Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Lesson in Compassion

After living in Haiti for a few years during one of my dad’s diplomatic posts, my parents signed my brother and I up to sponsor children from Haiti through Compassion International.  I tended to forget about the sponsorship until another letter or batch of photos arrived depicting a tiny thin dark black girl clad in her best Sunday dress that never quite sat right on her bony shoulders, unsmiling, staring deadpan at the camera.  Year after year, she’d grow a little bit taller and her face would mature with a little more definition, but those eyes and that mouth would never vary.  I never had much emotional attachment to the sponsorship or the child, it was just something we did.

I think I got a new child sometime in middle or high school, since my original family never responded to letters, and when I was a freshman in college, I canceled the sponsorship in the midst of an extreme-budgeting cleanup.  It took a few months for me to realize how stupid that was, that as tight as my finances might get, $38 a month means a whole lot more to someone else than it does to me.  Sitting at my little dorm desk cubby, I picked out a young girl from Rwanda, Sendrine, embarking again on automated monthly payments, trying to write out heart-felt, uplifting letters every few months, sending the occasional sheet of stickers or photo, and getting yearly updates of a sweet but unaffected face that became another monotonous constant in my life.


A few months into my travels last year, I saw an email from Compassion that showcased a few sponsor testimonies highlighting their experiences visiting their sponsored children.  Hey, if I’m heading toward Rwanda anyway, why not?  And it’ll give me some sort of deadline and direction to keep me from just meandering aimlessly around (at the time I was in the middle of a month-long lounge in Lamu, Kenya, not doing much besides walking to the same sea-front cafe for lunch every day and trying to convince my dad to come visit and do nothing, too. He did, it was fun.).  I paid a bunch of fees for background checks and signed a bunch of waivers agreeing that Compassion wouldn’t be liable for natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or guerrilla kidnappings and ransom (?!?), and a date was set.

As I continued to travel and my cynicism about Western aid and non-profits really started to set in, I began dreading the visit.  I felt like another “white savior” looking to pat herself on the back for doing good.  I knew I’d get movie-star treatment during the visit for funding this girl’s life, *cue announcer voice: brought to you by white skin and cold, hard cash!  I didn’t want to be the center of attention, paraded around for the whole village to see.  I didn’t want recognition.  I just wanted to cancel the visit and remain anonymous, patting myself on the back for not seeking praise for my charity.

When the visit was just a week away, I was still dreading it, but for completely different reasons.  Sendrine was a pre-teen at this point, the most terrible of all the age groups (yes, even here in Africa—a group of middle schoolers made me cry the other day as they jeered and mocked my Luganda “Vayo!” (Go away!) while they pressed their faces up to the kitchen window to stare at me doing the dishes. They also stole one of our neighbor’s puppies while they were at it).  What if I’m a letdown to her?  What if she doesn’t think I’m cool?  What if she just strokes my ego so she can continue to get the sponsorship?  What will we even talk about?  Would I be a disappointment to her?  Leave it to me to turn the whole situation around to make it about myself & my oh-so-fragile sponsor ego.


The Kinyarwanda translator & I traveled from Kigali to the southern-most tip of Rwanda where Sendrine’s village is.  On the bus ride, he informed me that the families aren’t allowed to ask for money or contact information from the visiting sponsors, and that the whole meeting is structured and scheduled and chaperoned.  Good, I liked where this was going.  Early the next morning, a car picked us up and took us to the local church that coordinates all of the sponsorships for the area.  They sat me in the big wing-backed chair behind the office desk while the five staff members either sat on tables or leaned against the wall as they all introduced themselves and their positions: Compassion regional director, marketing director (i.e. the guy with the camera), pastor, etc.  My French is pretty rusty, but it’s good enough that we skipped speaking English early on in the meeting since more people could be involved in the conversation that way.  Ironically, the translator was the only one that didn’t speak French, so he zoned out and picked at his fingernails for the remainder of the hour.

The regional director explained how the whole process works: in order for the children to retain their sponsorships, they have to keep their grades up in school, go to regular medical checkups, attend weekly Sunday School at this church, and the families have to agree to meet and communicate regularly with a local Compassion representative.  The office had a binder just for Sendrine containing all of her medical records, school marks, and notes from meetings since the sponsorship started.  I looked up at the wall of white binders that looked grey in the dimly-lit office and could feel the cynicism slowly leaking out of me and dissipating into the air to mingle with the dust particles that constantly float around in patches of leaked rays of sunlight.  During that visit, I wanted proof that my money wasn’t being treated as an easy handout, that Sendrine was working for it.  And both she & Compassion definitely were.

I asked what happens to the kids once they turn eighteen and the sponsorship stops.  For the few that have the potential to go to college, there are some scholarship opportunities that Compassion helps the students apply for.  For those who won’t go to university, there are sessions and groups showcasing vocational skills that Compassion holds for the students long after the sponsorships end.  Okay, check and check.  I continued to be impressed, but also slightly surprised that I didn’t know about any of this during the two decades that we’ve spent sponsoring children.  Probably because at age ten, it didn’t occur to me to ask about any of this stuff.

I still felt a little icy toward the whole charade of the visit when we piled back into the car to drive to Sendrine’s village.  As we neared the site, the director pointed to a girl walking along a path toward the car and said “That’s Sendrine.”  She was as tall as I was, a big-boned, soft-faced girl with short hair and a long stride.  She saw me and smiled, the first time in eight years I had seen a smile on that face.  She was saying something in Kinyarwanda the whole time, I have no idea what, but as she jogged toward me and almost knocked me over with her hug, something inside me broke and I burst into tears.  I was still sobbing when I saw a woman, huge, almost six feet tall, out of breath, jogging up the same path and muttering continuously.  I assumed this was Sendrine’s mother, as she carelessly shoved Sendrine out of the way and nearly lifted me off the ground as she pinned my arms to my sides and shoved my face into her chest and squeezed and muttered and cried.  If I weren’t being suffocated, I would have laughed: the whole village was out to see this white girl slowly asphyxiate.  Between Sendrine’s family, extended family, friends, neighbors, and the Compassion crew, we had a whole caravan of people tromping down the dirt path to their house.


Sendrine didn’t let go of me the entire visit.  We all, all of us that could fit, crammed into their dark sparse living room with Sendrine & I on the couch.  The ones that couldn’t fit blocked what little sunlight came into the room by peering in through the windows and doorway.  The translator got things going by introducing everyone, but Sendrine couldn’t wait.  She whipped out the family photo album and started pointing and talking about everyone in the photos.  Her mother had to tell her to shut up and pay attention multiple times.  

Everything was very structured, there wasn’t a moment of stillness or lull in the agenda.  Sendrine ceremoniously opened up the backpack of school & bath supplies I had brought for her, and everyone laughed at the flip-flops she pulled out that were far too small for her huge feet.  Her mother stood up and said a few words to me, including how a thief had broken into their house a few years ago and taken everything, but that they were most distraught to lose the letters I had written.  The generic letters I didn’t think twice about as I quickly jotted down some “Hope you’re enjoying school!”s and some “God bless.”s?  Those letters? 

Now came Sendrine’s time to shine, she finally got to show me the family photo album.  Each page contained a single 5x7 photograph, and the first photo was of her mother and father at their wedding, her mother towering about a foot and a half over her meek hunched father (her father reminded me of Boo Radley, mostly hiding behind the door for the duration of my visit).  She turned the page to the second photo and I had to cover my face with my hands as I broke down sobbing again.  It was my own high school face staring back at me, along with my brother and two of our, over the years, many, gerbils (these two were named Yoo & Mee, until we unceremoniously found out that Mee was either a boy gerbil or a very pushy lesbian gerbil, so Mee had to go back to PetCo. Mee’s replacement, Mee Too, didn’t last very long).  I don’t even remember sending the photo.  Nobody acknowledged I was crying again, thank goodness, because they were all too busy jabbing their fingers at the gerbils in the photo asking what they were and why the hell we were holding them.  In East Africa, “pets” don’t really exist for locals, since you only keep animals you can eat.  Although I’m pretty sure if you skewered and roasted a skinned gerbil and added copious amounts of salt, they’d be pretty crispy and tasty.

Me & You & Yoo & Mee
The translator asked me to say just a few words to everyone, and then we took a tour of the yard.  Sendrine’s mother pointed to a huge pig in a pen and said, “Remember that money you sent us for Christmas? We bought that with it.”  I was shocked, I had no idea how much the sponsorship was benefiting the whole family.  The mother couldn’t stop thanking me for everything I’ve done for them.


Sendrine's immediate family & the Compassion staff
I felt shell shocked and worn out in the car on the way back to the guesthouse.  The translator went back to picking at his fingernails (probably mulling over all the various versions of the marriage proposal he would try on me over the next 24 hours) and I struggled to keep up the conversation in French with the director about something I knew I wouldn’t bother to remember.  It was an exhausting and humbling experience, and for all my picking and whining about the dangers of mission work and non-profits, sometimes I just need to shut my mouth and trust God and give the money.  My heart doesn’t even have to be in it.  My skepticism and cynicism will probably never go away, but neither will the needs of others.  

I highly urge you to get involved with Compassion International, whether it’s through a one-time donation or a monthly sponsorship.  They’ve been doing what they do for a long time, and they do it very well.  

Sendrine and I still send letters back and forth, but they don’t contain any more fervor or connection than the previous letters did.  I don’t know if I’ll visit her again even though I’m only a day’s travel away from her right now, but at least when I get those letters from her, I now think of the person, smiling and laughing and squirming next to me on the couch, waiting for her turn to talk.


  1. exquisitely written.
    I'm signing up to sponsor a child right now. Thank you!

    1. No way, that's awesome!!! Can't wait to hear about how it goes for you!