as her mom repeated over and over, "I feel like I'm dreaming." And when she was told that Mark, from our film crew, was Luznery's new sponsor, she stood there dazed and said, "I think I'm going to faint."

It was a great ending to a great trip.

Click below to visit the Swamp of the Virgin:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Portrait Of India: Day 3

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook, President of Children International.

We’ve been working in and around Calcutta for over 25 years now. I’ve traveled here often and thoroughly enjoy the city that is like no other place I’ve ever been.

On my first visit here about 20 years ago, I thought I had entered a different dimension. I couldn’t believe my eyes, ears or nose. I couldn’t leave soon enough and wasn’t eager to return.

But now I look forward to visiting “Cal.” It’s quaint, it’s crazy, it’s colorful, it’s grim, it’s vibrant…it’s Calcutta. Or, as it has been renamed, Kolkata.

Whatever you call it, it’s unique. Get here if you can. But be open to witness life in a way you’ve likely never experienced it before.

It has taught me a lot about change and how I approach it. During that first visit, I couldn’t have imagined I would ever find the city charming. But now I do. Change. Embracing change. I do now, much better than I did before and my Calcutta experience has a lot to do with that.

I visited the United States Consul General, Henry Jardine, here today. I try to visit our Embassy or Consul representatives in every country, just to touch base and inform them of our activities.

I especially like Consul General Jardine, whom I’ve visited once before.

He very much supports the efforts of charitable organizations like Children International and has been most helpful in making sure the Consulate is represented at special events we have in Calcutta and with helping sponsored youth secure visas for attending our Children International youth conferences in the U.S.

He indicated he’ll soon be ending his stay in Calcutta and will be moving on with his family, as is the way with the U.S. Department of State. But ever since my good friend, Richard Bank, formerly of the State Department and now in practice in D.C., urged us to establish relationships with our Embassy personnel, it’s been interesting to see how acquaintances like Consul General Jardine tend to show up in other locations where we conduct sponsorship activities.

Reminds me how connected all of us are. And how much we rely upon each other to make the world work. To make it a better place for as many people as we possibly can. I hope you’ll join me.

For more photos and to read his journal entries, visit Jim's Journal: At the Heart of Calcutta.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Picture Of India: Day 2

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook, President of Children International.

As I look over my notes, I recall with sadness the mother who was holding a child obviously very young and very malnourished...or worse.

I really didn’t need my notes to recall this situation. It’s hard to put it out of my mind.

I entered what she called a home. It was a tiny, dark place with plastic sheets for walls and not much more for a roof. Grim. On a small mat in the center of this “room” was another child…impossibly small, especially considering the one she was holding.

I turned to the field worker with me who was familiar with the mother and she informed me the mom had been told to take the baby to the doctor earlier in the month. When we asked what the doctor said, her unintelligible, illogical answer masked the real story…and at the same time revealed it. She really didn’t believe in, or understand, or could afford it if she did, modern medicine. And she had taken the child to what is referred to, appropriately, as a “quack.”

We made a note to follow up very soon with a more “hands on” intervention. It’s a matter of life and death. Literally.

This sad tale illustrates something that is a frustration yet underscores the value of child sponsorship...that mother is doing the best she knows how to do. She needs to learn how to care for her child. She has never had the luxury of education about how.

Over the years, through our sustained presence, I’ve seen sponsorship change the way individuals in entire communities approach the their own health care and that of their families.

I look forward to seeing that happen here…and the sooner the better! I will be anxiously following this child’s situation. And I’ll keep you posted. But we may have not gotten to her in time, and I’m not sure there will be a happy ending.

As bad as it sounds, it actually gets worse. The father is a rickshaw puller…or more accurately, a rickshaw driver as he uses a bicycle rickshaw. Unfortunately he was pedaling his rickshaw in a part of the city that had banned rickshaws and was summarily arrested and jailed. This clear and present “threat to society” was in jail awaiting his fate while his wife and family slowly starved.

This family was also a product of the relocation group I mentioned yesterday. The lack of wisdom and basic human compassion of both the relocation and the jailing of this “lawbreaker” is appalling. Pedaling a rickshaw. Trying to earn a living in a manner that is so hard its incomprehensible to me. Yet he’s jailed for it!

Oh, and one more thing. The woman and her jailed husband are behind on their $10 per month rent and are being threatened by the “landlord” with eviction.

So, the next time you’re thinking you’re having a bad day, consider this poor woman’s plight...a child in her arms on the brink of death, a toddler badly underweight with not a lot of hope for good nutrition, a husband in jail and a landlord trying to throw you out of what is generously described as a hovel.

We’ll do what we can for this family. I will. But we haven’t yet raised a dime that would enable us to help. Their case underscores the need for a vibrant sponsorship effort in this area. Join me in helping if you can. Call a friend. Let’s make a difference.

Update from the field...In a recent email sent to me from Neeta Goel, who is helping keep an eye on this family, she reported that our staff on the ground has been assisting them with food and medical assistance. Here are some excerpts the note she just sent to me: We began giving the mother and child some small quantities of food each day – milk, bananas, bread etc, and monitored her daily to make sure that the mother was actually eating the food, since she wouldn’t be able to nurse the baby otherwise. We monitored quantities too, knowing she would share the food with all her other kids, who were hungry too. There are no doctors in Bawana, except for homeopathic ones, and although we took the baby to these ones too, they refused to treat the child since they thought he was too sick. We then took the child to a hospital that is about six miles away from Bawana. The pediatrician confirmed that the child was severely malnourished and gave some medications that would help him put on weight. Although he still looks skinny to me, Shweta (a qualified nutritionist) confirms he is gaining weight slowly. The biggest change I saw was that he was smiling, and not screaming non-stop as I had seen him do previously. Anyway, that’s the progress within the last 2 weeks. We just completed the baseline survey and the medical exams today for all kids. Once we encode all the data, we will be able to share those reports with you too.

Tomorrow on the blog, Jim shares more thoughts from his recent trip to India. For more photos and to read his journal entries, visit Jim's Journal: At the Heart of Calcutta.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Portrait Of India: Day 1

Posted on behalf of Jim Cook, President of Children International.

With our excellent field staff, today I visited a neighborhood obviously in the grip of harsh poverty, where we’re supporting the efforts of a badly-needed pre-school.

At this very small school, Shweta Tiwari, the staff teacher, is performing daily miracles with 15 to 20 students age 4 and under, I met with the children and their moms.

As I write this, I’m still stunned and saddened by what I heard from those mothers, one in particular. A striking woman whose clean, ivory colored sari belied the hell she has endured over the past few years.

As the articulate spokesperson for the group, she recounted how four years ago, the municipal powers informed her and the people in her neighborhood that they would be moved to a new location, as their “squatter area” was needed for new development. Progress!

Except the community the city called a squatter area was the only home she and her neighbors had ever known.

Soon the bulldozers came and the people were sent to an area far away, an area none of them had ever heard of, and certainly one to which no one wanted to go.

But go they did. Just like with so many things in their lives, they were left without a choice in the matter. That’s one of the problems of being real poor…choices are made for you. And to you…you’re left to just do your best what those choices are.

What they were in this case included renting a truck with your neighbors and moving what little you had to a new area where the current inhabitants would violently protest your intrusion.

The city provided no documentation of any type of new home or even the lot they might have been assigned. The home didn’t exist and the “lot” was determined by what can only be described as a desperate land grab of a piece of hard scrabble barely 10 feet square.

They received nothing. “Just get out,” they were told. So this poor woman, her mother and child moved out. Her world ripped out from under her.

And yet as she recounted this horror, she didn’t cry. She smiled.

I wanted to hug her and tell her how I hurt for what she has had to endure. I wish I had. But instead I just mumbled how sorry I was that she and her family had to suffer and that I hoped Children International would be able to bring something positive into what had been a pretty bad decade for her so far.

It seemed a feeble response when placed beside the magnitude of her story.

I visited her home later…it’s hard to describe how bad it was. Inside I was greeted by a goat eating something that looked like stuffing from a pillow. The stench was bad. Rats crawled through the area at night…she showed me the hole they used. I can’t imagine what the home looks like when the rains come, with such a porous roof. No toilet. Ten by ten is probably exaggerating its size. Dark.

Her name is Rafia. Her story is one that will stay with me…like many do.

She doesn’t deserve this. No one does.

I hope we can make a difference in her life…and the life of those other mothers in the room that day. I told them that it was now personal for me…meeting them and hearing their stories and looking into their dark eyes.

We must make a difference for them.

A last thought…as she described the bulldozers entering the area of her previous home, I could only think of the poignant photo of the student standing defiantly in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square in China years ago. And how this poor woman and her neighbors didn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing their plight was, at least, noted by the outside world—by someone who might care when it mattered—as was the case for that lonely student in front of the tank.

Well, even though it was four years ago, it matters now. And we’ll do what we can to help.

Tomorrow on the blog, Jim shares more thoughts from his recent trip to India. For more photos and to read his journal entries, visit Jim's Journal: At the Heart of Calcutta.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Of Weddings and Presidents

Posted on behalf of Nivedita Moitra, communications coordinator for Children International in India.

Spring is in the air in Kolkata and it is the wedding season. Houses are being spruced up and often the sound of the 'Shehenai' (a double reed wind instrument) carries in the evening breeze signifying that a wedding is taking place somewhere. One morning recently, I was standing outside one of our community centers, which was receiving a spring-cleaning, when a passer-by remarked, "is there going to be a wedding in this house too?" And it struck me that the excitement that was being generated inside the center was because a visit from Jim Cook is no less festive for our agency than a wedding would be for one of the families who live here.

All of us, the sponsored children, the families and the staff looked forward to welcoming Jim amidst us, but not without a touch of trepidation. It is not an everyday happening that the president of Children International comes to spend some time with us, and we wanted everything to be a pleasant experience for him; we wanted him to go home with pleasant memories. The tension was palpable but so was the excitement as everyone prepared to play his/her part in making Jim’s visit a memorable one.

I hope we succeeded.

Beginning tomorrow, join us as Jim recounts his recent trip to India.

Friday, March 14, 2008

On the Ground in Colombia

By the time you read this, I'll be on an airplane traveling back to the United States. But right now the wind is howling around my hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, as the night sea breeze assaults this ancient city of pirates, castles and the Spanish Inquisition.

It's been a crazy couple of weeks. Last week we landed in Barranquilla, about 80 miles from here, where we spent several days before moving on to Cartagena over the weekend. Despite the possibility of rain (which never materialized) in the forecast, the weather was beautiful as we ventured out into the impoverished communities interwoven around and throughout these bustling cities that represent a fascinating mix of colonial grace and industrial progress.

My role in this trip is translator, and I'm one of three Children International employees (the other two being Gretchen and Brian) from the home office in Kansas City who are here to accompany a film crew from Toronto, Canada, as they visit our sponsored families and our facilities in Colombia. Kim, Michel, Alain and Mark are pros who have traveled the globe doing this kind of work, and traveling with them is a blast. (Don't be fooled by the names -- Kim, Michel and I are all guys!) We're also accompanied by Lisa, a great sponsor from Seattle.

We've seen some pretty gut-wrenching stuff...families so poor they live in shacks made of nothing but tarps and sticks; a family who was displaced from their home in the middle of the night by paramilitary forces and had to flee -- some of the children naked, the mother hobbling along on a recently snakebitten leg, and the father clutching a towel to his abdomen to sop up the blood that rushed from the bullet wound inflicted by the paramilitaries; a single mom who struggles to raise her two-year-old daughter who suffers from sickle cell anemia; a mom who walks 14 kilometers each day selling coffee for a living while her three young children stay alone in her tiny wooden shack in the backwaters of a filthy swamp, where the worst kinds of criminals roam and men and women settle their disputes with guns, knives and machetes; and a dying mother whose head is grossly disfigured by a massive cancerous tumor, and whose leg holds a festering wound where a rat crept into her house and attacked her a few days ago.

But we've also seen hope, reflected in the face of confident graduates of Children International's sponsorship program and in the smiling faces of happy schoolchildren for whom sponsorship has provided the uniforms and school supplies they need in order to attend school. And this same hope shines from the eyes of moms and dads who see in sponsorship the opportunity for the children to have a better life and a better future.

I had the chance to visit today with 8-year-old Belkis and her mother, Ada Maria. I first met Belkis four years ago, when a team of CI employees visited her in the hospital as she awaited surgery for a broken leg, the result of a cyst that weakened the bone. Children International was able to help provide the surgery she needed, and today she runs, jumps and plays like any other child.

Belkis' mom has hopes that her daughter will someday fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. In Ada's words, "Education is the bridge between today's reality and my daughter's future."

Like most moms, I think Ada Maria is right. And it's very satisfying to know that we'll be able to help build that bridge.

P.S. I'll try to share some pictures with you when I get back.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Meet Creilyn....

"I want to tell my sponsor thanks! The medicines are very expensive. If I were non-sponsored it would take a lot of money for health and dental services because in my country it is very expensive. The doctors take good care of us and are very affectionate. I also want to tell my sponsor I like to play and I am a very good boy."

– Sponsored child Creilyn, from Santiago, Dominican Republic

Friday, March 7, 2008

In The News...

Recently, contestants participating in the Miss Colombia pageant visited one of the Children International community centers in Cartagena. The contestants spent their time playing games with the children and working on various craft projects.

Photos by Shirley Arèvalo Garcìa.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Sponsorship Experience

Cathy Porter says her husband was skeptical of sponsorship…until he saw it in action. Recently, the family traveled to Guatemala to visit 11-year-old José Gregorio, chosen specifically because the couple have two adopted daughters from Guatemala. Cathy shares her thoughts with us on what she describes as “a very emotional and rewarding experience.”

Why did you decide to visit your sponsored child?
Gabrielle (Cathy’s adopted daughter from Guatemala) chose José from the Children International site partially because they are the same age and both are Guatemalan (our children were adopted as infants from the country).

A big issue in choosing Children International was also that we could visit the sponsored child. Our younger daughter has contact with her birth family but since Gabrielle does not, we felt like this was a great way for her to have a similar connection.

Describe how it felt meeting José
Even though we had received photos and letters from him, we still held some doubts about whether everything we received and had been told was actually legitimate. As soon as José and his family got out of the Children International truck, we knew it was all true.

We were relieved and excited at the same time.

How did José’s living conditions differ from your expectations?
Because we have made numerous trips to Guatemala and also visited other indigenous families, we weren’t surprised by his family’s sparse living conditions. Had this been our first visit to this type of home, it would have been even more overwhelming.

Could you see the impact sponsorship was having on José?
Yes. Since Children International began helping José, he has started attending the first grade, something that his family was previously unable to afford. We also got to see the new bed that Children International staff purchased for him with a special Christmas donation we made.

What part of your visit did you enjoy the most?
We were thrilled to be welcomed into the family’s home as well as the overwhelming greeting that we received by the community. We were very surprised to find out that José’s family had prepared a special meal for us and we were humbled by the reception we received.

How were the local staff during your trip?
All of the Children International staff were very courteous. The director of the local office was very helpful with organizing and he took many photos of our visit. The translator was also extremely helpful and kind, too.

The visit was better than we could have anticipated and we were very pleased with the staff.

Monday, March 3, 2008

An Easter Reminder

Posted on behalf of Damon Guinn, Senior Staff Writer for Children International.

Somewhere deep within my kitchen cabinets, wedged behind a salad spinner and a Bundt cake pan from my Great Aunt Pearl, is an unopened Easter egg coloring kit. It’s been there for years collecting dust and weevils.

My wife and I bought the kit on a whim – perhaps as a last grab at our lost childhood. It’s been little more than a passing thought ever since.
But this year will be different. We now have a 9-month-old daughter with whom to celebrate the season, and her mother and I are excited about introducing some of the fun traditions we ourselves enjoyed as children. No doubt it will be a nice surprise to watch her eyes light up when she discovers brightly colored Easter eggs for the first time.

Easter, then, seems like the perfect occasion to rediscover the spirit of childhood – not only for new fathers like me, but for anyone who wants to add some excitement to a child’s life. Maybe that’s why the holiday is such a popular part of the sponsorship program.

Easter excitement gleamed in the eyes of Aylin (left) and her sister, Marilin, during last year’s holiday celebration in Guatemala City.

Boys and girls who normally wouldn’t receive an Easter surprise get to celebrate the season with a new gift thanks to sponsorship. Regardless of their religious affiliation or family circumstances, they can look forward to the holiday knowing that a surprise awaits them.

You can see for yourself the excitement that took place last Easter by watching “Easter Gifts Near and Far,” that will be featured as of Tuesday, March 4, on our homepage. It tells the stories of children’s Easter experiences from eight different countries. Watch one or all of the slideshows to see the gifts children received and learn more about how we carry out the special holiday event.

Without the presence of so many bright-eyed children in our lives, it might be easy to overlook the joy and frivolity that accompanies Easter. Fortunately, through sponsorship, each of us has the chance to see the spirit of the season from a child’s perspective once again.

Photo by Miriam Lemus, the Communications Coordinator for our agency in Guatemala City, Guatemala.