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.