Christmas in Summer

In my last meditation I mentioned little Jose Antonio, our sponsored child in Tijuana, and his apparent learning disability.  We’ve now asked World Vision Mexico to find out more about his situation and to let us know what can be done.  We might want to help financially beyond our sponsorship commitment.
As a parent, we always believed in treating our children as unique individuals, providing the same love to each, but tailoring our “help” to their specific needs.  A few years ago I discovered an amazing way to go beyond the standardized construct of child sponsorship to be truly responsive to individual sponsored children.  It happened accidentally…
At the end of one year, we sent an extra $200 to World Vision for a project I’d visited in Malawi, where Janet and I were also sponsoring a child.  I didn’t explain our intent sufficiently when we sent our cheque, and apparently the WV gift processing team didn’t catch the subtlety, because several months later we received a thank you letter from little Tiyamika and her family, along with a photo.  The picture showed her and her parents surrounded by blankets, sacks of grain and cans of cooking oil, a new outfit and shoes for Tiyamika, a dress for her mother, and work gloves for dad.  Accompanying the photo was a letter thanking us for our “special gift” which had provided all of these things. I was so stunned by the impact for this family that I couldn’t be frustrated about the receipting mix-up.  In fact, we kept the photo on our fridge for many months and talk about it to this day.
A year or two later I was in Kenya with a couple who is sponsoring 6-7 children in one community.  We met all of their sponsored children, and afterwards the wife came to me privately and asked about one girl.  “Gladwell seems unusually bright, and the letters we receive from her do are well written.  She wants to become a lawyer!  I think she could go far but I’m concerned that when she starts secondary school next year here in the slums that the teaching quality won’t prepare her for university.”  I encouraged this donor to ask World Vision to look into the feasibility and cost of a better secondary school.  It took a few months, but word came back to Kathy & Rick that for $900 a year, Gladwell could attend a good quality boarding school.  They had their own four children in private schools at the time, so they were thrilled at the comparative cost and very happy to provide the funding. 
When Janet and I were in Kenya two years ago, she spent an afternoon with Gladwell on behalf of Kathy & Rick.  Gladwell had graduated secondary school and was now a student at the University of Nairobi (Kathy & Rick decided to support her university studies for about $1200 per year…which includes room and board).  Gladwell is also a regular volunteer at the World Vision office, giving back for all she’s been given, and training to become a public defender.
We followed Kathy’s example.  A few years back, one of our sponsored children, Godfrey, was quitting school in Uganda at age 16 to help support his family because of his ailing father.  He seemed to be abandoning all the dreams he’d written about in letters over the prior years.  So we contacted World Vision and asked whether the local staff could find out if he had the interest and aptitude for vocational training, and they reported back that he would like to apprentice as a mechanic, which would cost about $500.  Underwriting his career training was a privilege and became a lovely final contribution to what we hope and pray is dear Godfrey’s success.  
I recently read perhaps the best story yet… a little snippet from the Summer 2012 World Vision magazine, about Mike Murphy, a construction worker in Florida who sent and extra $100 to benefit Devi, his sponsored child in India…
   For Mike, 43, it was a significant sacrifice. A deep recession in Florida’s building industry means Mike has struggled to find regular work. He has no car and little family support, and he estimates that over the last 12 months he has earned just $16,000.
   But Mike felt that God laid it on his heart to give the money. He believed Devi’s family could make even better use of it than he could—perhaps by using some of it to help improve their home or buy a cow.
   What happened after he sent the gift took Mike’s breath away.  He received a letter from Devi’s neighbor saying that the family was extremely grateful. The letter went on to explain that it was now the cold time of the year, and Devi’s father was conscious that children in their village needed something to help them keep warm. So he worked with World Vision to use Mike’s gift to provide a top-quality blanket for every child in the village.
   Accompanying the letter were pictures of the village children clutching their new blankets. The letter and photographs reduced Mike to tears. “It floors me that somebody that poor can share with somebody else.” He says the letter could not have come at a better time. Because his own circumstances have been so trying in recent months, many times he has succumbed to depression and felt like giving up. But the news from India revived his spirits.
   Mike likens the experience to throwing a rock into a still pond. One ripple touches the next one and the next one and the next one. “It’s like God touched me, and then I touched Devi’s family,” Mike says, “and then they selflessly shared what they had with their whole village—touching many children. That’s how God’s love works.”
This little-known service World Vision provides to child sponsors, under the terribly bland name “Gift Notification” (because our local staff notify and work with the family of the child to determine the best use of the special funds), has become a favorite Christmas tradition for Janet and me.  We’ll send an extra $100 or so for each of our sponsored children and await with anticipation the letter and photo we invariably get back, usually 3-6 months later.  So as summer starts, we receive our own Christmas gifts: learning how our funds were used to bless these children and their families.
This evening we opened a hand-written letter in beautiful Sanskrit from Nakitha in India, along with translation.  Also included was a photo of Nakitha with her mother in front of the “wet grinder” which was purchased with our funds.  The mechanism grinds various grains for food preparation, and perhaps could be rented out to generate family income as well.  “My heart is full thanks to you for all your love, care and concern toward me and especially for the gift. My mother is also conveying her special thanks to you.  We are able to feel God’s love through you.  Please do pray for me and for my future.”
And last month, our sponsored girl in Ethiopia, Worki, sent a photo of herself with a young cow.  In the accompanying letter, she says “…With this gift, one bullock is bought for me.  It we’ll use for farming after few months.  Really, all the ups and downs of our problems on farming will be eliminated. My God bless you…” 
Janet and I never cease to marvel at what can be accomplished with small amounts of money, provided with loving guidance by the staff.  So, I was a bit taken aback a few years ago when one sponsor I know sent $5000 for one of his sponsored children!  But the letter he got back explained that the boy had received a new set of clothes, his father had received a bicycle for his business, and the entire village had received a new granary to reduce spoilage on their harvests!
Gift Notifications are unique in that the entire amount is used for the beneficiary; World Vision deducts nothing for administering the donation, though we spend outsize amounts of staff time ensuring that extra cash actually helpschildren and families and isn’t a deterrent to good development work.  We also need to ensure that large gifts don’t create jealousy in the community; thus sometimes the entire community benefits.  And in the most beautiful instances, as Mike Murphy experienced, our meager funds empower the poor to be generous themselves with those around them, sharing their blessings with others.
Special donations like this are icing on the cake, not the “main course” in our family’s giving.  But, like the Gift Catalog, they provide us a fun way to feel a tangible connection to those we are helping.  OK, it’s not the meat and potatoes of making a lasting impact on poverty, but after eating a balanced meal, good icing tastes sweet to everybody.

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