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 Raphael Opira
Raphael, a logistics officer for a Dutch aid agency in Uganda, wrote this article about his experience being sponsored as a child and later meeting his sponsor in Sydney, Australia. The story was first published on ChildFund Australia’s blog.
Life was simply so challenging before I was sponsored. I am one of 15 children. My father made just $50 a month to support us, so it was very hard for my family to pay school fees for us all. The difficulties were compounded by Uganda’s 23-year civil war. When I was introduced to ChildFund, it was a turning point in my life.
When I was a child, we lived in a refugee camp. Outside it was unsafe, but it was also not safe inside the camp, as the enemy forces would sometimes come in and raid us for food, or to kill or steal children.
I lived with my family in a makeshift home in the camp from the late 1990s until 2006. When we moved to the camp, the focus moved from education to security. During this time, many children couldn’t go to school. We also could not put on lights to study at night because the enemy would find you.
When I was 12 and attending school again, I was sponsored. The biggest benefit of being a sponsored child for me was that I didn’t have to worry about school fees anymore. Instead, I could concentrate on my studies.
Sponsorship pulled me from nowhere to being able to have a good life in Uganda. It was like a bridge; if that bridge had not been there, I would not have been able to get to the other side.
Even as a child, I knew that education was most important, because if I am educated, all the rest will come. Before my last year of primary school, a friend and I spoke to the ChildFund officer and said we wanted to be transferred to a better school. He assisted us with the application. Our parents didn’t come with us, and the school was afraid we wouldn’t be able to pay our fees. We told them, “It’s OK, we are with ChildFund,” and it was OK. I turned out to be one of their best students.
Raphael was accepted into one of the top high schools in his district. He then went on to complete an undergraduate degree, and he has recently finished postgraduate studies. He now works as a logistics officer for a Dutch aid agency.
ChildFund was my launch pad. If I had not been sponsored, I think I would be a peasant farmer or doing odd jobs.
Sponsorship may not translate directly to a successful career, but it does provide the environment and the resources you need to succeed. After that, it is our responsibility to make the most of the opportunity. For me, it was the beginning of a very bright future. I’ve spent most of my time so far at school, and I am going up from here.
I am now married with three boys. My children will go to the best schools in the district, but I don’t want to have any more children because I want to be able to support other children and make an impact in their lives.
My goal for my life is to ensure that people succeed through me.
I am now part of the ChildFund Alumni Association. We are a group of 300 successful formerly sponsored children who are reaching out to the next generation of Ugandan children. We are teachers, university lecturers, social workers and lawyers. I am in procurement and transport.
After reconnecting with Michael Coorey, a former teacher in Australia whose students sponsored Raphael through ChildFund Australia, Raphael made the long journey from Uganda to Sydney to meet him in person this year.
When the time came to meet Michael, it was something that cannot be described. It could just be felt. It was a moment in life that nobody can imagine to be true. It is a very good feeling for someone who has been sponsored through ChildFund for this to happen.
When I first started to think about a way of conveying my heartfelt thanks to my sponsors, the first thing that came into my thoughts was to name my last born in tribute to him. That is why my 4-year-old son is called Emmanuel Coorey. To actually meet Michael in person was unexpected but definitely a dream come true!
Coming to Sydney was such a special time for me.
I went to the school that sponsored me to meet their students. Speaking to them was a very big achievement for me. Interestingly, other teachers who were involved in my sponsorship were still there, and they were wonderful to meet. It was great that they, too, could see the impact they have had on me.
Read Michael Coorey’s observations about sponsoring Raphael and watch Raphael’s message on video, below.
In several of Mozambique’s communities where ChildFund works, our local partners hosted birthday parties for children who may never have celebrated their birthdays before. This was possible thanks to a recent campaign by ChildFund International that asked sponsors and other supporters to send birthday cards to children who don’t have sponsors, and more than 1,000 of you responded! By having cake, games and other treats, the unsponsored children didn’t feel left out of the fun. Enjoy the pictures from these celebrations in Zavala, Zandamela and Maputo, where hundreds of children have received birthday cards. If you’re interested in sponsoring a child in Mozambique, here’s more information.
This week, we’ve had quite a conversation going on our Facebook page, hearing from sponsors about why they chose to sponsor children. Some have been doing it for decades! Read their reasons and even add your own. If you’re thinking about sponsoring a child, find out (much) more on our website.
By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
This was the second time I’ve been to Guatemala, but it was very different from my first trip, which was a vacation taken with a friend. Both times, I saw plenty of beautiful terrain, including an active volcano, lakes, foliage and mountains.
But during my ChildFund trip, I had the chance to visit places that tourists never go.
Here’s a short video I shot from the car during one drive into the highlands; it may seem bumpy, but this was hardly the worst of the roads. This one was paved, after all.
I took Dramamine every morning, just in case.
Some moments were a little scary, like when we were trying to cross this ditch being dug for a water line. But we all got in and out each day without serious difficulty, thanks to good planning by my hosts from ChildFund Guatemala’s national office and our local partner organizations in the communities. Not only did they arrange transportation and lodging, but they also spoke to families, teachers and principals so I could interview them.
The most remarkable visit was to a family’s home in Patzite. We met Cristina, the mother of six children — including a baby girl born just the week before. She didn’t even have a name yet. Despite still being in bed, Cristina welcomed us warmly. Two of her children, 8-year-old Wendy Catarina and 7-year-old Marcos, are sponsored through ChildFund.
Inside their home, which had dirt floors and mud-brick walls like many in the region, the children and their mother sat on beds and greeted us. I asked questions about water and electricity (they have running water every third day, and they have electricity, although others in the village don’t), where the baby had been born (at home, with a midwife attending), how the children liked being sponsored.
Marcos says of his sponsor, “I have a new friend.” He hopes to be a lawyer, while Wendy wishes to be a doctor. Their 12-year-old sister, Ana Loida, says she likes to write and hopes to be a teacher.
Of course, money factors into those dreams. Ana is in sixth grade, and although Cristina and her husband, who is a day laborer, would like their oldest daughter to continue to high school, the cost of uniforms and books is high. Plus, Wendy has considerable physical problems: poor eyesight, a femur that doesn’t fit right into her hip, and ear and foot issues. Medical assistance costs money, too.
“She has many difficulties,” Cristina says. “Wendy has to leave home early so she gets to school on time. She can’t run or walk fast. She also has to sit near the blackboard. She cries at night because her foot hurts.” The nearest health center is a one-hour walk from their home, and public transportation is available only on Thursday and Sunday.
“If there’s no medicine there, we get a prescription, and we have to buy medicine ourselves,” Cristina says.
Still, she adds, the children have benefited from ChildFund’s presence in the community. Cristina’s first contact was with guide mothers, local women who had received training through ChildFund. “At first, I was a little afraid because I didn’t want people to ask my children things,” she says. But her initial reservations dissipated quickly. “Marcos is happier, and so is Wendy.”
They were enrolled in ChildFund-supported programs six years ago, and both Marcos and Wendy found sponsors at the start of this year. Because only three children can be enrolled per family, Cristina plans to enroll the baby, who’s just starting to wiggle and fuss amid the blankets.
Cristina hopes for more opportunities for her children than she’s had. After finishing second grade, her father couldn’t afford to send her back to school, and Cristina had to weave cloth to sell. After a decade of working, she was married at age 18 and began having children. Today, she speaks only her local language, Quiché, although Ana, Marcos and Wendy can speak Spanish.
“After what I’ve seen,” Cristina says, “education is important. I try to make their dreams come true. Not knowing how to speak Spanish — it’s not what I want for my children.”
It’s a real struggle for many of the families I met in Guatemala’s mountains. I hope Cristina’s children and others I met can receive the help they need to continue school and have more options as young adults, whether it’s through sponsorship, grants or some other source. I also hope to return to these villages one day and see the changes for myself.
By Nicole Duciaume, Americas Region Sponsorship Manager
In Bolivia, Juanita’s two-room house is full. Six family members share three beds, and Juanita cooks in a small kitchen with poor ventilation while her husband works as a day laborer.
But this family is fortunate in other ways. Juanita’s 10-year-old son is sponsored through ChildFund, and his sponsor has written letters and sent small gifts over the years. Two years ago, the family received a cow purchased through ChildFund’s Real Gifts Catalog. The cow has changed Juanita’s life, providing milk and more cattle. Today, the family has two cows and three calves, and Juanita received training on how to care for the cow, breed it and milk it.
Before the cow arrived, Juanita used to bake bread to sell, but she inhaled a lot of smoke and suffered heat exhaustion and back pain. Today, she instead sells surplus milk that her family doesn’t consume or share with other families.
“My life is complete,” she says. “I am a better mother because of these cows. And I am a leader in the community, too. I never could have imagined my life would improve so much with one cow.”
Juanita recently donated a cow to her neighbor Diana, a mother of three young boys. In this way, Juanita is helping transform a community, one cow at a time.
With support from ChildFund’s local partner organization, Juanita chose Diana based on her family’s need, their participation in community programs and the fact that they have enough land for a cow. Now Juanita will train Diana to care for the cow, whose name is Cristina.
“I will treat Cristina as my only daughter,” Diana said during the brief cow-transfer ceremony. “I will take care of her just as Juanita did. I hope she will grow strong and reproduce, so I can give a calf to someone else in the community very soon. My heart is so full and so thankful.”
With the gift of a cow, the lives of two women and their families are now changed. Transformation is possible, and sometimes it can come in the form of a cow named Cristina.
Interview by Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Seth Glier has worked with ChildFund as a LIVE! artist since 2013. Seth is a multi-instrumentalist who’s performed at major folk festivals, and he also is a national spokesperson for the Autism Awareness Foundation. He recently released his third album, If I Could Change One Thing, and is now on tour in North America. We caught up with him recently to talk about his music and the reason he supports ChildFund’s work.
Q: You’ve been involved with ChildFund for quite a while. How did it happen?
A: I first heard about ChildFund through my management company. One of the main reasons I got into songwriting was because of my relationship with my older brother, Jamie, who is autistic and nonverbal. I feel like I’m in a special position to speak into a microphone each night, and with that comes the responsibility to amplify the voices that could use the decibel level.
Q: Are children’s issues something you think about a lot?
A: Yeah, I think that if you give children a leg up, you’ll change the world. I think giving a child his or her basic needs is something we need to pay more attention to.
Q: What can people expect to see and hear on your tour?
A: I talk a little about ChildFund, and I perform some songs off my new record, If I Could Change One Thing. I’m out there with a trio: a great bass player, an amazing saxophone player and then I play piano and guitar. There’s a lot of variety. It ranges from a several-thousand-people festival set to a 100-people room in a café. I like to try to turn any environment into a living room — one where stories are being told and songs are being shared.
Q: I listened to your new song with Crystal Bowersox, an American Idol finalist, the title cut on your new album. Did you write it with her?
A: I wrote that song with a friend of mine, Liz Longley. It was an up-tempo thing, and I had a drum track worked out and everything. I left my place to get a cup of coffee, and by the time I came back into my apartment, Liz had turned it into a ballad. I don’t think we thought about making it a duet until afterwards. I was on tour with Crystal, opening for her, and we became fast friends, and I went to Malaysia with her in December as part of her side band. She’s been such an amazing champion of my music, and I just can’t say enough great things about her and her talent. So, I asked her to sing on it, and she amazingly said yes.
Q: You won Best Social Action Song at the Independent Music Awards for 2011’s “The Next Right Thing.” What does an accolade like that mean to you?
A: I really came out of this folk world, this folk tradition. Woody Guthrie is a huge influence for me, not just trying to write songs that people will hear but write songs that need to be sung. In the same way that ChildFund is doing work that needs to be done, I’m trying to align myself and my own music with songs and places that need it most.
Q: Are you working on any songs now that are in that social action vein?
A: Yeah, all the time. They take me a long time to write. I’ve been writing a song about fracking for a while, and the song has changed a lot as I’ve continued touring. The more I get out into the country and see what the social struggles are and how the struggles are changing, the more my writing evolves.
Q: How many musical instruments do you play?
A: I fake most of them. [Laughs.] I’m most comfortable with the piano, and I’ve gotten more comfortable with the guitar. It’s a great writing tool. I can fake playing the banjo, harmoniums and different things. I do enjoy playing the accordion. It’s such a physical instrument. It’s like dancing. It’s great.
Q: What have you noticed in your world travels?
A: When we talk about poverty, economic disparity is a world issue. There are people who have so much, and there are people who don’t have remotely enough.
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.”