By Veronica Travez, ChildFund Ecuador
Paul and Robinson are two smart and happy brothers, 13 and 11 years old respectively. They’ve gone through hardships in their lives but still have a great deal of hope and enthusiasm for the future.
Because their mother died from health problems when they were very young, the boys live with their grandparents, Martha and Victor, in a community about 15 minutes from San Gabriel, Ecuador. In this largely agricultural area, most locals work as laborers on potato, bean or corn plantations and earn an average salary of $10 a day. Martha, 73, divides her days between farm work and caring for the boys and her husband. The family raises guinea pigs and chickens for additional income.
Paul and Robinson are enrolled in ChildFund’s Aflatoun and Aflateen community clubs, which offer children and youth educational workshops about saving money, spending responsibly and their rights. Martha attends family workshops that have helped her understand the importance of school and extracurricular activities like sports and cultural events.
Three years ago, the boys received sponsors, whose support has been very important to the family. On one occasion, Paul’s sponsor sent him $100, which he used to buy a bed, a mattress and a cabinet for storing his clothes.
“I feel very grateful that they support my little ones without having met them,” Martha says. “I always ask God to give the sponsors his holy blessings and to always take care of them, wherever they may be.”
By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
In a small Honduran village in the mountains, 12-year-old Yunior writes letters regularly to Margaret and Bob Erickson, who live in Washington state, a continent away. They’ve sponsored him through ChildFund since 2005, when Yunior was only 3 years old. A lot has changed in that time, particularly his communication skills.
“He’s taking English classes now. He’s writing to us in English,” Margaret says with excitement. “We have no children, and we are going to try to set up something so he can go further in school. He’s a very important part of our lives.”
Ten years ago, the Ericksons decided to sponsor a younger child so they could follow him through his childhood, helping where they could. He’s the first child they’ve sponsored. Yunior’s mother had died, and his father’s family took him in, although his grandfather and uncle were only earning about $42 a month. Because Yunior was too young to write, his aunts and grandmother wrote letters to the Ericksons on his behalf.
“I didn’t know what to call ourselves, but his aunt called us godparents,” Margaret recalls. In the passing years, Yunior has had happy and sad experiences; his grandmother passed away, but he also has succeeded in school. He’s now in seventh grade, and his favorite classes are math and English, Margaret says. She and her husband have sent money for Christmas, which Yunior often uses for practical purposes like clothes and shoes, and they also paid for a floor for the family’s house and a bed for Yunior, who had been sleeping on the ground.
“I’ve totally encouraged him to stay in school and do well,” Margaret says. “I’ve told him if he needs anything for school that he can’t afford, to let me know.”
Bob Erickson is a retired civil engineer, and Margaret was an internationally certified ophthalmology technician, setting up doctors’ practices remotely and often dealing with new eye diseases that immigrants carried to western Washington as they begin new lives in the United States. The couple has long had an interest in international travel and has visited the Panama Canal, the Falkland Islands and glaciers in a South American inlet.
Aside from receiving letters from Yunior, the Ericksons sometimes get photos from him. For years, he has posed for pictures with a grim look on his face, so Margaret asked him to smile in a picture this year.
“This Christmas, he gave us an awesome, big smile,” she reports. “He is a delight, and we truly love him.”
By Christine Ennulat, Content Manager
One of my favorite things about becoming a mother was the whole new world of children’s books I staggered into — with my kids tumbling into it with me when they were little and then, before long, actually leading me through it. It brought back, again and again, waves of nostalgia for all that books had meant to me in my own childhood. My children are older now, but those days are on my mind again as I learn about how ChildFund’s Just Read! program is helping hundreds of children in some of the United States’ poorest communities find the magic of reading for pleasure.
One thing I’ve learned that I didn’t know: Reading for pleasure trumps socioeconomic status as a determinant of how well kids do in school. (The magic of reading for pleasure, indeed!)
I don’t remember much of my own early childhood experience with books. My parents came to the U.S. from Germany just a couple of years before I was born, and my main memory of any book from that time was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struvvelpeter, a German collection of alarming cautionary tales that included one about a boy who refuses to cut his hair and fingernails (yikes!) and another about a boy who won’t stop sucking his thumb until one day a man wielding giant shears appears and … well.
Honestly, I couldn’t get enough of those gruesome tales. “Pleasure” probably isn’t an accurate description of what they gave me … but I’m not sure pleasure is necessarily that simple. What I can say is that I took to reading in search of similar wild thrills and imaginative flights. But even more, I was searching for myself.
As a weird, lonely kid, I recognized myself in moody Meg Murry, of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and in Milo, the initially reluctant protagonist of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (after whom I named Kid #3). And always, always there was Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, and her blue-haired doll with the most beautiful name in the world, Chevrolet, and the Dawnzer, and “BOINNNG!” Oh, the courage of Ramona. I wanted to be Ramona.
Later, I would — and still do — recognize my own heart in Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s exhortation, in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
As my own children grew, I delighted alongside them as they found their own ways down their own rabbit holes toward who they might become. My oldest fell in love with Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books, in which a girl becomes a knight in her kingdom, and her Dane books, with a heroine who converses with animals. Kid #3 couldn’t get enough of Al Perkins’ Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, which my whole family can still shout-chant from memory to this day, and through which music grabbed hold of him for the first time. (Kid #4 now says he hated that book because, as he learned to read from it, he had to face silent Bs—“thum-BUH,” he says. He became a Calvin and Hobbes guy.)
It was magical for me to be along for this ride, vicariously experiencing their journeys through silliness, love, terror, beauty and more.
Children need these flights of the imagination, these adventures beyond their everyday circumstances. When they use their imaginations, they flex their abilities to think creatively, and that’s key to not only learning but also taking aim at what they want to accomplish in their lives.
Reading is a way toward experiencing difficult feelings in manageable ways, which prepares a child for facing difficult situations in real life. Reading is also a way toward relief of stress — which is rampant and nearly constant for families living in poverty — and a way toward a loved one’s lap.
And reading is a way toward laughter. (I am convinced that laughter has an important role in the fight against poverty.)
Years ago, my neighbor said to me, after having accomplished some crazy plumbing repair without help, “If you know how to read, you can do anything.”
I second that sentiment … and offer a tweak: If you know how to read, you can be anything.
When children read, even amid the most challenging circumstances, they really can.
You can help change a child’s life by donating to ChildFund’s Just Read! program.
By Jacqui Ooi, Social Communications and Media Manager, ChildFund Australia
Schools in Guinea reopened this month after being closed for much of last year, as the country fought to contain the Ebola outbreak. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, where infection rates are also now stabilizing, schools are set to reopen in February and March respectively.
It’s the first step back to normalcy for millions of children whose lives and educations have been disrupted by the worst Ebola crisis in history. An estimated 5 million children in the three countries have been out of school for up to eight months. This has put children at high risk of dropping out of school permanently or ending up in child labor.
“Schools have been closed for a long time, so there are concerns that children are beginning to forget they were schoolchildren, that the continuation of their studies will be difficult the longer schools take to reopen,” says Billy Abimbilla, ChildFund’s national director for Liberia and Sierra Leone. “It has also been realized that many of the older girls are becoming pregnant because they are at home and they are not occupied. So, in some ways, the sooner schools reopen, the better.”
However, while there is an obvious need to get children back in school, there are also concerns about their reopening too soon, risking exposure to the virus.
“There is a school of thought that thinks it is too early to reopen these schools, because even though infection rates are declining, Ebola has not been completely eradicated and so reopening schools could spike another round of infections,” Billy says. “Also the fact that opening them too early will put some parents in a difficult situation because many livelihoods have been eroded, and many parents do not have enough money to pay school fees. So they need a bit more time to be able to organize to pay the school fees.”
With the decision to reopen schools winning out, the government and NGOs in all countries will be working hard to ensure children are protected at school and also help families get back on their feet.
ChildFund will extend its support of children affected by Ebola to help ensure that school staff and students continue to be careful about prevention measures as schools reopen.
“We will provide them with hygiene kits so teachers and students can continue the practice of washing their hands, and avoid intimate touching with each other through things like spacing of seats in the classroom,” Billy explains. “We’ll also continue with education on how Ebola can be contracted or not, and form children’s Ebola clubs to raise awareness in schools.
“Provision of water and sanitation is also crucial in terms of reducing infection. So we’ll be looking at supporting the government to supply wells fitted with hand pumps for schoolchildren to wash their hands and ensure that whatever information children get at school, they can also be voices to get back to the community level and educate their parents.”
Reporting by ChildFund India
Last month, former Indian cricket team captain Anil Kumble helped launch a reading campaign with ChildFund India, presenting tote bags filled with books to children in Karnataka, a state in southwestern India. Each bag contained books appropriate for different ages, from 6 to 14, and the program aims to provide books to nearly 115,000 underserved students in 14 Indian states this year, with more to come in the next three years. ChildFund India also has plans to set up 30 community libraries throughout the country.
“If you want to get more knowledge, it is important to read books,” Kumble said. “A culture of reading picked up at this age will continue forever.” The campaign focuses on providing access to literature, creating a supportive environment and removing barriers to reading. To address poor electricity in rural areas, families will receive solar-powered lamps with chargers that can also be used for cell phones and flashlights.
By giving children the opportunity to own books other than school textbooks, it is hoped the “Books, My Friends” program will inspire them to become lifelong readers for fun and enjoyment.
Reporting by ChildFund Philippines
Some of the villages we serve are very remote, and it’s impossible to establish Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers in them. In the Philippines, four barangays (the Filipino term for small villages or neighborhoods) in the municipality of Pili are situated too far from established ECD centers, so ChildFund and its local partner organization are bringing in a mobile unit to serve children under 5 and their families.
The Mobile Supervised Neighborhood Play initiative, which began its pilot phase last fall, provides the materials, modules and learning tools found in ChildFund’s home-based ECD programs and packs them in a mini-cab that can travel to remote communities.
Four trained volunteers conduct two-hour sessions twice a day, three times a week in the four barangays, helping train parents and other caregivers, as well as people who could one day start ECD programs locally. This pilot project is just the most recent way that ChildFund is supporting healthy development of children younger than 5.
“Where there are government day care centers, ChildFund helps equip the day care worker,” says Corazon Obra, program officer for ChildFund Philippines. “In communities remote from day care centers, ChildFund helps set up Supervised Neighborhood Play, our home-based model. Mobile SNP takes this idea further, literally delivering quality Early Childhood Development services to remote communities.”
Reporting by Abraham Marca, ChildFund Bolivia
Born three and a half years ago to a 41-year-old mother after a risky pregnancy, Rebeca was small but still within the normal range. However, when Rebeca was 9 months old, her family learned she wasn’t developing properly.
Wiñay Mujo, ChildFund’s local partner organization in her Bolivian village, offers early childhood development evaluations to young children in the area, and Rebeca had her first at 9 months. The evaluation revealed that Rebeca didn’t have enough strength in her back, legs and arms to crawl, so Wiñay Mujo staff members showed her mother some exercises she could do at home with Rebeca to stimulate those muscles, and soon Rebeca began making her first movements around her world.
But then, just before turning 1, Rebeca suddenly began losing weight; she was diagnosed with mild acute malnutrition, so Wiñay Mujo helped her get the dietary supplements she needed. She gained weight over the next few months, but she still couldn’t walk, even at 15 months. After a new course of exercises and diet, she learned to walk, and by the time she turned 3, her growth and development were on track.
But Rebeca developed a parasite infection and suddenly lost weight again. After her successful treatment, Wiñay Mujo looked more deeply into her situation and discovered that Rebeca was spending her days in the care of a teenage aunt while her mother worked. To provide a healthier environment for the little girl, Wiñay Mujo invited the family to have her participate in ChildFund’s center-based early childhood development program in her community.
Today, Rebeca and her family are doing better, and they attend programs at Wiñay Mujo, where they learn about good nutrition and other healthy practices. Rebeca is 3 and a half. She has had all of her vaccinations, and her development is considered normal for her age.
Children in developing countries face many obstacles to healthy development. For the youngest in particular, early nutrition is especially important because it supports their ability to grow and learn — without adequate nutrition in the early years, children may never be able to recoup developmental losses. ChildFund works through local partners like Wiñay Mujo to provide the monitoring, stimulation, nutrition and learning opportunities children need to stay on track.
Larry, 22, is a teacher at a private high school in the Philippines and the president of a youth association in his community. He was sponsored through ChildFund and attended programs at a local partner organization, Community’s Hope and Initiative for Lasting Development Inc. (CHILD Inc.), in the Western Visayas. Children from this region face many challenges, including a high rate of malnutrition and many teens dropping out of school to work. Here is Larry’s story, in his own words.
My unforgettable journey with ChildFund, its local partner and my sponsor, Catherine, began 15 years ago.
In all of those years, Catherine never failed to support me every step of the way. Even though I haven’t met her, nor was she in the habit of writing, I always knew she had my back, because of her ceaseless support. I hope she’s proud of what I’ve made of myself so far.
Beyond my need to stay in school, ChildFund helped me discover what I wanted the most: I wanted to share my blessings with others. I didn’t have much in the way of material goods, but from what I learned from participating in ChildFund’s activities, I learned I could still share with others.
I remained involved in ChildFund’s programs until graduating from high school, and one of the later things they introduced to us was psychosocial support for children. The local partner, CHILD Inc., trains trainers who can look after the immediate emotional needs of children after an emergency.
I was chosen to join the first batch of trainers and soon found the opportunity to test what I learned when flash floods from Typhoon Washi (locally known as Sendong) claimed more than 1,000 lives and demolished entire communities in my province in 2011.
There was no shortage of children in the dozens of evacuation centers that sprouted after the typhoon, and ChildFund called on us to assist them. My own home was not very badly affected by the typhoon, thankfully, so I was free to devote my efforts to helping other young people. The experience was tiring, but seeing the first smiles on children’s faces since the typhoon was rewarding. We produced artwork and helped the children express themselves about their experiences, along with their ambitions in life. It also saddened me to discover and share their pain, as they opened up their feelings to us.
ChildFund invited me to a lot of training seminars, which made me more aware of their plans for the community. These activities honed my skills and developed me into the person I am today. I joined an advocacy newsletter project and became editor-in-chief. This directly influenced my desire to pursue a teaching career.
ChildFund also sent me to national conferences, where I was able to meet fellow youth leaders from all over the Philippines. I discovered their cultures and traditions as I interacted with them. I was amazed how children and youth were able to articulate local issues and concerns, as well as assemble response plans.
Now that I’m employed and contributing to my family’s livelihood, I remain involved in ChildFund’s activities. I participate in the local partner’s Special Children Outreach for Rehabilitation (SCORe) program, and I volunteer with the sponsorship program.
My heart’s filled with gratitude for my kind and generous sponsor, Catherine, for her unceasing support, and for ChildFund, for molding me into what I am now.
Reporting by ChildFund Ecuador
According to Ecuador’s last census, 44 percent of the country’s mothers had their first children between the ages of 15 and 19. For many of these women, becoming mothers meant an end to their formal educations. In Ecuador and other countries around the world, though, women are learning — and sharing — important information about raising children, eating healthy diets and making an income. Here are the words of Evelin, a young mother from Ecuador whose life changed after going through training supported by ChildFund.
My name is Evelin. I am 20 years old, and I have two beautiful daughters who are my reason for living. Naomi Marisol is 4, and Emily Lizet is 3 years old.
When I was 16 years old, I was pregnant, so Segundo, my husband, and I decided to move and begin our lives as a family. He is 32 years old, and he works as a day laborer at a farm close to our house in Imbabura Province.
With the arrivals of my little girls, my life completely changed. I had to leave my studies and assume my new responsibilities in my home with my girls and my husband.
One day while I was in the community store, I met a neighbor who told me that ChildFund was carrying out workshops for the mothers of children under 5 years old and that she was participating. She told me that it was a wonderful experience because she was learning about stimulation, nutrition and some other things.
This sounded very interesting to me, so I decided to talk with my husband and ask him to let me participate in this training. At first, he said no, but I argued that this could be a good opportunity for me to learn new things that could help me to keep my family healthy. And besides, I would share with other mothers and would not feel so lonely at home, so he agreed.
When I began as a participant in ChildFund’s Early Childhood Development program, the trainer mother introduced me to the rest of the group, and since then I have felt comfortable and enjoyed the meetings very much. Despite my home chores, I always did my best to not miss any classes during the 10 months that the process lasted.
During this time, I realized that I had been doing some things the wrong way. I had a bad temper, was very rude with my daughters and my husband, and I was not sociable because I spent all day at home. So, I was isolated from the rest of the people in the community. I also was afraid to speak in public. I was very shy.
Since I participated in the program, though, a lot of things have changed. I learned how to prepare healthy and nutritious food for my family. Since starting our family garden, I have been contributing to the family livelihood because I save money by not buying vegetables and fruits in the market. I am more sociable too, and now I am more involved and interested in the community. My older daughter goes to the community’s child care center, and I was designated president. Now, I feel valued and self-confident, and I know that if I express what I feel, people will listen to me.
By Saroj Kumar Pattnaik, ChildFund India
Bursts of rain and wind punctuate an otherwise pleasant day in India’s Nagapattinum district. The streets are quiet in the village of Sampathottam, and it’s time for lunch. The scent of a dry fish curry wafts through the air. Govindaraj, though, is impatient and waiting for the rain to stop.
“I don’t like this rain, like the way I hate the sea,” he says, visibly irritated. “Since the morning, I am waiting for this rain to stop. I will get the flowers from the market. Every year, I offer these flowers to my parents on their anniversary.” This isn’t a happy anniversary, though. It’s the 10th anniversary of his parents’ death and the Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed 230,000 lives in South Asia.
Govindaraj lost his parents, his elder brother and 10 other members of his family in the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 7,000 people in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu alone. He dusts off the photographs of his lost relatives.
“She is my mother, he is my father, and the other one is my elder brother,” he says, pointing to the pictures. “They were among the 13 of my family members who became prey to that devastating tsunami and left me alone to die, every day remembering them. Anita is also an unfortunate child like me.”
Thirteen-year-old Anita is Govindaraj’s cousin, who also lost her parents in the tsunami and is now being taken care of by Govindaraj and his wife Malakodi.
“I am lucky to have survived nature’s fury,” Govindaraj says. “Actually, I was at my uncle’s place where my wife and Anita were, when that killer tsunami hit our village. It destroyed everything, killed my entire family and that of Anita’s,” he says, turning his face toward the door to hide his tears.
Comforting him in her arms, Malakodi says,“It’s God’s decision. What can we do?
“We were fortunate enough that our village, Perumalpettai, is located a bit higher than the other villages. The tsunami water did come to our village but did not sweep us along. We survived. Only those who were near the shore at that time were killed or have gone missing,” she says.
When asked what she remembers about that day, Anita says, “I cannot recall anything about what happened on that day and how the tsunami was. The only thing I know is that it killed my parents and deprived me from the fortune of having parents. “
“I have only photographs of my parents. I miss them the most when people talk about them and about the tsunami,” she says, pointing at their pictures.
Elsewhere in the village, Mahesh and her husband Ashoghan and son Amrith survived the tsunami, but they were forever touched by the trauma of the day. A pregnant Mahesh was slammed into walls by the waves, and later she and her husband were confronted with scores of dead bodies while searching for their 3-year-old son in a shelter. They found him in a corner, alive but unable or unwilling to speak.
“It was a horrible situation out there,” Ashoghan recalls. “We decided to move to another place, as the atmosphere was affecting both our body and soul, especially my son, who had not spoken a word since we found him. We crossed a backwater river stretch and moved out of the village and walked throughout the night to reach a nearby town.”
Amrith, now 13, is sponsored through ChildFund and attends school. After the tsunami, he was able to spend time in a Child-Centered Space to help recover from the trauma. But the family still suffers hardship. Amrith’s younger sister, Joyse, who was born a couple of months after the tsunami, has a nerve disorder that has prevented her from forming words or walking. She receives treatment for her condition, which is paid for by the government, her father says.
Near Govindaraj’s home, K. Rathnavel, a leader of this community, is busy preparing for a commemoration event for the victims of the tsunami.
In between phone calls to other community members, he says, “I want to build a memorial dedicated to the people who lost their lives in the tsunami. I have yet to raise the required funds for it.
“But I am sure we will soon be able to erect a memorial in our village,” he adds confidently.
When asked to tell his tsunami story, Rathnavel’s confidence disappears.
“Whenever I see the ocean, I get reminded of how it took away hundreds of our fellow villagers – men, women and children alike,” he says. Most who survived have become so scared of the sea that they have given up fishing, the ages-old occupation of the village, Rathnavel says.
“Most of us live in these houses allotted to us by the government as part of their rehabilitation plan for tsunami-affected people,” he adds. “Our old place has now turned into a ghost village.
“We are simple human beings, not gods. You might escape from the place of nature’s fury, but you cannot control it. Now, we don’t take a chance. If there is any alert from the authorities, we simple abide and stay away from the sea.”
According to K. Krishna Kumar of the AVVAI Village Welfare Society, ChildFund India’s local partner in Nagapattinam district, “The 2004 tsunami taught us that resilience is the key to recover from difficulties and to bounce back. People in this region have seen unprecedented devastation and lost numerable lives but are now moving on. That’s life, and we tell the affected communities to be strong and look forward.”
“Today, a decade later, the important question before us is how prepared we are for another such disaster,” he asks. “The disaster forced the development sector to focus on resilience in their programming efforts. As the largest NGO in this region, we played a coordinating role in the post-tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction process in partnership with various funding agencies and governments,” he continues.
Part of ChildFund’s response to the disaster, carried out through local partners like AVVAI Village, was to build Child-Centered Spaces to help children recover from trauma in safe places. In this district, we and our partners also started a program to help people find other sources of income after losing their livelihoods.
“The tsunami should be remembered as a history of setbacks and tears,” Kumar says. “But the motivation to go forward must be harnessed.”