Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Compassion Adventure 2013 - Visiting Laura in Colombia

And so my latest Compassion adventure began with 33 hours of travel and four flights. Definitely the scenic route. Destination: Bogota, Colombia. I arrived in Bogota at 5.00am , and my translator Leonardo was good enough to meet me at the airport straight away. It just meant we had a few hours to kill. We chatted, and he told me a bit of his story. Colombia is known as a predominately Catholic country. His sister was the first in their family to become a Christian at age 16, and as a result was kicked out of home. He has been working with Compassion for a while, and at one stage was translating letters.

At first he translated the sponsor letters from English to Spanish. He noted the common theme of the letters: God loves you and has a plan for you, despite the poverty, despite your circumstances. Jeremiah 29:11 came up a lot. He admitted at first he had a certain amount of scepticism, along the lines of “Yeah they’re rich and they have “stuff”, of course they’re going to say God is good.”

But things changed when he started translating the kids letters. They would share with their sponsors the hard things that were happening in their lives, but then would add “but it doesn’t matter because I have Jesus in my life and He will take care of me and my family.” This impacted Leonardo immeasurably, and like the majority of Compassion translators I’ve been privileged to meet, he is a passionate advocate for Compassion and the fight against poverty. He helped make my day a joyful experience.

I have been sponsoring Laura for over two years. She is about to turn 14, and of course is the same height as me. Laura writes fantastic detailed letters, and had expressed in a few of them the desire to meet me. It really is a dream that all sponsored kids have. Never doubt that, and if you get the opportunity to go on a trip, GO!

Laura’s family consists of Mama, older brother Camilo (15) and younger sister Daniela (5). They have no father or husband living at home, and I heard mention of at least two different fathers. I was happy to learn that one of them still helps the family with money, since Mama does not work because she has to care for Daniela. This has left Camilo as the man of the house. I have wondered how this would weigh on the heart of a 15 year old boy, whether the expectations were explicit or left unsaid. During our day together he appeared to be a bright, enthusiastic animated young fella, and it was a pleasure to meet him.

To meet Laura and her family, we ventured down to the South of Bogota, which has it’s share of challenges. Even Taxi drivers are hesitant to go there. I have no pictures of the neighbourhood because it’s not safe. Robberies and teenage gangs are a major problem.

The school system in Colombia operates in two sessions: 6am – 12pm, then 1pm – 6pm. A major reason there are so many problems with the young people is that when they get out of school, they have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Many families are fractured, and the parent is working all day, so the kids stay out on the street. Travelling in a taxi on the way to lunch we stopped at a red light and very nearly witnessed a “schoolyard street rumble.” Boys in school uniforms were baiting each other with words, their weapons of choice planks of wood that would do a bit of damage. Some of them started throwing wood onto the nature strip in the middle of the road, very close to our taxi. Something was said that tipped them over the edge and boys scattered in all directions, some chasing, some fleeing. Then the light turned green.

The Project Laura and Camilo attend has been operating for nine years. There were no activities on this day, so I took a tour and met the staff. Heroes of mine.

They started with 150 kids and have grown to 350. Here’s the thing: the church that the Project is attached to only has about 70 members. A church of 70 looking after and caring for 350 kids in a dangerous gang-ridden community? It’s stories like that that make me so convinced that Compassion is a God-thing. And funnily enough, the Compassion Project workers get left alone by the gangs.

I learned that the Project were beneficiaries of Compassion’s Complementary Interventions program (CIV), where if a Project has a specific pressing need, like more toilets or a better quality kitchen, they can apply for funding from Compassion. This Project was able to build themselves a new kitchen thanks to the CIV.

One of the things I love seeing at every Project I visit is the cupboards full of child folders that detail and document every area of a child’s development – school progress, medical reports, social development and sponsor correspondence. Everything that is sent and received – gifts, money, letters, is recorded. The integrity and accountability is outstanding.

We visited Laura’s home, where we met the rest of the family. They have been living there for ten years. Their house belonged to Mama’s father, who had been killed just two months before, in a robbery gone wrong. He was the only breadwinner, so his death put a massive strain on the family. Thankfully (and unsurprisingly) Compassion stepped up to help, and they get help from Mama’s sister and one of the kid’s fathers.

It’s times like that when I fully grasp the significance of a sponsor, and the impact we have. God is using me to literally be a father to the fatherless, to give Laura words of love and encouragement, which she doesn’t necessarily get from anywhere else.

While at the house, I gave out some gifts. For each child on this trip, I am giving: an activity book, coloured pencils, a sharpener, bubbles, a soft toy kangaroo or koala and a Where’s Wally book. The family is receiving a 2014 calendar with images of Australia.

During last term, I shared with my first grade students about my trip, and I suggested that of they have any toys that they don’t want or don’t use any more, then I could give them to my Compassion kids. Well, their generous response meant that I left with two big fat bulging suitcases. I felt a bit like Santa Claus
J I love being able to sow the seeds of Godly generosity into little guys.

Laura and Camilo both attend a unique school which is half an hour out of town. I learned that it is a normal public school, but because it is rural, they are able to do things like plant crops and grow gardens. This gives the kids invaluable income-generating skills for their futures. On the flip-side, because of the distance, and the fact school starts at 6am, they are up at 4 and out the door at 5. Tough for a couple of young teens.

I was told that the bus route had been changed because on one occasion Laura and Camilo, and the kids they were with, were robbed on their way to the bus stop. The thieves took everything including their shoes, and they had to walk home shoeless and crying.

One reason I’m so passionate about sponsors visiting their kids if they ever get the slightest opportunity, apart from the fact that it’s their biggest dream, is that you find out so much that you otherwise wouldn’t know in the letters. Now, this can be a good or bad thing, depending on the family’s circumstances. When I went to Central America in January, there were plenty of things about the kid’s home situations that I would rather have not known. But I know that if I am to love them like God loves them, I have to put my heart out there and risk getting hurt. I can’t pretend that injustice and horrible circumstances don’t exist. I can’t hide from it.

For lunch we headed out to a mall. Laura was indecisive about choosing a venue in the food court. I didn’t take my chance to choose when offered either, so bizarrely we settled on this Chinese rice/noodle place. I was still dealing with stomach issues, so I wasn’t very hungry and then found a mountain of food placed in front of me. Let’s just say the family took home a rather large doggy bag. You’re welcome

A classic moment came when it was time to go on the escalator to go to the next level at the mall. Mama just would not go on, no matter how much we cajoled or encouraged her – it was a legitimate phobia. She even nearly sent me tumbling down on one occasion when I had her by the hand and was about to go on and she pulled back at the last second. She was quite happy to take the stairs.

After lunch we went to an amusement arcade located in the mall. The kids had a blast (oh, what the heck, so did I)
J They tried all sorts of games and attractions, but the clear favourite was the Bumper Cars. Not surprisingly I was the main target, but I gave as good as I got. We had about four goes, and I escaped generally unscathed, although I’m pretty sure I heard something crack at one point.

Air hockey was also popular. I played against both Laura and Camilo, and as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t let them beat me.

After hearing many of the details of the lives of this family and the challenges they face, it was a gift from God to be able to give them a couple of hours of fun, just being kids.

After a fantastic day it was time for me to go. I thought and prayed long and hard about what I was going to say to them at the end what words I could leave with them. I settled on this:

After our day together, I’m sure you have an idea of how much I love you. But as much as I love you, I need you to know that God loves you so much more. He has given me just a little taste of His love for you. I pray that you continue to trust in Him, and look to Him for all your needs.
Compassion trip day one: big tick.   

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting about your trip! I love hearing about your visits with your kids. And how sweet of your 1st graders to donate gifts...I love that you're already sewing seeds of giving in them! And how eye-opening to see Laura's home life. I'm so glad that you're there for her along with Compassion, and most importantly, God!