Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015: A Year In The Life...

2015 was another incredible year for me. I’ve made it my mission to live a simple life in order to help others and use my gifts and talents to glorify God, and I believe He has sustained me and provided for me as a result.

I returned from the Philippines at the end of November 2014, after ten months serving at the Ruel Foundation orphanage on the island of Mindoro. It was a fantastic experience but ultimately there were too many cultural and gender related barriers which I was unable to overcome.

When I returned to Australia I faced two months of unemployment, as it was the long school vacation period. So I got straight to work:  

The Book
I had been working on my Compassion book, ‘GoInto All The World,’ all through 2014 and it was published just as I arrived back in Australia.

I held two separate book launches for friends early in the year and I had opportunities to appear on TV and radio ( to talk about the book.

I have not sold as many as would have liked, but right from the start I dedicated it to God and I look forward to seeing what He does with it.

The Business
A few years ago I worked for a small YMCA-owned business called “YMCA Funworks.” We would go to schools, birthday parties and community events and play games, such as the giant earthball, parachute, tug-o-war, jumping castles, mini-golf etc. Unfortunately it folded after a couple of years, since it wasn’t marketed effectively and ended up costing the YMCA money. I always thought I could turn it into my own business idea, so in the period of inactivity at the start of the year I took the plunge, creating “DC Fun and Games.” I bought the business name, created a website and purchased equipment. The business did not take off this year because I ended up getting a teaching job, but I have the business name for three years, so who knows what could happen? 

Compassion kids
I have been a Compassion sponsor and advocate for nine years, and it was a major reason I returned to Australia; I missed being involved. When I returned, I was re-connected with nine kids I sponsored before I went to the Philippines and then sponsored eight more, making a total of 17, plus I am also a correspondent sponsor to five kids from Kenya, which means they have a financial sponsor but I write to them.

During the year I had the opportunity to speak at four churches about Compassion, and approximately 20 kids were sponsored as a result.

Overseas travel has become a pretty normal part of my life. In July I headed to New York (the city of my dreams since I was 12), where I saw U2 (my favourite band) play a concert at Madison Square Garden (definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience)!

Then I headed down to Guatemala and Nicaragua to revisit four of my Compassion kids I had visited previously: Yeymi, Josefa, Antonio and Kelle. It was an interesting experience to visit them for a second time and see how things had changed.

Sports Journalism
If you’re a regular follower of the blog, you know that I love to write, and I also love sport, so this year I made a decision to combine the two, with a view to possibly taking it more seriously in the future. I enrolled in a couple of online Sports Journalism courses through Australian College and Open Colleges and set a goal for myself: “Down the track I would like to be covering Basketball and Australian Football, and get myself published.” Little did I know that within three months I would have already accomplished that goal.

The Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) is the third tier competition in Victoria and my brother was involved with a club in a lower division. So I jumped on the website and they were advertising for scribes to report weekly for their various competitions. I enquired and all of a sudden I was writing for Premier B, which is the second highest VAFA division! My role involved writing a roundup of the five Premier B matches each week, and my work appeared in the weekly VAFA publication which was online and read by many people at the matches as well.

With basketball, I was involved in doing stats for the Werribee Devils in the Big V competition (third tier comp in the state) for several years and I felt the Devils were not getting much coverage in the local newspapers, so I contacted the Wyndham Leader and offered to submit a match report each week. My offer was accepted and I had eight articles published in the local paper, as well as increased coverage for the Werribee Devils.

I also did my first feature interview with Devils veteran Andrew Johnston on his 200th game and my first media release, announcing the new Devils coach for 2016, Michael Czepil.

Basketball coaching
I have coached junior basketball since 2002, and it was another thing I missed when I was in the Philippines. This year I took on an Under 8 Girls and an Under 10 Boys team for the Heathdale Hornets in the local domestic competition. They were both beginner teams and while the first season was difficult with ordinary on-court results, they all came back for more and in the last few months it has been great to see the confidence and skill level improve for both teams and they’re enjoying their basketball.

I also served as an assistant coach for the Werribee Devils at Junior Representative level, joining as a sidekick firstly for an Under 14 Girls team, and now in the Under 12 Girls first team.

I am blessed to have a good relationship with both my siblings and their families, and I am a very hands-on uncle to my three nephews and two nieces aged three to seven. I know they really missed me last year and I can tell you the feeling was mutual. We met together regularly as a family and I was able to help with babysitting, creating memories and having lots of fun with them.

Tenpin bowling
Because I have bad knees (trochlear dysplasia, four dislocations, one operation), I’ve never really been able to play sport. A few years ago I had a go at tenpin bowling and found I was pretty good at it, so this year I decided to invest in it, bowling in a couple of leagues. Earlier in the year I won the Phantom League at Wyncity Bowl and Entertainment with an average of 176, which I was pretty happy with. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to back it up in Season #2, finishing second.

In addition to everything else that went on this year, I somehow found time to make a living as an educator. I have been a teacher for eight years now and worked in a variety of classrooms and schools. A week before the school year began in February I was watching the Australian Open tennis on TV and I received a phone call from my old school where I attended as a student and also taught Grade 1 in 2013, before I went to the Philippines. They had a part-time job come up at the last minute, teaching Middle School (Years 5-8) Physical Education. An hour later I was sitting in front of the senior staff in an interview and later that afternoon I had the job!

So I spent this year as a PE teacher and ‘gap-filler’ in the Middle and Senior schools, and while working with the older students was out of my comfort zone, I really enjoyed it and God provided me with more than enough work.

2016 is uncertain at this point but it is shaping up to be just as awesome with possibilities, opportunities and above all I know God has it all under control.

What I Wish I Had Said {Looking back at Guatemala}

As a male sponsor, I have often wondered what it would be like to be a father in the developing world. I know gender roles are changing, but in most countries a father is still seen as the provider and protector of his family. But what if you were unable to fulfill these roles due to lack of education, resources or opportunities? What if you had to rely on help from some stranger on the other side of the world just to put food on your family’s table?

I am not yet a father myself, in the biological sense, so I can never really put myself in their shoes, but at a guess I think that resentment, jealousy, anger and helplessness might play a part.

Over the last nine years I have sponsored over 60 kids with Compassion, many of whom didn’t have a father in their life, or he was absent or often working in another city. The idea that I would be considered some sort of ‘replacement father’ was never my intention and, to be honest, makes me feel uncomfortable. I believe that part of the role of a sponsor is to partner WITH the child’s parents and provide them with access to education and skills to be able to get themselves out of material poverty. However I am aware that God has placed me in their lives for a reason and if they need a father-figure or male role model in their lives, then I am happy to bear that honour/privilege/responsibility.

In July I visited Guatemala and Nicaragua on another of my Compassion trips. One of my sponsored kids is Josefa, who lives in a Mayan (indigenous) community in the mountains. She’s 17 and the oldest of five children. Instead of going to school and working toward her dream of being a doctor, Josefa and her brother are forced to work for a pittance because her father has chosen to deal with his family’s poverty by drinking alcohol, often leaving them without anything to eat. I met him when I visited in 2013 and he was a nice enough man, he was just making a lifestyle choice that negatively affected his family.

To partly explain (but not excuse) her father’s choice, this is an excerpt from a book called “Fast Living” by Dr. Scott C. Todd which goes into detail about the realities of living in extreme poverty and what the solution is:

"Hopelessness is the deepest trench of poverty. It cuts through the heart and mind and is very difficult to climb out of. It whispers “It won’t get any better. Just give up. This is the disempowered state – a fatalistic outlook and condition. When you are disempowered you shrug in defeat. You don’t soldier on. You just sit down and wait for a rescue you don’t expect to come. It’s a condition in which you no longer hope for a better future and you don’t see yourself capable of making positive changes. Instead, you see yourself as a victim of unchangeable circumstances. The voices of fatalism burrow deeper into your mind: “You can’t. You’re worthless.” To get out of the pit of hopelessness you must climb, yet the very strength to climb requires the hope you’ve lost. You must believe a better future is possible in order to strive for it. Everyone knows that a better future requires getting and keeping a job. For this, you to strive and take risks, you need determination and hope. But when you’re disempowered, your hope is beaten down, so you have no energy with which to strive. You have no faith, so you don’t take risks.

The “rescue” strategy requires Truth to combat the lie. Poverty whispers “You can’t.” But God says “With me, you can. You matter. You are loved. You’re made in my image. I hear you and I will walk with you on the difficult road. I have a plan, so don’t give up. It can get better.” The good news of Jesus Christ is a matchless, unrivalled rescue strategy in multiple dimensions. If there is anything that exposes the lies of poverty, it is the gospel. But the proclaimed gospel is not enough. Disempowered people need Jesus’ spoken truth and they need His disciples to live it. They need to see the muscles of the gospel flex, expressing love in gritty, persevering, intelligent, effective action.

The good news of Jesus, proclaimed and demonstrated, is the most powerful anti-poverty strategy. Jesus offers the restoration of hope, a new supportive and caring community in the church and a strong foundation from which to try, to risk and to succeed or fail, knowing you’ll be loved either way. The gospel leads us to love others and forgive, to see the image of God in our enemies as well as ourselves, and to discover a genuine basis for dignity and integrity. The gospel can raise a generation of men and women of integrity – servant leaders – to displace corruption and restore social trust upon which a nation can rise. The gospel creates people who work for the Lord in the humble service of causes much bigger than themselves. Sharing the gospel is anti-poverty work. It is more profound than any other effort because it penetrates layers of the human condition that cannot be reached with a vaccinating needle. The gospel brings healing and hope. It ignites new initiatives by bringing hurting people from all economic levels into relationship with God. His Holy Spirit fills us with vision and we can see that anything, absolutely anything, is possible! Even the end of extreme poverty."

On the day I visited Josefa and her family, they hadn’t seen their father for three days. From the way she interacted with me, it was so obvious she missed his love and attention, and had never really had it. We visited the Project at the church and as we were leaving to go to the family’s house, her father showed up. He was soaking wet and clearly affected by alcohol.

I was well aware of the family’s situation, as Josefa mentioned her father in nearly every letter she wrote. I had rehearsed what I would say to him should I meet him, but when he turned up I was completely taken by surprise and you know what they say about the best laid plans…

I waited breathlessly to see what would happen and as he approached I breathed a prayer that there wouldn’t be some sort of confrontation. He reached out his hand and, thankfully, he was full of nothing but gratitude to me and to God for taking care of his daughter through sponsorship when he knew he couldn’t.

We were in front of all the Project workers as well as Josefa, her mother and her four siblings, sitting in the car waiting to go. I felt so sad they had to witness their father in this state. He was rambling and swaying from side to side, tearful with gratitude but wrestling with his wretched state and the knowledge of the impact his choices were having on his family. My translator had a brief conversation with him, saying the only solution to his predicament is to give his life to Jesus. He seemed to understand this and nodded along, but it was clear that the alcoholism had him in its grasp.

We then drove to the family’s house nearby, leaving Josefa’s father behind. When we arrived we had a lovely conversation with lots of laughs, threw my Australian football around a bit and exchanged gifts. At one point there was a knock at the door. It was Josefa’s father. Begging to be let into his own house. The youngest sibling went toward the door but his mother stopped him. She was a strong and feisty woman and was adamant that her husband was not going to spoil this occasion.

Aware that the man was alcohol-affected and being locked out of his own house, I waited to see what would happen. I felt uncomfortable at the awkwardness of the situation. Fortunately he only tried knocking one more time, then sat down outside and started to sing. My translator said he was singing a Christian song he had learned at church.

In a sad twist, the father’s lifestyle choice ostracized the family even further because as an openly Christian family they are a minority in the community. The other families, many of whom are going through the same thing with their husbands and fathers, look at Josefa’s family and say “Well, what’s different about them? What difference is God making in their lives?” and they are criticized and judged.

This day has impacted me, even six months on, and I often think about what I would say to Josefa’s father if I met him again. I have settled on something like this:

"I know your life is hard and you are dealing with it the best way you know how. But God has given you six precious gifts - a wife and five children - and He wants you to provide and care for them. Jesus wants to help you and to heal you. No matter who you are or what bad things you've done, He wants to forgive you and have a relationship with you. You just need to give your addiction to Him and trust Him to provide your needs. And He's already doing that. He has provided a sponsor for two of your kids, as well as a family of people at the church. They are there to support and care for you."

Whatever you think of Jesus, He is the only reason that I, or any of the people involved in Compassion (office staff, Pastors, volunteers, tutors) do what we do. His love is real, transforming and relentless and we want to share it. Ultimately, what people do with it is up to them, and I'm praying that Josefa's father comes to know that Love and it transforms the lives of him and his family

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Love Letter to Brazil...

Dear Brazil…

I am missing you right now.

Like, heart-ache, missing you.

My experiences in Brazil with Compassion have irrevocably changed the purpose and direction of my life. I spent a week there in September 2012 and returned in September 2013.

In Brazil I experienced pure joy and happiness like I never had before, but I also had my entire worldview, beliefs I had held my whole life, severely tested and put under the microscope when I came face-to-face with the stark reality of what life was like for one of my sponsored kids.  

Both the happiest and the hardest days of my life occurred while I was there, and this paradox is difficult to get my head around.

I will never forget walking the streets of Fortaleza at night with brand new friends. I was a sheltered, wealthy, undersized white guy, but not once did I feel unsafe with these wonderful people around me.

I will never forget the content of our conversation: as we were walking, my friends would point out how many drug dealers lived in each street.

I will never forget relaxing in a beautiful park in the middle of the day, only to be told at night it transforms into a godless, lawless place where evil takes over and police won’t go anywhere near it.

I will never forget the feeling of oppression, violence, despair and hopelessness literally hanging in the atmosphere like a roof over our heads.

I will never forget the incredible feeling of standing in a church filled with ‘worshipping warriors.’ These people lived in the same streets I had just been walking; their very existence was a daily battle and lives were being lost every day to drugs, violence and abuse. Yet somehow they choose to hold on to God and trust Him. He is their only Hope.

Something did not add up for me. I was being violently yanked out of the comfortable culture and version of Christianity to which I was accustomed. There was a cognitive dissonance between what I was seeing and what I had believed about God. I was challenged way beyond what I was comfortable with: If life was like this for these people and they are still holding on to God and giving everything for Him, where does that leave me? I still wrestle with it today, trying to live out my faith in a culture that puts self, wealth and possessions above everything else.

I will never forget meeting and sharing with Compassion graduates. Incredible young adults who, thanks to God and their sponsors, have come through the program, graduated and gone to college and now have a future and a realistic opportunity to impact their communities and help their families out of poverty. I loved seeing some of them return to their Projects as staff as the cycle of hope continued. They were providing the kids with a real-life example of the way Compassion works and that, contrary to what they see in their communities and home lives, they do indeed have a hope and a future.

I will never forget the privilege of sharing Jesus with a group of children who have already been through more in their short lives than I can possibly imagine.

I will never forget visiting Project BR-458 twice in the space of a year and seeing their church go from construction zone to sanctuary, entirely from the funds of their church members.

I will never forget visiting a young lad and his family on behalf of his sponsor. His mother left and his unemployed father was doing his best to raise three children. There was one word carved into their front door: "Jesus." He is their only hope.

My Brazil connection begins with Ana Cristina, who I started sponsoring in 2010, when she was 10 years old. You can read more about her story here (or read about it in my book). In short, her family life involved murder, drugs, revenge and living in fear. When the reality of her life sunk in, God moved my heart and I ended up sponsoring a total of 12 children from the same area of Brazil.

I won’t go into details of the visits here (once again, check out my blog and my book) but I will say that I cannot deny what I saw and felt. If I had embarked on those visits purely as a humanitarian mission or a “good deed,” that all changed when I entered the Compassion Projects, which were located in local churches. I mentioned earlier about the violence, hopelessness and despair that pervaded the atmosphere in the communities. Well, when I entered the churches it was a completely different universe.

Peace, love, joy and life were tangible and the only conclusion I could possibly come to was that the love of God was in these places. It was the one safe place that these children had; an oasis from the reality of their home lives. A place where they were free to be kids, to laugh, dance, sing and play. A place where they had their material needs met through healthy food, clean water and medical care.

Most importantly, they had the opportunity to develop a relationship with Jesus, since He is the reason that Compassion exists at all. He is the reason that the church volunteers give up their time to care for these kids and invest in the lives of the families.

The Birthdays
A few years ago I read a story about Gloria Jean Coffee co-founders Nabi and Angela Saleh. They sponsored 250 kids in Brazil through their business and threw a big party at a resort where they spent the day with the kids and their family. This captured my imagination and I decided to do a similar thing (albeit on a smaller scale).

So, when I organised my trip to Brazil in 2012, instead of just going to the Projects and their homes I arranged to take all ten kids and their families to a special park which had a pool, mini-zoo, horse riding and soccer field. Kids were able to be kids, even just for an afternoon, and I was able to share the simple joys that come with birthday parties which I think many of us take for granted.

The highlight for me was seeing the teenage band from Project BR-329, who I had met earlier in the week, come to the park with their instruments to surprise me with some tunes. I had no idea this would happen, and I can only imagine what they gave up and sacrificed to be there for me on that afternoon.

It was such an incredible day, I decided to do the same thing again in 2013. This time, however, there was only one place I was going to have it.

Compassion Project BR-329 is without doubt the most amazing place I have ever been (read about it here). In the middle of an urban area near Fortaleza, this Project serves close to 1000 kids and it is a place filled with life, love, joy, music and hope for the future. I experienced incredible kindness, generosity and hospitality and they taught me to not limit God. When I visited they were in the middle of a massive three storey building Project, for which they had no choice but to trust God to provide for them. Their dreams and hopes for their community and the children in their care were huge and limitless.

So I arranged for my 32nd birthday to be held at BR-329. I paid for a jumping castle, trampoline and cotton candy machine and it was a day of chaotic and glorious joy and celebration, with lots of singing, dancing and cake! Honestly, a slice of heaven. The teenage band were there again, and they had set up an extra drum kit just for me! Normal Project activities were on that day, so as well as my sponsored kids there were lots of other kids around and once again, to be able to give them a day of pure fun and enjoyment was a privilege and a profound experience.

Best of all, when everything had settled down and all eyes were on me, I was able to share with them the true reason I sponsored lots of kids and had come all the way to visit them. I wanted to share the love of God them. Simple. I had to let these precious people know that they were valuable and worthy, and had been created in the image of God for a purpose. He has given each of us different gifts and abilities in order to glorify Him and serve others. Through Compassion they have the opportunity to find out what those gifts are and use them to help their families out of poverty.

The Hardest Day

While the two birthdays in Brazil were the happiest days of my life, the hardest day came straight after. It was the day I visited the family of Ana Cristina. I have visited 31 of my sponsored kids in 12 countries, but this particular visit impacted me more than any other. In 2012 I had not been able to visit because the family had been in hiding, but this time I made a special request to see the family.

This is a snippet of the blog I wrote on the day of the visit.

To get to her house, we walked down a narrow rocky path, next to a stream of sewage. I tried to imagine living here with no other options or no way out. We came to her house, which was very well secured, and met her parents. I was greeted quietly and cautiously.

I found out that they had moved back to this house about five months previously. Eleven people share this three-room, 1-bedroom house, with a fence that is laced with the jagged edges of broken bottles. The rest sleep on hammocks. They had been renting a house in a slightly safer area further away, but Papa’s building work dried up, so they could no longer afford to rent, and had to come back. The house belongs to Cristina’s grandmother.

At the time, neither parent worked. They receive help from Compassion, where Ana Cristina and her younger sister are sponsored, and also a government assistance program, from which they receive maybe 50 reals a week ($25). There is a marshland over the back fence that floods when it rains, and contaminates the water

There were only three occupied houses in their street. The rest moved away because it is too violent and dangerous. Gunshots are regularly heard. They cannot leave the kids alone in the house, or leave the house after 7pm, because it is simply too dangerous. Their oldest son, who was 20 at the time, fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, and they had a baby together. They also live in an area which is more dangerous than the one we were standing in.

The extent of their dreams for their children are to be able to move to live in a different, safer area. This was survival and existence at it’s most raw. I was staggered and stunned at what I was hearing, and yet I was still on my feet. Right now there was no happy ending with a bow and a cherry on top.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix for poverty; no miracle cure. Even as much as I love Compassion, I have never said that it’s an instant solution to all life’s problems. The Project workers come alongside the family, and offer support for the children and their parents. It’s a long term process.

This was the reality for my precious Ana Cristina. And yet, when I asked her if she was worried about anything, or what she was afraid of, she shrugged and said “nothing.” She could have been bluffing, but I got the sense that she has a quiet confidence in the protection of her parents, despite their inability to provide materially for her, and also in the Compassion staff. She has been shown enough love over her time at the Project to be secure in the fact that God loves her, no matter what else happens in her life. 

I gave some gifts, which were received with quiet gratitude. I thanked Mama and Papa for their honesty and trust in sharing their lives with me, and I left Ana Cristina with these words: “As much as I love you, God loves you SO much more. He created you for a purpose. Please always trust Him to protect you and provide for your needs.” I was then able to pray for the family: provision of jobs, protection, safety, first and foremost.

As we walked back up the rocky path, past the sewage stream, a thousand things were going through my head, and yet I was composed. Halfway through lunch, the reality and the tragedy of what I just witnessed hit me so hard. I excused myself, went outside and cried out to God. I can’t even remember what was said, but I was just shellshocked. I begged and pleaded for Him to intercede on behalf of that family and my precious girl. God had to remind me of
my own words to Ana Cristina: “They’re mine. I love them so much more than you do. Trust me.”

I am trusting God that my journey with Brazil is not over, and am planning to go back in September 2016.

Thank you Brazil, for your kindness, hospitality and generosity to me. You have shown me the love of God and I will always be grateful.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

You Are Never Too Young To Make a Difference...

I spent 2015 working in a local Christian school. I was part-time and did a lot of gap filling, so during the year I was able to take many of the Year 5 to 8 students for morning devotions. More often than not I would share one of many stories from my travels with Compassion with this overriding message:

"Never think that you are too young to make a difference to the world of another person." That is just not true.

Just last week, something happened that proved my point. Earlier in the year I shared about Compassion at a Grade 5/6 Assembly. The idea was to give these 10-12 year olds a glimpse of what life is like for many children around the world, and to remind them that God wants us to use what we've been given to help others.

Overall, I will never find out what happened as a result of that talk. I was hopefully sowing seeds of generosity and maybe down the track they will be inspired to make a difference.

Last week, I accompanied the Grade 5 students on their annual camp. One of them, Charli, told me that she had made the decision to sponsor a child, a 5-year-old girl from Togo. To do this, she uses ALL her pocket money, money she could be using on things for herself, to help this little girl.

I was amazed and inspired by Charli's generous heart and her sacrifice. I made sure to encourage her that even though she will probably never meet her sponsored child, I had seen the difference sponsorship makes, and she has already literally changed the little girl's life because she knows there is someone on the other side of the world who loves her and cares about her enough to be a friend and provide her material needs. This little girl has a future now because of Charli's generosity.

However, the story doesn't end there.

Charli's teacher, Mrs Hernandez, had been considering sponsorship for a while with her husband and when she saw Charli's example, giving so much from the little she received, she knew they could not put it off any longer and made the decision to sponsor a child.

Even though Charli is only 11 years old, her decision to think of others ahead of herself has now positively impacted the lives of many people, and the story is just beginning...

It's stories like this that make me continue to tell young people: "You are never too young to make a difference..."

Monday, July 27, 2015

Re-Visiting Antonio in Nicaragua - A Lesson In Perspective and "Things are Changing!"

My final visit on this trip was to Antonio in Nicaragua. He is 11 years old and lives with his mum and little brother during the day, and under the care of his grandmother at his father’s house at night. Their family situation is complex and I didn’t fully understand it, but he is not part of a “normal” nuclear family. Having said that, I know he is still surrounded by love through his mum, grandma and the staff at the church and Compassion Project.

I have been sponsoring Antonio since 2011 and visited his family in 2013. Last year when I was in the Philippines, my friend Kayla Groth took over his sponsorship but when I returned to Australia, circumstances allowed me to take him back. 

I was apprehensive about this visit. To give you an idea why, this was my Facebook status immediately after I visited them last time:

I cried today. Mama is so young at 23, with an 8 y.o. boy and a 1 month old baby. She's just moved into this "house" (brick-box), with her equally young husband who sells newspapers at the market, and her loneliness is palpable. This was the first time on my trip I did not ask to take pohotos of their house. I could not bring myself to do it, to preserve their dignity. For all the possessions, knowledge, money and "stuff" that I've been blessed with, standing in this family's backyard, looking at the hole in the ground that is their toilet, all I could do for this Mama was hold her and lift her up to almighty God. It was a holy moment. She was so broken, but God was there, and I could feel her respond in her spirit. Even as I fervently prayed for this family, my words felt so empty and trite, and I realised how much I needed to increase my own faith. Without Jesus and the help of Compassion, she has nothing. However, there is hope, and for this Mama it comes in the form of her 8 y.o. son, my sponsored boy Antonio. This kid is a riot, joyous and full of life, and "smart as a whip" (whatever that means). He is a fount of knowledge of all things animals (from the Discovery Channel) and I could see the pride and love emanate off this Mama as we squeezed into their house, and she sat feeding her baby, while her boy rattled off fact after fact and entertained us all. My relationship with this family is definitely a gift from God, for me as well as for them, and may it long continue....

I was brought apart. I could feel their brokenness, and it was all the more personal since they weren’t just ‘some poor family in Nicaragua’ but we were connected through Compassion sponsorship. It hurt to see their situation and know that that in all honesty I couldn’t do much for them on my own. God used this visit to remind me that without Him, we have nothing.

So, these were the thoughts and feelings swirling through my head as we travelled to Leon. We arrived at the church, and Antonio arrived soon after. It was clear right from the start that his personality had not changed since our first meeting, which is a very good thing. He is a riot; he did not stop talking the whole time, which made hard work for our translator Carlos, and I was left laughing at some of the random stuff he came out with. He is an intelligent lad, a very good big brother to two-year-old Jovie and I believe he is a future leader.

Antonio is very good at maths and said he wants to become an architect because they make lots of money and he wants to help his mother because she has taken care of him. Wise words, well beyond his years.

We met at the Project and after greeting Antonio, the first thing I noticed was the difference in Mama. Aside from the fact that the newborn bub she had last time was now an energetic two-year-old, her whole disposition was more positive. She looked relaxed, confident and started talking with us straight away. This indicated to me that something had changed since my last visit and I was keen to find out what this was.

It turned out that two years ago (about six months after my visit), Antonio’s paternal grandmother bought them a house. In Nicaragua, as with many developing countries, this is a huge thing. Having a place of their own, with no need to pay rent or possibility of getting evicted with no place to go was a huge burden lifted off their shoulders, and it showed. I was so happy to hear this.

I had met Antonio’s grandmother on my last visit, and was deeply impacted by her love for Antonio and his family. Even though her son and Antonio’s Mama were not together, she still treats her like a daughter and is active in their lives. This incredible act of love and sacrifice of buying them a small property had changed their lives forever.

Accompanied by cans of Coke, we had a good conversation about normal everyday stuff, including what we did on our last visit. My translator Carlos was impressed by how much Antonio remembered from two-and-a-half years ago. It just shows the impact that a visit has, even if only for a few hours. I also talked to mama when she wasn’t busy wrangling the two-year-old. She sometimes sells fruit at the local market for some extra income, and has a dream to open a vendor store at her home, which would make things a whole lot easier for the family.

I showed Antonio updated pictures of my family including my nieces and nephews, and for some reason he became besotted with one particular nephew, three-year-old Seth. He just captured Antonio’s imagination, and he would talk about him repeatedly during the day.

We took a tour of the Project and met many of the staff.

It was clearly evident the bond Antonio had with many of the Project staff, and they have a big impact on his life. When introducing them he would sidle up to them and put an arm on their shoulder or around their waist.

During the day he clearly enjoyed having the attention of two males, me and Carlos. He would repeatedly pat us on the back or the arm and say things like “I’m so glad you are here,” or “I am really happy you have come.”

We were also able to see the recently-opened Child Survival Program, which cares for pregnant women and their babies up to three years old.

Antonio was something of an advocate, telling me all about it and showing me some of the materials and resources the mothers receive. At one stage he became a bit jealous and said “Look at all the toys!” I replied with “Do you want to become a baby again, so you can play with the toys?” He answered in the negatory. I think he’s quite happy being 11.

It was then time for a brief home visit before heading to lunch. For me personally, even though it was amazing to hear they have their own house, the state of the actual house still made my head spin. It was pretty much a room which was 4m x4m (12 feet) at best, and the bed took up most of the space. Their kitchen and shower are next to the house with a roof over the top, but no walls. Barbed wire surrounds the property and there is an enclosed toilet out the back, which is an improvement from their last house. With much pride, Antonio showed me a thriving tree he had planted when they first moved there.

My initial reaction to the house showed I was failing to see things from their perspective. While I looked at the condition of the house and compared it to what I knew, to them it was completely different. They were in a safe neighbourhood with a place they could call their own. I could sense the security, contentment and satisfaction that came with this. This isn’t to say that they wouldn’t move to a better place if the opportunity arose, but rather than looking at and yearning for what they don’t have, they were thankful for what they do have. God has provided for them through the love of Antonio’s grandmother, and this freedom of home ownership provides a good foundation for their future.

After this we went into town for lunch. Burger King was the venue of choice today and the two brothers had fun on the little playground.

During lunch, somehow the conversation got onto WWE Wrestling. I had no idea he liked this, and it’s also something I enjoy. We talked about our favourite wrestlers and then I dropped a bombshell. He mentioned how it was sometimes quite violent and, I figured to reassure him, I said “You know they’re not actually punching and kicking each other?” His face fell and he said “You mean it’s not real?” and I explained they were just actors who were pretending. I said they are still athletes and it’s for entertainment but no, it’s not real.

Next stop was the supermarket, where we loaded up some much-needed supplies for the family.

I’d say it was probably little brother’s first ride in a trolley and Mama faced that conundrum that all parents face at some point: keeping the little one occupied and keeping the trolley far enough away from the shelves so little fingers can’t grab stuff.

We also went to the market to buy a couple of gifts for Antonio. He chose a watch and a soccer ball.

I brought him a soccer ball last time but unsurprisingly, with the amount of barbed wire around, it didn’t last long. 
While we were at the market I saw a little 25 centavo coin on the ground and pointed it out to Antonio. He slowly approached it, picked up, held it up with a smile on his face, then shoved it in his pocket. The kid had won the lottery! 

Finally we went back to the family home for some time together. By this time little brother was a bit tired and grumpy, but it’s amazing what an Australian football can do to cheer little ones up. He took a while to warm up to me, but by the end we were sweet, and tossed the ball back and forth as I chatted with Mama and Antonio. 

I asked Mama “If there was one thing you need above everything else, what would it be?” She took a while to answer, and seemed uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed by the question, maybe misunderstanding me. I quickly moved to reassure her and Carlos helped me by conveying to her that as Antonio’s sponsor I wanted to help them in any way I could and I was just trying to understand their situation better, but there was no pressure. She seemed put at ease by this and answered that since they only had one bed for all of them, another one would be helpful.

During the day, one thing I was blown away by was the impact that his previous sponsor Kayla Groth had on the family in the space of one year. Like I mentioned, Kayla was impacted by the family’s story and agreed to sponsor Antonio for me while I was in the Philippines in 2014. When I came back I was able to take over the sponsorship, but it was evident that in the space of twelve months Kayla had worked her way into their hearts in a huge way.

While we were talking, Antonio made a couple of videos for Kayla and showed that he still has all the letters and pictures she sent. He also made a video for my nephew Seth, in which he imparts 11-year-old wisdom to the little guy which I’m sure will set Seth up for a good life.

We finished with a kick of the footy, which I left with them as a gift. Not sure how long it will last, but anyway.

This day was a real blessing, and it went about as well as I hoped it would. The contrast between the two visits could not have been greater, and it was so good to see the progress that was being made in this family’s life thanks to God’s provision. It is an honor that I get a front row seat, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for them.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Re-Visiting Kelle in Nicaragua

Imagine this: You're an 8th-grade kid in Nicaragua, sponsored through Compassion. Your previous sponsor came to visit a couple of years ago and you had a wonderful time together, but now you have a new sponsor who you're just starting to get to know. One morning you're sitting in school and someone tells you your previous sponsor has arrived from the other side of the world and is here to visit you!

That was the scenario facing 12-year-old Kelle yesterday when I visited. It seems that Compassion countries differ on when they tell the kids they are receiving a visit. The two kids I visited in Guatemala both knew a month in advance, whereas Kelle only found out on the morning I arrived.

So she ran from school and arrived at the Compassion Project she attends where I was waiting with my translator Carlos. We had been chatting with Pastor Wilmar who has been in charge of this particular church for 18 years, and, like all the Compassion church Pastors, is a passionate advocate for seeing children and families released from poverty in Jesus name.

He told me about something interesting the church is doing. I can't remember the exact terminology but I think it's called an "extended arm" which basically means that the Project starts another 'campus' in a nearby neighbourhood in order to reach children who live outside the distance limits which Compassion have in place.

I visited Kelle and her family in January 2013, as part of my 14-kid, 7-country trip, and it was one of the few days I left with a positive feeling in terms of the family situation. Materially they were doing it really hard, a family of six living in a tin box, but what impressed me was their faith in God despite their circumstances. They were a united and loving family, determined to stick together and trust God to provide their needs.

Mama is a cleaner at the school her sons attend. Papa is a photographer who takes a couple of props, such as a car and a horse, along to local events, festivals etc, dresses the kids up, pops in a fake background and takes a keepsake picture for the parents.

Kelle's oldest brother has graduated high school and hopes to go to university to study engineering. He is the only one of the siblings who isn't sponsored, which I can see is not easy for him. He is at a real crossroads in terms of the direction his life takes, since it is very easy for someone in his family's position to make bad choices and end up somewhere he doesn't want to be. Carlos was able to speak into his life and encourage him to follow God and stay on the right path.  

I could sense Kelle was overwhelmed with my presence, and also had questions running through her head in terms of why I wasn't her sponsor any more. I had written a final letter explaining that I was moving to the Philippines at the start of 2014, working as a volunteer so I wasn't earning any money and couldn't financially sponsor her any more. However, I made sure I found each of my kids a new sponsor, and introduced the new sponsor in the letter.

Even though I had written the letter with a full explanation, I could understand the confusion and that there was potentially a sense of abandonment there. I was happy to verbally reiterate what I had written. I assured Kelle that I still loved her and thought about them often. I said I was very excited to come and visit on behalf of her new sponsors.

We took a tour of the Project and then visited the family home. The home seemed somehow different. The picture below was taken on my previous visit. We are outside. You can't really tell, but it is the same area in which the kids were playing UNO on my visit yesterday. So it turned out they had extensions done to their house since I was there last, which is a very good thing because their original house was way too small for a family of six.

However, to do so they had to get a loan from the bank which they will be paying off for a long time. It also meant that in order to make the walls of their extension they had to take some material off the old roof, which has left a gaping hole in the roof, in a community where it rains often. This is their main challenge at the moment. Kelle's father is a very resourceful man, and he built a small drain in the floor which allows the water to filter out. There is also cardboard filling in gaps in the walls and the whole place is basically held together by tree branches.

I am reluctant to post too many photos because, while it might add to the impact of their story, in the past I may have unwittingly broadcast the poverty of some of my families which, while it was never my intention, I know they probably don't appreciate. 

Mama was the one who went to fetch Kelle from school and when she came into the house her eyes lit up and with a smile and arms open wide she exclaimed "You're back!" She was a beautiful, friendly and chatty woman who exuded gratitude and thankfulness throughout the day: to God, to me and Kelle's current sponsors. She said they were sad when they found out I was no longer Kelle's sponsor and they never thought they would see me again. I replied "Well, God had different ideas!"

Sponsors, this is for you: I think we sometimes focus so much on our sponsored child that we forget that sponsorship positively affects the whole family. On my visits I have noticed that it's the parents in particular who are so thankful for the impact sponsorship has on their family, often to the point of tears. Of course the kids are grateful, but I guess adults can generally express it better. I have so often been humbled by their reaction and emotion, and God uses it as a reminder of what an important job He has given us as sponsors.

After a brief time at their home, during which I met their pet dog, parrots and squirrel(!) we travelled to a local mall for lunch. On the way there we had a vote as to what to eat for lunch: Pollo (chicken) or Pizza. Two family members voted for pollo, two voted for pizza so Kelle had the deciding vote, and she chose pollo, which meant three visits in a row to Pollo Campero for me.

During lunchtime I learned that Kelle and one of her younger brothers had completed a computer course as part of the Compassion program. This involved areas such as word processing, typing, internet etc. One thing I love about Compassion is their focus on employment training for the older kids which equips them with skills to earn an income and help their families.

I also asked Kelle if she could go anywhere in the world, where would she go. Her answer was "Argentina" because she's a big Lionel Messi fan and that's where he's from. I discovered that soccer rivalry runs deep among the siblings and is divided along gender lines: Kelle supports Barcelona because of Messi and the boys go for Real Madrid.

Following this we went shopping at a nearby supermarket, and each of the kids got to choose something for themselves. Kelle's greatest need was a school backpack. At 12 years old she had never had one of her own before (always used her older brother's stuff), so this was a great opportunity to get one. The supermarket had limited varieties so went went to a nearby market, where I was advised to only bring the correct change due to safety issues. Kelle found a backpack she liked and we were away.

At this point, as if the gringo wasn't drawing enough attention to himself just by being there, I decided to go further. As it was a warm day I was just wearing flip-flops, and on the way back to the van I stepped in some cruddy liquid. It appeared to be just mud, so I didn't think anything else about it. However, they stopped me from getting into the van and Carlos bought a bottle of water and washed my feet with it. Fair enough, I thought. I'm still not sure what it was.

Finally it was time for one more visit to the house to spend some time together. With the (missing) roof situation still in my mind I asked about what they did when it rained. Well, it looked like I was going to get an answer to my question because it started to rain, just lightly, while we were there. I took some photos and videos of the house to show Kelle's sponsor and then we got out the "pelota" (ball). The Australian football had been a big hit with this family on my last visit, and we had a jolly old time handballing to each other out in the yard. This time we were in the house (so we had to be a bit more careful) and ended up playing a bit of "hot potato" as the ball flew in all directions.

Finally I got out the big guns: the UNO cards! Once again they had never seen them before, so Carlos and I went through our bi-lingual explanation and for the next half hour the place was alive with chatter, laughter, good-natured sibling rivalry and joy. Pure and simple joy.

I was going to take the cards with me, but I decided to leave it with the family. Just like with Yeymi's family in Guatemala, it gave the four kids a chance to just be kids and do something fun together, which in their community and family situations is not something that is all that common.

Watching Kelle during the UNO game was priceless. I felt like she had spent most of the day still coming to terms with the fact that I was actually there. I probably still don't quite grasp that when someone from the other side of the world goes out of your life and suddenly turns up at your house one day, it can come as quite a shock. She was camera shy and not really expressive. However, during one of the UNO games she finished third and when she put down the final card she let out a nice loud squeal of delight. That made my day.

Finally it was time for me to go. Mama got very emotional as she spoke of the difference Compassion sponsorship made to her family, particularly in regard to school supplies. She shared her struggles raising four children in a material world (not trying to conjure up any song lyrics there) as they constantly see things they want, but are not in a position to buy. Her gratitude to me for the visit was constant, but this line was the kicker. Through tears she said: "This day is a real blessing to us because we have been going through a real hard time. We believe God sent you here."

I shared some final words with Kelle. I told her that her sponsors love her very much and to always remember that even though I am not her sponsor any more I still love her and think about her often. I told her I was proud of her and to always remember that no matter how hard her life gets, that God has her in His hand and wants her to trust Him.

And for the second time I left this family in a positive frame of mind. For all the challenges they face, I was in awe of this united, loving family standing firm in their faith, thankful to God, the church and Compassion.