By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
It’s a rare and special treat to meet a former sponsored child in person. Many ChildFund alumni live in their home countries, often a long way from the United States.
Momodou Bah, a 30-year-old man who grew up in our programs in The Gambia, showed up one day this summer at our headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. Word quickly spread, and we were all excited to meet him — especially when we learned that he had won a Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a prestigious honor the White House bestows on a few hundred African men and women each year.
Momodou is The Gambia’s youngest elected ward councilor, a position similar to a county supervisor, which he’s held since age 22, soon after he aged out of ChildFund’s sponsorship. On the council, Momodou represents eight villages, including the one where he grew up as one of seven children in a poor household.
As a Mandela Washington Fellow chosen from a field of 50,000 applicants, Momodou is among 25 women and men between the ages of 25 and 35 who are taking immersive courses in political and civic leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The six weeks of classes (as well as meetings with Virginia’s governor and other government officials) culminate in a three-day summit in August in Washington, D.C., with the rest of the fellows, who are spread across the country at different universities. They’ll get to meet President Obama, too.
“We learn how things really operate in the government, in the courts, in the police departments — and how to build better institutions,” Momodou explains.
We plan to check back in with him after he meets the president, but we wanted to share his remarkable story — and the fact that he has reconnected with his sponsor.
“It was my life’s dream to get an education,” he says. “My parents are subsistence farmers of groundnuts, rice and millet for family consumption.” Momodou has two elder sisters, one of whom lives and attends college in Washington, and four younger brothers. He also has two sons, who are living in his family’s home while he attends the fellowship classes here.
When Momodou was in second grade, he was sponsored by Debbie Gautreau, who lives in Massachusetts.
As his sponsorship began bringing him letters and photos, as well as support to help his family pay school fees, he says, “I thought first, the world is full of good people.” He attended a primary school built by Catholic missionaries in 1949 and was one of the youngest students there — and considered one of the smartest, he says with a laugh. Momodou’s educational background has helped him in his current position as a ward councilor, representing people who speak four different dialects: Fula, Mandinka, Jola and Wolof.
“I went to school with children from these communities,” he says, explaining how he came to understand and speak all four dialects.
ChildFund still impacts his life in many ways. Momodou served for three years as board chairman for a group of local partner organizations that work with ChildFund in his community, and both ChildFund International and ChildFund Deutschland (our Alliance partner in Germany) have contributed assistance. In Momodou’s ward, there is a water and sanitation project that has delivered clean water to the population of 600. His boys, ages 5 and 6, have attended our Early Childhood Development programs too.
“They’ve learned to say the alphabet and name animals and objects,” he says proudly.
Debbie, who spoke with Momodou over the phone, said that she is thrilled to reconnect with him after 12 years. When they last were in touch, he was entering an information technology program post-high school, with plans for a career in the field.
“I feel like he’s my third son,” Debbie says. “Some of my friends and family remember when I sponsored him. He was very ambitious. School was very important. He seemed like he was going places.”
She was 28 when she first sponsored Momodou, near his current age, and Debbie says she has saved all of his letters and his first picture. They hope to meet while he’s in the U.S. this summer.
“He made me cry,” Debbie says, recalling their first phone conversation. “He’s just so kind and appreciative of my help.”
And true to form, Momodou continues to have great ambitions for himself and his country.
“I wish to continue on my political career to the highest level possible,” he says, perhaps as a national legislator or even The Gambia’s president. “My sons are expecting their father to come back a different person.”
Stay tuned for a second story in August, after Momodou takes part in the Mandela Washington Fellows’ summit and meets President Obama — and hopefully, and possibly even better, his former sponsor, Debbie.
By Ya Sainey Gaye, ChildFund The Gambia
A group of 37 formerly sponsored children — now young adults — have formed an alumni association in The Gambia. They hope to increase awareness of ChildFund’s sponsorship program at a community level, as well as ChildFund-supported projects that improve education, early childhood development, health care and other needs.
“To ChildFund The Gambia, I have to say that you have indeed restored and nurtured the hopes and aspirations of over 20,000 people in this country through your sponsorship program, which all of us here today benefited from,” said Alieu Jawo, who was elected chairperson of the alumni group. “This is indeed a divine investment.”
Alieu, who is now 35, runs a graphic design and printing company, owns a general merchandise brokerage and serves as a shareholder and director of an insurance firm.
“My inclusion into the sponsorship program brought hope and joy to me and my entire family,” Alieu said, “as it was a serious nightmare for an ordinary farmer like my dad and any other average farmer to be able to send his or her kid to high school. There were no good ones around my village or region.”
But with the help of his ChildFund sponsor, who paid his school fees above and beyond the monthly sponsorship, Alieu was able to excel at primary school and continue his education. Other alumni echoed Alieu’s story.
“I was privileged because it gave me the opportunity to continue my education,” said 30-year-old Fatou Bojang, who received shoes and medical supplies too. “That meant less worry and burden on my parents.”
ChildFund The Gambia hosted the forum to formally launch the alumni association in Bwiam. Participants received a briefing on ChildFund’s organizational structure, a refresher on its mission and overviews of ChildFund’s five-year strategic plan and The Gambia’s strategic plan.
Equipped with a better understanding of ChildFund’s operations in The Gambia, the group drafted a constitution and nominated candidates for an executive board. Then the members cast votes.
Staff from ChildFund’s national office challenged the participants to continue to make time for the alumni association, to work in their communities and to assist ChildFund as partners to promote child development and protection. The alumni, who well recall what sponsorship means to them, expressed optimism for the future.
“My enrollment in ChildFund sponsorship program really did contribute to what I am today,” noted Demba Sowe, 37. “I am now a father of five and an interpreter at the judiciary of The Gambia.”
Reporting by ChildFund Brasil
During January’s 31 days, we’ve made a blog stop in all 31 countries where we serve children, thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and donors. On our final day, we meet Wagner Oliveira, an accomplished teacher who attributes his success to sponsorship and ChildFund Brasil.
From the age of 4 until age 20, Wagner Oliveira was enrolled in ChildFund Brasil’s Projeto União. “Today, I have a broader vision of the world, and I owe this to the project,” he says. “Here is where I started. The project contributed to my formation because it encouraged me to study…. “I learned to value my friends and interact with people.”
Now 37, Wagner teaches at several schools in the city of Fortaleza/Ceara, Brazil. “If I grew up with education, I must give education,” he says. He counsels children to grab hold of education and do their best to overcome adversity. “You’re much stronger than you think,” he advises young people. “You have no idea how strong you are. Be stronger than your problems.”
Wagner also has a message for ChildFund sponsors: “You have the privilege of being part of the group that will build a better future.”
Interview by Henry Bazibu, Sponsor Relations Officer, ChildFund Uganda
My name is Grace Mwagale. I am 33 years old. I work as a records officer at a government hospital in Uganda and earn a salary, which helps me provide for my family of three. I feel very proud that my children sleep on a bed, have three meals a day and have decent clothes to wear. Since I work at the hospital, I can also afford medical services for them.
I come from a poor background, and being an orphan from a young age only made my situation worse. I grew up in Lukone village near the St. Mulumba Family Helper project, which was affiliated with ChildFund.
Before I was sponsored, I stayed in a grass-thatched, pole-and-mud house with my siblings, and slept on papyrus reeds for a mattress. I wore no shoes and my dresses were tattered. I had no scholastic materials and didn’t like school much because I felt inferior to the other children. Most of them laughed at my tattered clothes and my little heart was in pain. I started receiving sponsorship in 1984 when I was seven years old.
While I was a sponsored child, I received counseling from social workers, which helped to build my self-esteem. In addition, I received school fees and gifts, and my family received cows and goats for rearing.
The animals multiplied and we sold some and used the proceeds to construct a small permanent house. Living in a permanent house felt so good. We were not worried any more that rain would fall through the roof and ruin our few earthly possessions, and we stopped counting the stars in the sky through the holes in the grass-thatched roof. It really felt great. I felt challenged to read hard and pass my exams, and never to let down my sponsors who had given me so much.
Guest post by Seble
Sponsored as a child in Ethiopia, Seble, now 22, reflects on how far she has traveled.
Since my childhood, ChildFund has been walking beside me, helping me be all that I wanted to be. I completed my education because of the support of the organization. I can’t also ignore the extra support coming on an occasional basis from my sponsor — it helped me to fill in the gap.
Today I am a teacher at a primary school earning 841Birr (US$49) a month. Now I am able to stand on my feet; I can support myself and my family.
The other thing that touches my heart very much when I think about ChildFund is its effort in the development of not just the individual but also the community. The school built in my village, with the support of ChildFund, is now benefiting the community in general. The water scheme [system], again through the support of ChildFund, gave the community access to safe drinking water.
What can I say? ChildFund’s good work will stay painted in my heart forever!
by Demissie Belete, ChildFund Ethiopia
I truly don’t know what my life would have been if it was not for ChildFund and my sponsor. I am who I am today because of ChildFund’s care, protection and provision.
Who I was before ChildFund. The life of myself and my family changed drastically when my father passed away, leaving my siblings and me without a father at a very young age. My father was the family’s only breadwinner and it was a hard time for my mother, as she had no income to support six children. Shortly after, ChildFund came to my family’s rescue, as they educated me, provided clean water and other health improvements and, most important, assisted my mother and her ability to feed us. Today, with confidence I will say ChildFund is an organization that works extremely hard to assist the deprived, excluded and vulnerable children of the world, as well as striving to make them leaders of tomorrow.
Who am I today? I am a 27-year-old English degree graduate working with ChildFund in Northshoa, Ethiopia, as a sponsorship community development worker. The organization has taught me the importance of education, and currently, I am a third-year degree program student in business administration, graduating next year with intentions of establishing my own business. Through ChildFund’s emphasis on education, my life is filled with hope and encouragement.
As a community development worker, I earn approximately US$220 monthly. Not only do I financially support myself, but also my family, as my siblings can now go to school as a result of the opportunities ChildFund has offered me. Working within this organization has made me realize how fortunate I am to be involved in improving the lives of children whom I can relate to because I was once just like them.
On top of my work duties, I offer advice and guidance to less fortunate children as I encourage and motivate them so one day they can have a bright future.
My sponsor has not only financially assisted me, but has provided the encouragement that has led to who I am today. I would like my sponsor to know that I am now an employee supporting myself and my family, and her dream for me is fulfilled.
Shauntay Hinton, who was crowned Miss USA in 2002 and has appeared on TV shows such as “Heroes” and “Criminal Minds,” is a formerly sponsored child through ChildFund International. She was enrolled in the Brickfire Project in Mississippi and attended Brickfire’s after-school program until she completed high school.
Today Shauntay shares her childhood memories with us:
This week I attended a Labor Day barbecue hosted by my management company at a really elegant residence in Pacific Palisades, Calif., a community on the west side of Los Angeles. I looked around at the setting and the other “celebrities” there and felt like I was a really long way from Starkville, Miss.
In fact, when one of the other guests happened to ask me where I grew up, and I told her Mississippi, she responded “Wow! Really? How awful was that?” To which I replied “Not at all. I must have gotten lucky!”
I explained that growing up in Starkville, we had a strong sense of community. For example, when I was very little, I attended a day care center called Project Brickfire. Project Brickfire was a conduit organization for ChildFund International and operated as part day care center/part community center with programs to promote the educational and social development of children.
I went on to give her an earful about how before I even knew who Oprah Winfrey was, when I was about 5 years old, I was cast in a play at Project Brickfire as the host of a talk show who interviewed historical figures including Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. George Washington Carver regarding their contributions to American History. And boy oh boy, did they create a monster!
I made my mind up to never know a life without being on stage in some capacity. So to make a long story short, I think I got my point across to that other guest – if I hadn’t grown up in small-town Mississippi as a ChildFund sponsored child, I might not have been standing there talking to her at some fancy shindig in lovely Pacific Palisades that afternoon.
With programs emphasizing the arts and creative expression like plays, field trips and guest speakers, even providing a pen pal from across the world, ChildFund International helped me develop self confidence in front of an audience early on. Without question, my start as a sponsored child was essential to shaping my path toward a career in broadcasting because of the encouragement, instruction and support I received from the staff of Project Brickfire.
To read more about Shauntay’s experience with ChildFund International, click here. For more on “The Power to Play,” visit www.ChildFund.org/toys. Are you a formerly sponsored children through ChildFund? If so, and you would like to tell your story, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with your information.
By David Hylton,
Public Relations Specialist
Our new Web site, ChildFund.org, has many new features, including stories from formerly sponsored children, who we call alumni. Here is one of those stories:
Nearly half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty. But for almost 125,000 children and their family members, there is hope for improved living conditions. Jorge is one example of ChildFund International’s sponsorship success in Mexico.
Jorge’s family had a difficult financial situation. His father worked as a mason. To supplement the family income, his mother washed and ironed clothes for others. She learned about one of ChildFund’s local community organizations while looking for work and she quickly enrolled Jorge to become a sponsored child.
“I was 6 years old and I received support from very generous people living very far away,” Jorge remembers. “I only knew them from letters and photos but I could tell that they were concerned about my well-being. These people provided the support I needed for my education and health, as well as hope for a decent life, which is priceless.”
He was active in a variety of ChildFund programs and helped implement community activities, which developed his life skills. Today, he holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and he is supporting his community and his own family.
“I would like to thank the person who – with no other interest than to help – reached out and supported me while I was going through a rough time in my childhood,” Jorge says.