May 20, 2010

El Salvador

For many years I thought about sponsoring a child. My sister and her husband had sponsored several Compassion kids over the years, and so had other married friends. I saw their photos on their fridges: smiling in their native clothes, holding up the shoes they bought with the birthday money their sponsors had sent. What a great thing to do, I told myself. Once I had a stable income, a husband and kids to share the experience with. At least, I needed my own fridge on which to tape the photos.

But my life never stabilized, I still wasn’t married, and I couldn’t afford my own fridge, let alone a house. When was it going to be a good time, if ever? In a burst of Thanksgiving inspiration, I logged onto My eyes landed on a photo of a Kenyan girl: teeny, forlorn, wearing a borrowed school uniform five sizes too big. She’d probably wear it for the next six years, if her parents didn’t have to pull her from school. (Per capita income in Kenya is $1700 a year, far above the per capita income for the poor. High school costs $500 a year. Do the math).

It’s been five years since I started sponsoring Helen, and it has been a privilege to watch her grow. Her letters reveal a girl emerging with a sense of herself, her place in the world, and her place in God’s kingdom. One Christmas I was able to give the family $300. She wrote to tell me they bought a cow, a goat, a bed, shoes and jeans for her, and a trip to the hospital for her grandmother. What would that same money have bought me? Three months of cable?
Two weeks ago I got to travel to El Salvador with Compassion, to see how the program works. Compassion seeks out communities in greatest need, partners with a local church, and sets up a center at that church. The program aims to provide physical, emotional, educational, and spiritual development so they can emerge as productive adults.

Womoen Make $5 A Day And that’s what I saw at the centers: children eating a good meal (maybe the only meal they’d eat that day), getting help with their school work, and learning usable skills like sewing, metal shop, and computer literacy. I also saw a lot of lively worship and faces filled with hope. For a child growing up in dire poverty, it’s a miracle for them to dream of becoming a doctor or a teacher or a secretary. If their parents are lucky to work, they make about $5 a day. The cost of living remains high: a can of Diet Coke is 65¢, or 15% of a day’s wage. Can you imagine paying $25 for a can of soda?

The miracle of these children’s hope became all too clear when we visited the homes where they lived. Most of them are built in what look like horse stables. Another was merely an improvised shelter next to a bank of a river.

The first home was run by Miguel, a single dad who was taking care of two sons, a niece, and his mother. He worked four jobs to keep afloat. Sometimes he came home just long enough to glance at his kids before leaving for the next job. Miguel asked what we loved about work. He listened intently, and then told us his dream would be to talk to people about Compassion. He’d witnessed how it had changed his sons’ lives, kept them out of the gang that had congregated across the street. Miguel had been Christian for 22 years. You could see the hardship on his face, as well as the hope. For all his poverty, he was rich in hope.

The dwelling against the river wasn’t as hopeful. There were seven people living there: three adults and four children. The walls made of random pieces of corrugated metal. Box springs jutted up out of the rocks to keep the kids from falling into the river below. Alicia And FamilyThere was a grandmother, a mother, and three children present. The mother, Alicia, had just joined Compassion’s Child Survival Program. The CSP will provide her and her baby with food, supplements, regular check ups, and education. Alicia said she enjoys taking her baby to play. You see, most of the women in this community don’t have a clean, safe floor on which to place a baby. Her five-year-old daughter, Graciela, is now old enough to get sponsored but hasn’t been chosen. When someone asked Alicia what her dreams were for her children, she didn’t understand the question. When you live in those circumstances you don’t dream. But as my friend Margot (who was also at the house) said later, if we came back in five years, she will have dreams. I think she will. The CSP program she attends is at Solomon’s church.

SolomonSolomon grew up in the slums with no father. But he was sponsored by Compassion. Today he’s a pastor and oversees seven local parishes in the area. A few days before he had no money and no gas to get to his job. “Then a lady from this parish handed me five dollars for gas. That’s a day’s wage.” Someone asked the pastor how he could live with such poverty. A smirk spread across his face. “Poor? My church isn’t poor.”

Boys At WindowHere’s something I will never forget: we were standing in a classroom observing some small children learn about Salvadoran Folklore. The building faced out onto a dirt road into the village. The window had bars but no glass, so someone on the street could look in and listen. There were three boys standing at the window, listening to every word. These were boys who wanted to be inside. They wanted to be there, learning. It struck me: they weren’t inside, because no one had sponsored them. I turned my face into the corner and cried.

One of my new friends, Alejandro, told me a story. Alejandro is 18 now, but when he was a child, he was that boy standing on the outside of the window. He wanted to go to school but his parents couldn’t afford tuition or uniforms for grammar school. One day at church a woman told his mom that she had a vision of Alejandro. He was wearing a business suit. Alejandro refused to give up on that dream. Eventually he was sponsored through Compassion. He excelled in school and at church. Last year, Alejandro and two other boys from this neighborhood were accepted into Compassion’s Leadership Development Program. They have received scholarships to attend university. Miguel is studying law, Nixon is studying computer science, and Alejandro is studying business administration. Here is a picture of Alejandro with his mom and sister. Notice he’s wearing a suit.

Kids It’s been five years since I started sponsoring Hellen. Since then I got married and moved into a house. We don’t own it, but we own the second-hand fridge on which her photo is tacked. We sponsor another boy through Children’s Hope Chest. We can’t afford cable TV, but we can’t afford not to sponsor these kids.

You too can do it. You can take that boy off the street and put him in a classroom. There are many organizations that do this work: Compassion, World Vision, and Children’s Hope Chest: which sponsors orphans exclusively. There are many other groups out there.  Check out  Half the Sky, a nonreligious group that works to lift the role of women in the world, by freeing them from common abuses such as sex trafficking,  forced prostitution; gender-based violence.

Sponsoring a child will change a community, one child at a time. It will change a child’s life. And it will change yours.

The kingdom of God is NOW. What are you waiting for?

Here are two videos. Author Margot Starbuck made the first; it sums up wonderfully how Compassion works. The next is a video inspired by Alejandro and the presentation his drama group gave for us.


RefreshMom said...

Thanks for sharing your trip Susan. We signed up to sponsor a child not long ago (even though my husband had been unemployed for several months at that time). We just got our first letter from our sponsored child, Jean Louis.

I appreciate the look into what his days might be like. I love the thought that our small contributions may allow him to have hope and dreams.

Mary Hampton

Anonymous said...

I just started sponsoring a child in India, a young man named Ranjan who is 12 years old. I loved reading this, and getting a better idea of what Compassion does. Thank you for sharing.

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