Saturday, October 13, 2012

Don't Limit God

That's one of the many lessons I learned from my recent time in Brazil, visiting my ten Compassion-sponsored children. I have already shared about my time in BR-329 New Life Project. I described it as a little bit of heaven.

They serve 680 kids, many of whom live and work in unimaginable circumstances. Yet this is what I felt and saw when I was there, from both kids and workers:

Life. Energy. Joy. Hope. Freedom. Peace. Achievement. Music. Dancing.

These are things which cannot be acted or manufactured. They were real, pure and genuine.

I am convinced that the reason all these things were present at BR-329 was because these people did not limit God and what He could achieve through them. They did not put Him in a box, or put a roof over Him. Their dreams and vision for that Project and community were huge and inspiring, despite the reality of the poverty outside the walls. This included a two-storey building project that was currently underway, and it was because of their faith and trust that they are doing God's work.

I can't help but compare this to the dreams and visions of most people on this side of the world. The aspirations of  the people with the most education and resources (US) seem to revolve around either being famous (whether for positive or negative reasons) or owning the latest/greatest/biggest/best _______ (insert fleeting material possession here).

Why? Why make your dreams and visions all about yourself? We have one chance to make a difference to the world around us, and the best way to do that is to invest in other people.

On the day I visited BR-329, the teenagers were running around busily preparing for a community party that they had organised and planned entirely themselves. This was incredible to me. Instead of running around the streets doing whatever teenagers in Brazil get up to, they were running a community party.

Compassion is instilling in these teenagers a sense of responsibility and pride in their achievements.
It is silencing the voice of poverty which says to them "You are useless and good for nothing. You will never amount to anything." If what I saw in that place is anything to go by, the future of this community in Brazil is in good hands.

I couldn't help but recall 1 Corinthians 1:26-28. Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.

Something I continue learning in my unusual lifestyle choice of sponsoring 48 kids is this: If we want to make a lasting impact on other people's lives, all we have to do is step out, and God will use us. He uses the "foolish, small, powerless" (people who come in humility) to shame the wise and achieve far greater things than if we are out on our own, in our own strength.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Entertaining Finish - DC and the Rock-god Taxi Driver

I had an entertaining end to the trip. I checked out of the hotel at 12pm on Tuesday for a 6.30pm flight. When the taxi driver found out I spoke English, he was delighted, and used the opportunity to practise on me. The fact that I was from Australia was even better, and he proudly busted out his AC/DC cd. “Australiano, eh? You like AC/DC?” Rather than tell him I didn’t, and I didn’t understand why people would devote their lives to glorifying all things to do with death and evil, I humoured him and said “Yeah, sure I do.” In no time I was in a taxi on the streets of Brazil, tapping my feet to the hell-bound rock beats of AC/DC. Ah, life.

This guy turned out to be a rock connoisseur. He proceeded, in his stilted, but impressively-understandable English, to reel off his favourites. Iron Maiden was a definite second, as well as Whitesnake, Queen (“FREDDY MERCURY!!”), Black Sabbath (“OzOz Born”). He said he’d been to a Queen concert in “nine-teen-sixty-five - ROCKIN’ RIO!!” (he had a habit of regularly talking in delighted exclamations, followed by a gleeful chuckle).

Next he mentioned Sydney, and I said I was from Melbourne. He then came to the conclusion that “Sydney not capital, Melbourne capital.” He looked at me, and I wasn’t going to bother explaining about Canberra, so I said simply “Yes.” So now there’s at least one non-Melburnian who thinks Melbourne is, or should be, the capital city of Australia.

After this he went back to AC/DC and I knew enough about them to help him say the names of most of the group members. Malcolm was a struggle for him to say initially, but then he got it. “Malcolm Young, Angus Young – BROTHERS!! Heh heh heh.” He chuckled in that wonderfully endearing way of his.

Soon enough we were at the airport, and he was even nice enough to chase down change for the R$100 note I had to give him for the R$30 journey. I was then fortunate enough to get an English-speaking guy at luggage check-in, and as an added bonus, fond out my luggage was going all the way to Melbourne. Sweet as! I then settled into the airport lounge for a nice long six hour wait for my flight to commence my journey home.

Birthday in Brazil!!

This was meant to be the day of all days – nine months in the making, the day where God’s extravagant love would be demonstrated through a lavish act of generosity – me taking my ten Brazilian Compassion kids and their families to a special Park with a mini-zoo, horses, a pool and a soccer field, and having a day we’d never forget. 

In all honesty the day actually got off to a pretty crap start for me. Firstly I woke up with a bit of gut pain, which for me is never a good sign. Then, since I was paying for the day, my translator and I had to get to a bank. Simple enough? Yes, but it turns out that none of the machines accepted my “all-around-the-world” Commonwealth bank travel money card. Guess what Commonwealth Bank? It doesn’t freakin’ work in Fortaleza Brazil!!

On the other hand, I learned later that the buses were due to pick the families up at 8, and everyone was there by 7.30, ready and raring to go! Bless them :)

We ended up driving around Fortaleza for about 40 minutes, which caused us to be late and really steamed me up. It affected me for probably the first 20 minutes of our day. 
Isabela hatched a plan to go to a local bank and withdraw the money from a teller, which made sense, but it meant I would be without a translator for a while. I probably didn’t think about it too much, or it would have terrified me – a park full of Portuguese-speaking Brazilians…..and me! 

So I spent the first twenty minutes of the day subdued and pissed off about the money thing. The majority of the kids and siblings were under 12, so they headed straight for the pool and had a blast. I joined them, but originally wasn’t going in. What could I do in a pool where the water was only thigh-high? Besides, I didn’t bring a towel. Turned out that both those excuses were lame, as I witnessed the pure, unrestrained joy of these kids laughing, splashing and just being kids. I don’t think I can underestimate the importance of that in this day. Even though I visited some of their houses, I definitely didn’t get a full picture of the difficulties they face in their lives.

I ended up “getting over myself” and getting in with them, forgetting about the “adult concerns" of not being able to get the money out, and being late. I played ball, I went around the pool on my hands and knees carrying 5 or 6 kids on my back, we played thumb-wars, paper-scissors-rock, sang silly songs and just had fun. I needn’t have worried about a towel – I was dry after 10 minutes in that sun!

The hardest part of the day was when Isabela left, and this coincided with lunchtime. The families were seated in their Project groups, and didn’t seem to mingle much. With no translator, I was unable to really interact with anyone.

Finally she returned and I went with some of the kids to look at the animals. There were various species of snakes, owls, other birds and monkeys. Peacocks and iguanas roamed around. The kids had a horse ride, where they were led around by a Park worker. Some of the boys (and Alynne) came and had a kick of the footy with me.

I was happy with my ability to get around to everyone on the day. I made a special effort to have a couple of extended conversations with poor Monalisa, who was stuck in a wheelchair because of her broken leg. She generally stayed under the covered area where we had lunch. It was pleasing to see Jessica and Cristina open up to me more today, since at the Project on Thursday they had been shy and reserved the whole day. I still didn’t get to talk to Cristina like I wanted to, but Victor assured me that after my visit she was talking about me and asking questions. I think some of them found it too difficult trying to communicate using a translator.

The biggest surprise came when we gathered for afternoon snack. On the way there I heard “Happy Birthday” being played – by live music! My jaw dropped as I saw my new favourite band – the teenagers from BR-329 I met on Saturday! They had brought all their instruments and gear to the Park to surprise me. I was speechless and humbled at the effort they had gone to, to be there. They played a couple of tunes, then it was gift-giving time.

BR-329 gave me a CD with all the photos from my visit on Saturday, as well as a drink bottle and t-shirt with a picture of me with Monalisa, Larissa and Alynne. BR-110 gave me a wooden “Fortaleza” photo frame. Alynne gave me a pendant with an electric guitar on the end. Larissa gave me a bass guitar made of hardened clay that she had painted. Monalisa’s mother gave me an embroidered table cloth-type thing, with a picture and some writing on it. I asked her how long it took, thinking a long time. She shrugged and said “An hour.” Wow, okay then.

We prayed, then I jumped on the drums to play a couple of songs with my favourite crew. I told them that what I was most impressed about was that between songs half the group switched instruments and it still sounded just as good. They were very versatile. I also had some spare clip-on koalas, and it was my joy to be able to give one to each of the band members.

Then it was time for cake and winding down. We had some group photos. I got photos of the kids from each Project, then with their siblings, then with siblings, parents and Project workers. Finally one with all ten kids, and then the whole crew! There would have been about 30 family members altogether, because many of the parents had to work. All ten kids had at least one family member with them.

Goodbyes were sad, but not overwhelming. Some of the things that were said were very humbling to me. Larissa’s mother said some nice things. In some ways the impact of my visit to Larissa could be considered negligible. She really didn’t take to me at all, she was just too young. However, on the other hand, I played a lot with her brothers on the Fun Day and went goo-goo at her baby sister every chance I got. This obviously had a positive effect on the mother. She was very grateful and thankful for my visit and for the sponsorship. I have a feeling that visiting Larissa this young may plant a seed and add strength to our sponsor-child relationship as she gets older. She and the family will grow up knowing that I care about her because I’ve been to visit her.

I told Monalisa again that even though she was graduating, I didn’t think this was the end for us. I believe she will be accepted as an LDP student and God has big plans for her. I will be part of it.

I said goodbye to each of the band members individually. I was so proud to know them, and also humbled at their response to me. I can honestly say that I’ve never had an effect like that on a group of teenagers. They were so thankful for my visit, but I was the one who was inspired by them! I singled out the girl drummer Tereza. She is a bit of a tomboy and probably doesn’t fit in that well with the other girls. I told her to keep developing her drumming gift and use it for God’s glory.   

And with that, the big adventure that was nine-months-in-the-making, was over.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Birthday in Brazil: group pics. Prepare to go "Awwww" :)

Intro – Flight delays, Cameras and Technology Stuff-Ups

So you’re wondering what lengths I would go to, to meet my Compassion kids? How far would I go? Try this: 5 separate flights, 36 hours sitting on planes and in airports. Ah, gotta love our First-World problems.

The journey started with a 3.30am wake-up call on Wednesday September 26 (Melbourne time). In our family we’ve always been drilled to be ready in plenty of time – and I was. Kindly chauffeured by my parents, I was checked in at 5 for a 6.30 flight to Sydney. The reward for my extra-earliness was an empty flight lounge and a staggering sunrise. I know the word “breath-taking” gets bandied around a bit, but I promise you, this was breath-taking. Now, I’m not the best describer of sunrises, but here goes: There were splashes of red, pink and orange were everywhere, creating a wondrous translucent-metallurgic-esque-ish glow. Ah, I’ll cut the crap - it was spectacular!!

Everything ran smoothly, except the second, fourth and fifth flights, which were delayed. At Santiago I stood in a non-moving line for 20 minutes, as my departure time ticked closer. From Santiago we flew to Rio, then Brasilia, then finally Fortaleza, with a stopover at Teresina thrown in. I only had 45 minutes between my Rio and Brasilia flights, then I watched in disbelief as we sat on the tarmac in a line of six airplanes for…you guessed it…45 MINUTES!!! It turned out, much to my relief, that the flight crew for both flights was the same, so it didn’t matter if we arrived late at Brasilia.

Finally got into Fortaleza at 2am, checked into the hotel at 2.30 and was asleep by 4.00am - on the morning I was to meet my first kids!

Another obstacle/speed hump/hurdle that popped up, due largely to my own stupidity and forgetfulness, was technology-related. I neglected to bring a power adapter with me to Brazil, maybe naively thinking I could pick one up when I got here. When I was in Colombia, the hotel gave me one to use, but it turned out this hotel didn’t have any. So after a couple of hours I had a flat laptop battery, and the phone battery went dead late on the first visit day.

I also brought a camera and 10 batteries, but for some reason these particular batteries and this particular camera did not want to cooperate, and went flat within 5 minutes. I then turned to my phone for back-up, and because of all the photos and video I was taking, the battery lasted maybe an hour.

Unfortunately my annoyance and preoccupation with my failing technology affected how I engaged with the home visits on that first day. Looking back I probably even seemed downright rude as I fiddled with my phone trying to switch the camera settings to “memory card” so I could take some more pics. Thankfully I was able to retain a lot of the information.

Isabela did most of the talking, which was good. I had imagined this wonderful, deep two-way conversation, but it didn’t happen that way. I gave gifts, prayed for the family, took a couple of photos (with Isabela’s camera). I was hoping to get more pics of their house and living conditions, but was unable to.

My translator Isabela proved to be a God-send. She is the Trips and Visits Specialist for Compassion Brazil, and made my visit a great experience. She relates really well to the kids, and takes lots of photos. She also went the extra mile by hunting around town for a power adapter, and by Friday night (day 2) I was up and running. 

Lesson learned today: God is a God who answers prayer, whether or not it is in the form we hope or expect it to be. I repeatedly asked God to help me rely completely on him and trust him to provide. He did this on the first two days through delayed flights and technology stuff-ups.

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised at all the little hiccups. I had HOPED things would run smoothly, but didn’t really expect it. The point is this. There was a time when delayed flights and waiting in stinkin’ lines would have driven me up the wall and derailed my perspective and attitude for the whole trip. Sure, I got mildly annoyed, but God has given me discernment and perspective so that I was able to recognise the little speed humps as they appeared, throw up a little prayer, and give it to God. He’s had his hand on this trip for a long time, and I trusted Him to get me there, even if I was bug-eyed and slightly stinky. Let the adventure begin…

Monday, October 1, 2012

BR-458 House visits, Thursday September 27, 2012

During the day we were able to visit the houses and meet the families of Jessica and Christian. Both were within walking distance, so our merry little band set out in the lovely baking sun: me, the three kids, Jessica’s sister Gisele, translator Isabela and project worker Victor.

Jessica’s house was our first stop. She lives with her mother Jacqueline, father Rogerio, sister Gisele and baby brother Joao (sort of like our equivalent of John). Jacqueline earns a living by stitching and embroidering patterns on bras and undies. There were several boxes full around the house, so she must be busy. She is able to work from home, so this helps her look after Joao. Their living conditions seem perilous and quite poor. I am happy to be able to help them through my sponsorship.

The family has a dog and a cat. They are joined in surrounding houses by relatives and extended family. We were joined on our visit by five or six young cousins, some only in their underwear, which at a guess was probably not by choice. Jessica seemed quiet and shy, but also cheerful and sweet.

Next stop was Christian. He was a great little guy! He was definitely the most open and expressive of the three. He radiated excitement and energy. He LOVED the Australian football. When we went to his house he showed it to his relatives and they scratched their heads and looked at it for about 20 seconds.

I also taught him the correct way to say “footy”, that is, “oo” as in book and pronounce the “t” as a “d”, so it becomes “foody”. He kept saying it over and over again! Classic :) One thing I noticed was he was very receptive to the things of God and the Bible. When we were at Jessica’s house, they were asked what their favourite bible story was, and 8 y.o. Christian came out with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, and proceeded to recount it!? That’s a pretty intense favourite Bible story.

He is an only child, and up until recently lived with his mother Ana Cristina, grandparents Valda and Daniel and uncle Antonio – not exactly a nuclear family. However, apparently just last week his mother got married to his father (surely that can only be a good thing?), and they just moved into their own house. Hopefully this can lead to a stable home environment for Christian to grow up in. So the house we visited was the grandparent’s house where they lived until last week.

Christian’s grandpa Daniel had injured his hand/wrist/arm after being hit by a car, and it was all curled up so his hand was pointing to the sky. They told us that the driver was never brought to justice. I could tell this wounded them because I ‘m not sure if he worked, but it prevented him from working.

Christian’s mother makes money by recycling materials and selling them on to a guy. She doesn’t have set work hours, but just finds and collects things wherever she is going. One of the walls of the grandparents house was piled high with plastic bottles.

We weren’t able to visit Ana Cristina’s house, because they live in a different area. Cristina’s uncle was killed in drug-related circumstances. Another uncle went and killed a member of the opposing group. As a result, the whole family had to move away for their own safety. Cristina’s older sisters look after her when her parents are working. Because they live in a different area, and there is no Project in the area where she lives, Cristina only makes it to the Compassion Project about once a week. She is picked up by Victor, one of the Project workers. There are so many stories like that that are never told – the Project staff care for the kids and families and regularly sacrifice and go the extra mile for them. I made sure I thanked Victor for looking after my girl.

Normally she would be forced to depart the program, but they have made an exception for this family because of the relationship I have formed with her and because of the visit. I learned that the family were just about to pull her out, then they found out I was coming to visit and decided to let her keep coming! That blew me away and made me feel so humble and thankful.
Sponsors: It is worth putting extra time and effort into writing to and praying for your kids! God rewards it!!
As much as I am hoping that Cristina stays in the Project, I know I need to accept her inevitable departure sooner or later. I am aware that grudges over drug-related deaths don’t just disappear, so it will be a long time before the family feels safe coming back to the area.

For the two home visits we were joined by all three kids, plus Jessica’s sister Gisele. Jessica and Christian are both 8, Gisele is 10 and Cristina is 12. One thing I LOVED seeing was the way the four of them interacted with each other. We had a 15 minute walk to each house, though unpaved and dangerous streets with rubbish and sewage everywhere, stray cats and dogs running around and motorbikes whizzing past. I marvelled at how they wandered along, seemingly without a care in the world, chatting and laughing with each other, Christian playing with (and frequently dropping) the football.

Cristina took on a bit of a mother role, reminding the others to stay to the side of the road if they strayed too far to middle. It was particularly precious seeing Jessica and Cristina walking along holding hands, and during the home visits Jessica would sit on Cristina’s lap. It was a relief to me to see that there was not hint of jealousy or competition between the kids. This showed me that they were secure in the knowledge that I loved them the same. 

BR-458 Projeto Sementinhas (Little Seeds), Project Visit, Thursday September 27, 2012

Our first day was to be spent at Compassion Project BR-458 – Projeto Sementinhas (Little Seeds Project), which is located in the region of Caucaia, just outside Fortaleza. Here I sponsor Ana Cristina (12), Jessica (8) and Christian (8). It has been running for 5 years and has 152 children. Pastor Josue actually began caring for neighbourhood kids before he joined with Compassion. He started with 7 kids, increased to 20 something and then found out about Compassion. When they met, Compassion encouraged him to get 100 kids before forming a partnership. The Project has three classrooms, and is relatively new. 

The new church is being built on site, so at the moment, the kids main play area is basically a construction zone. They play in bare feet and flip-flops, and have to contend with dirt, rocks, stones, and possibly nails and glass. OH&S boffins would be horrified! Fortunately Pastor Josue lives just across the road and he provides them with a safer place to play.

I’ll be honest, in my mind I went through what I hoped meeting these kids would be like, probably a thousand times over, and the way it went down was, initially, an anti-climax. All three of them were in their classes, and when I went in there I almost felt like I was interrupting things. We took them downstairs to have a get-to-know-you chat, and didn’t get much out of them. Simply, they were just shy, withdrawn and overwhelmed. Cristina and Jessica stayed that way for the majority of the day, but Christian was by far the most open and expressive of the three.

 Another thing that was interesting was how little they knew or remembered about me, despite the fact that I send them letters and pictures at least once month, of at least one page in length. I don’t hold back in my letters. They should basically know my life story. I don’t know whether it’s a translation issue, but I thought they should have known more than they did.

 Isabela and I did a good job of keeping things moving, and soon enough, the other kids came down for their snack. I got lots of curious looks and shy glances. I stuck my hand out for a high five to see who would get it. Some did, others walked right past. After the snack it was music time! They did a couple of songs for me, and I taught them a couple of songs I learned as a summer camp counsellor in Indiana back in 2004. It was good they were mainly action songs, because the language barrier proved a bit tricky.

 After this we had some free time out in the construction zone a.k.a the half built church. They loved to play a game that was similar to dodge-ball, but as a way of keeping everyone in the game, if you got hit, you go up one end, and continue playing. I also taught them paper-scissors-rock, thumb-wars, a finger trick and My Aunty Anna (a hand-clapping game where the person who can put their legs apart the furthest wins).

This group of kids were very receptive and curious. We had the language barrier, but all I had to do was walk with a wiggle and I had them in stitches.   

 Another special event I was able to be part of today was giving some gifts to a child from their sponsor all the way in the US. I met Jennifer Nunley on the OurCompassion website, which is like a social networking site for Compassion sponsors, and she sponsors Erica from this Project. When she found out I was going there, she was keen to send some gifts. The Project staff very kindly arranged for Erica to be at the Project on this day, and I was able to meet her, give her the gifts, as well as take some photos and video to give to Jennifer. 

 One thing that went down really well was the Australian football I brought along. This group of kids really got into it, especially my boy Christian, who carried it round with him when we went walking on the home visits. I taught them how to kick and handball, then we played some kick-to-kick for a while. They even had to be encouraged to go back to their soccer game – they’d forgotten all about it!

 I was looked after really well. Once again the hospitality was fantastic and the project staff genuinely care about the kids in their care and any visitors that may come. They are truly being the hands and feet of Jesus.

Lesson learned: Today I learned that God is a God who answers prayers, whether or not it comes in the form we want or expect. Before this trip I repeatedly prayed for God to clothe me in humility, and to help me remember that this is all about Him. There was not one occasion on this first day for me to get a big head. There was no great outpouring of emotion or gratitude from any of the kids or parents, even though I know they loved having me there, and were appreciative of all I've done. They were just very low-key in the way they expressed it. 

BR-110 Home visits, Friday September 28, 2012

We were only able to visit two of the four girls houses today, because the parents were working. It was disappointing, but there’s not much you can do about it. So we were off on a walking tour of the streets of Brazil to Alice and Pamella’s house. Tell you what, it was a fair eye opener, and I was way out of my comfort zone. 

The neighbourhoods of all three Projects felt very similar, at least to me. I felt eyes on me wherever we went. There was sewage running down the streets, people lying in doorways, houses were covered in bars and padlocks, putting anything of value on display was a no-no. And yet having said all that, the kids just laughed, chatted and skipped all the way along.

The common status symbol on the streets seemed to be unnecessarily massive speakers which were put on the back of motor bikes or on top of cars, and pumped up way PAST 11 on the volume dial, so periodically we’d walking or talking and we’d receive a cerebral blast of Portuguese something-or-other. Having made their point, whatever it was, the car or motor bike in question would proudly move along.

We were a motley crew: me, Isabela, Ezir (Project staff member), the 4 girls, Andressa and an older boy from the Project. Every so often I would look around and just laugh to myself about the absurdity of where I had found myself. I never imagined in my wildest dreams I would be walking the streets of Brazil. Following God takes you to some strange places. But He's always there with you.

First stop was Pamella's house. Pamella 9 years old, and was clearly the leader of the four-girl pack. She is also a larger girl, and I believe this has an effect on the way she sees herself. She is an absolute sweetheart and never short of a word, but what really stood out to me was a massive need for affirmation, approval and love. Her emotional tank seemed so empty and her insecurity shone like a beacon. When she was painting something for me, she started again three or four times because it "wasn't good enough". She even made random negative comments to Isabela about her own body and personality. This made my heart ache for her.

Pamella lives with her godmother and godfather who appear to care for her very much. She does have parents and siblings, but they live somewhere else. The reason for this wasn't mentioned. The godparents have a daughter who Pamella calls her sister.

The sister is 18 and is off "working" in Portugal (it's presumed in some sort of sex-related job). She periodically sends money back to the family, and for this reason, certain parts of Pamella's house are nicer and more modern than many of the other houses in the area. However, because the money being sent is not regular, the family still falls under Compassion's economic profile. The godfather is a taxi driver, and popped in while we were visiting to say hello.

Next stop, not too far away, was Alice's house. Alice was sort of stuck in the middle of the group. Personality-wise she is sweet but quiet, and I get the feeling she is easily overshadowed. Living in a household of 9 will do that to you I guess. There were an assortment of siblings and cousins around the place, and we noticed they sport a healthy devotion to a TV show called "Rebelde". There were posters and pictures up on walls and in frames, and Alice was able to rattle of the characters like a pro.

Unfortunately the parents of Taina and Ana Alice were working, so we were unable to visit their houses. Ana Alice is very similar to Alice in personality, while Taina is the youngest of the bunch. She is tiny and cute (and knows it).

I was told there was a possibility Taina may be released from the Compassion program, but is still in it because of her home situation. Her father left the family for a while, but now he has returned. He works in construction and makes enough to help the family without Compassion's assistance. However he is quite volatile and is apparently sometimes prone to physical violence. So because Compassion is holistic in their care of the child, a child will not be released from the program simply because their family makes enough money. The Compassion staff look at all areas of their life, and if one area is at risk, they prefer to look after them.

What really made today a joy is that, at least on the surface, there didn't seem to be much between the girls in the way of jealousy or competition for my attention. I made sure I talked to and played with each of them, and they seemed to get along well.

BR-110 Espaco Esperanca (Hope Space) Project visit, Friday September 28, 2012

What an incredible day! Our day started with a scavenger hunt. I had foolishly forgotten to bring a power adapter, and evidently they’re as rare as hen’s teeth in Brazil, so my wonderful translator Isabela went well above and beyond the call of to try and find me one. Our search led us to downtown Fortaleza, and it was like a freakin’ gauntlet! Cars, bikes, motorbikes, trolleys, carts and people all fought for a tiny space of road.  On one occasion Isabela parked and left the engine running while she went from shop to shop. Eventually my nerves got the better of me and I turned the engine off. Imagine finding a running car with a foreigner in the passenger seat? JACKPOT!

We arrived at the project, parked the car, and I met the girls: Taina (7) Pamella (9), Alice (8) and Ana Alice (8) (pronounced Ana-lee-see). We took a photo in front of a sign that said “David – Your presence fill us with joy!”

Our first stop was the music class. John Nascimento is a former sponsored child of this project, and he is now studying as a student of the Leadership Development Program. He’s also back at the Project teaching music, and has recorded a CD of Brazilian guitar music with 5 other guys. The boys in the music class performed, then I was invited to play something. Funnily enough I “just happened” to have brought music for a couple of songs. I played and sang the worship song “Forever” and John, being the talented guy he is, played along. The girls then sang a song and we moved on to a short tour of the Project.

BR-110 is Brazil's most established Project. It’s been around for 25-ish years, and you can tell. The classrooms are bigger, there are more of them, and they have a nice big undercover play area. Music and dance are integral classes, and they have a garden where they grow vegetables, both for the Project and the community. The Projects also compete in sporting and music competitions in the community and BR-110 had a fair collection of trophies.

Today was a planning day for the staff, so there were very few kids around. We were joined by Ana Alice’s sister Andressa as well as a couple of boys, David and Guilhermi. While we were at the Project we did some painting and drawing (correction: they painted and drew, I watched); played some hide and seek; they showed me some dances they’d been practising. I taught them some silly fun songs I’d learned as a summer camp counselor in Indiana in 2004 – Silly Moose, Baking a Cake and Alive Awake Alert. The language barrier made it hard, but we managed.

I had also brought an Australian football with me and got that out. Most of them had a little turn, but they were probably a bit young. Andressa and the two boys were right into it, though, and we had a nice big space to play.

The staff were very grateful and thankful, and their hospitality was humbling. However, there was one blunder. They gave me a t-shirt with a picture of the four girls, and something about me being from the United States. Oops! I managed to forgive them. :) 

BR-329 Projeto Nova Vida (New Life) Project Visit, Saturday September 29, 2012

I honestly can’t think of any adjectives or superlatives that would suitably describe the day that I’ve had. It was heavenly.

Before the day, I wondered how it would go. I had only been sponsoring Larissa (4), Alynne (17) and Monalisa (18) for four months. I had only written them one letter, and hadn’t yet received any from them.

I'd had a magnificent day on Friday visiting BR-110 and two of the houses, so before I left I asked God a rhetorical question: Could this trip get any better?

This question was answered as soon as I walked into the Project. Being a Saturday, it was filled with the hustle and bustle of teenagers with welcoming smiles and curious looks. We walked into the main area to see a band of young people set up and ready to play. This wasn’t just your normal guitar/bass/drum band, but they had flutes, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones and even a tuba!! I found out later that all these instruments are taught by two people at the project! I was impressed.

Those of you who know me even just a little bit, are aware that music is a major part of who I am. I teach it at school and I play drums, bass, guitar, keyboard and I sing. God has “ingrained” music into my soul, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than playing drums or bass guitar.

This is part of the reason why I chose to use the word “heavenly” to describe my day yesterday. It was like I’d walked into a little piece of heaven among the poverty and danger that existed outside the walls of the Project.

Before the band played, I was introduced to my three girls. I had a feeling I knew what would happen with Larissa (4), because my oldest nephew Archie is also 4, and he’s very selective about who he responds to (although he always loves seeing his favourite Uncle David!) Larissa wouldn’t have a bar of me to begin with. She gradually warmed up to me - just before she went home! I didn’t take it personally. I also met Alynne and Monalisa. Monalisa was in a wheelchair after breaking her leg three weeks ago. This has presented some challenges for her, which I’ll detail later.

The band played a couple of numbers for us, including one in particular that had a nice little funky Brazilian beat to it (pity I can’t dance, but more about that soon), then I was introduced and asked to pray for the group. It looked as though they were about to be sent off to their classes so I quickly mentioned to Isabela that I’d like the chance to get on the drums at some stage during the day (hint hint), so she talked to the director and they invited me to play a song with them. It was truly a highlight of my life – a talented band, and at least 50 Brazilian teenagers going nuts and dancing away. I just loved the whole atmosphere, and I never miss a chance to “show off” my drumming.

After I got off the drums, they played a couple of other songs and set up a dance floor (NOOOOOO!!!). I wished I could have made myself invisible at this point, but I couldn’t. In no time a couple of girls had come over and wanted to dance. I reluctantly accepted and quickly proved my incompetence in this area, and skulked away laughing, apologetic and embarrassed. They were very forgiving.

After this three of the boys practised their English and thanked me for coming to visit. My earlier concerns about the impact of my visit were unfounded. Through the whole day I was humbled by their gratitude and thankfulness.

A few of the girls asked me to pose for photos (Dang, if I was 15 years younger…), and they went off to their classes. At this point I sat down with the three girls and Isabela and we had conversation to get to know each other better. I explained why I had only sent them one letter to that point (because I only sponsored them a couple of months ago and knew I was coming to visit, so by the time I sent another letter it would arrive after the visit), but I made up for it by printing out every letter from this year that I had sent my other kids, as well as about 20 pages of photos – someone’s going to have a lot of translating to do!

Each of the girls had made me a birthday card with a sweet message on it (which I’m also going to have to get translated). After this, Monalisa stayed put in her wheelchair, while Alynne took me round on a tour of the Project. It is an urban Project that serves 680 kids, as well as another 200-ish who are part of a government youth program. Many Compassion Projects and churches open up their facilities to outside community groups, which is the best way to gain the trust and confidence of parents and others, rather than just remaining a closed shop.

At the moment they are forced to be economical with the way they use their space – most classrooms are used for two or three different activities during the week. However, they do currently have a two storey building extension happening, which they estimate will be finished by next June. That way they will be able to have all activities on the one property. They have music and dancing programs, as well as a full computer lab which is used by all age groups.

We went and visited the nursery for ages 2 to 4, which is on a separate property down the road. That is where Larissa spends most of her time. We also saw the church, who have set up a little shop to raise money for a missionary to go to Senegal, in Africa. I LOVE THAT!! With all the poverty in Brazil, these people aren’t wallowing in it and feeling sorry for themselves – they’re looking to other countries where people might not know Jesus, and sending people there – magnificent!

A definite highlight was getting out the FOOTY! Just for a laugh, I decided to pack a soft-touch Australian football and take it to each Project to see what they thought. I gathered up some of the teenage boys (and one brave girl) and explained to them how to kick and handball. They had a very limited space in which to play, so we had a bit of kick-to-kick.

At first they were all just standing around taking turns to get the ball, but then I explained that football is a contact sport, and you can compete to get the ball – no pushing in the back or tackling when they don’t have the ball. Well, you should have seen them – they loved it! It was great to watch.

Today I had my own personal photographer – his name is Wesley and he’s also a drummer (he showed me pics on his phone during lunch). He came everywhere with us during the day and was snapping away. I made sure to ask if I could have a copy of the photos before I leave Brazil. I asked about him toward the end of the day, and he’s part of the government youth program that meets at the project. He asked if he could be involved in media. So anything to do with the website, photos, music – that’s what Wesley does.

The teenagers of the Project were busy today because they were preparing for a community party to be held in the evening. I was impressed to learn they had organised everything, which shows me that Compassion is doing a fantastic job of instilling a sense of responsibility, ownership and pride in their achievements into these amazing kids which they probably wouldn’t get at home or maybe even school.

Lunch was delicious, as it was at each Project. Their hospitality and generosity was incredible and humbling. The winner of the most interesting dish of the week goes to this Project. The mother of one of the Project kids made this: banana, wrapped in ham and cheese, cooked in the oven for 20 minutes. It was surprisingly nice. I think I must have been so baffled that I went back for seconds. It’s just a combo that I never even imagined existing.

A word for people who are already sponsors: If you ever even have the slightest possibility of going to visit your child, DO IT! It could change their life. Met one beautiful young lady at lunchtime who was about to depart the program because her family circumstance had improved. Here’s how it happened: Her sponsor was in the army, and came to visit her one day. The sponsor was sharing with the girl’s mother about her experiences, and what she had learned about life etc. The mother was inspired to find out about joining the Brazilian army, she did, and as a result her family’s circumstance has improved to the point where they no longer need help. Sponsor visit = life transformed and changed!  

As you can tell, I just loved my time at this Project. At this point I don’t need any convincing of the legitimacy or effectiveness of Compassion, but this just re-affirmed it for me. The staff love the kids so much, and as long as there is a Compassion project in the community there is hope for the children and families. This is what they get: food, education, medical care, income-generating skills and most of all the HOPE and FREEDOM that comes from a relationship with Jesus.

BR-329 Home visits, Saturday September 29, 2012

I sponsor three girls from BR-329. I started in May, after two of my other Brazil girls had to leave the program. I was referred to advocate Bev Yearwood, who passed these three girls on: Alynne, Monalisa and Larissa.

Larissa is four years old. She lives with her mum, grandma, 2 older brothers and baby sister, who found my finger very tasty for some reason. They have just moved house because mum got a job, so the grandma is able to look after baby. The family is very blessed in this regard, because not everyone has a parent who is either able or willing to look after the grandchildren. Both brothers are sponsored by same person from the US. Judging by when she was playing with the footy at the Project, she will have good ball skills when she gets older.

 Alynne is 17 and in 10th grade. She has had 4 sponsors through her life and wants to be a lawyer. Alynne lives with two younger sisters, her mother, her “aunt” (who is really just a  close friend) and her aunt’s daughter. She is leaving the Compassion program because she just got a job at a grocery store and her mother got a job too. They just moved house, and their circumstances have improved to the point where they don’t need the extra assistance. When she was growing up, Alynne missed two years of school resulting from family instability and moving around a lot. Fortunately she was still was able to go to the Compassion Project during this time. She is involved in church. Her mother would like to but is often busy and tired. Sometimes the aunt (lovingly) tries to drag the mother up and make her go because she thinks she’s being lazy.

Monalisa is 18 and is about to graduate from the Compassion program. She lives with her mother and younger sister. They live in a kind of apartment complex with 3 other families, some of whom are relatives. She has been described to me as an entrepreneur, and dreams of being a vet. She has been recently offered three different government jobs, and chose to work at a health insurance company, which was a blessing, because when she broke her leg three weeks ago, she was able to get health insurance to pay for it! I’m Monalisa’s second sponsor, so it’s good that she’s had that stability. She is very involved in church, and is applying for a position in Compassion’s Leadership Development Program, which provides free college education for a select number of students from each country. 

The selection process for the LDP is very rigorous, and aims to develop Christian leaders who will impact their communities and countries for Jesus. This is also done through sponsorship, but instead of $44/month (in Australia), it’s $400, so it’s very demanding all-round. 

Here are the challenges she's facing right now: as I mentioned, 3 weeks ago Monalisa broke her leg in three places, had surgery, and is now getting around in a wheelchair. She is in the process of applying to be an LDP student. The project staff and I have no doubt she will make it.

One of the stages in the LDP application process is a "team-building"component, where they complete group activities to assess each potential student's ability to work with others and show leadership. They originally thought this was going to be in January, but it got moved to October, which will make it quite difficult for Monalisa in a wheelchair. The project staff are seeking an exemption for her.

I have never been in the position of considering sponsoring an LDP student, but now I definitely am. At the time I told Monalisa that even if I could not continue to sponsor her in the LDP, I would find someone who could. Since then I have decided I could not bear to "give her away", but I would be willing to co-sponsor. I believe God has brought Monalisa into my life for a reason, and the four month sponsorship is not to be the end of it. I am aware of the extra costs, but in my past experiences with God's provision, money is not a worry for me. 

Like with the other kids, I gave these three girls some gifts. Before I gave her the soft toy lamb, I said to Monalisa "I know you're 18, but I'm sure everyone loves a soft toy!" I also gave them a necklace. Siblings received a clip-on koala and a postcard of Melbourne or Australian animals. The family received an Australia-themed clock and a small Australian flag. Monalisa and Alynne also received a scientific calculator courtesy of my friend Steve.

Brazil visit - Compassion Project BR-458 Projeto Sementinhas (Little Seeds Project)

My first visit was to BR-458, which is just outside Fortaleza. It has been operating for about 5 years, so is relatively new. My first Brazil girl was Ana Cristina, and then Jessica and Christian soon followed. I will share more about them later, but the girls were very shy and reserved for most of the day. I really wanted to visit Ana Cristina's home, as she is quite special to me. Unfortunately she lives in a different area. For our story, click here. The project staff did take some time to tell me more about her family situation, which is not good at the moment. Here's a brief look at my day at BR-458 Projeto Sementinhas (Little Seeds Project)

Christian (8), Jessica (8), Ana Cristina (12). On the very left is Jessica's sister Gisele, who is 10 and is also sponsored.

These kids love to sing and dance. I also taught them a couple of songs I learned  when I was a camp counselor in Indiana in 2004. They were mainly action songs because it got a bit tricky with the language barrier.

Their main play area is a construction zone! The new church is being built here. Fortunately Pastor Josue lives across the road and has a fairly big area that they can play in.

One of my favourite pics :)

A glimpse of the neighbourhood these kids live in

Just for a laugh I thought I'd take an Australian football along and see what they thought. They LOVED it! (especially my boy Christian). We were playing a bit of kick-to-kick and I even had to encourage them to go back to their soccer game.

Standard Brazilian lunch of rice and beans

Quick farewell photo before some of them left. They were a really engaging, fun and curious group of kids, many of whom are sponsored by Australians.

This s Erica, who is sponsored by Jennifer N, from the OurCompassion website. She sent me some gifts to take over for Erica, and I got her some photos and a video of Erica opening her gifts. I was in a similar situation last year, when someone visited this same Project, met one of my kids and sent me some pics and video. It was good to be able to share this joy.