By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
Laurie Tragen-Boykoff’s first glimpse of Nicky stuck in her memory: “He had the look of an old soul in his eyes.”
He was 7 years old, and Laurie and her husband had decided to sponsor him through ChildFund (then known as Christian Children’s Fund). It was nearly 25 years ago, and they were a young married couple living near Los Angeles. Nicky lived in Kafue, Zambia.
“We weren’t upper-class by any means,” Laurie recalls, but “the program pulled at my heart.” One thing she decided: She would write to her sponsored child. It was important.
At first, Nicky couldn’t write to her in English, so they corresponded through interpreters. Still, his personality shone through, Laurie says. “He was an unusually expressive child, filled with joy and appreciation.” She learned details about his everyday life, and she kept everything he sent in a manila envelope in her nightstand’s drawer.
The letters continued for eight years, as Nicky grew up and eventually was able to write to Laurie in English. During that time, she became a licensed social worker and had a son and a daughter. ChildFund later contacted Laurie to let her know that Nicky’s village was healthy and self-sustaining and that the organization would be leaving to work in a village with greater need.
Because ChildFund protects children and sponsors by monitoring all correspondence and not allowing the exchange of personal addresses, Laurie and Nicky had to say goodbye to each other, but they didn’t stop thinking about each other
As a teenager, Nicky even went to the U.S. Embassy in Zambia to see if he could contact Laurie and her family. Unfortunately, the embassy’s employees said it was too difficult to find them without more information.
Laurie, meanwhile, held on to the manila folder and thought about Nicky from time to time but never imagined she would hear from him again.
One day in 2011, though, when Laurie was making a stop at Starbucks, her daughter Megan called. She said she had received an unusual message on Facebook from a Zambian man named Nicky Mutoka.
“It was all I could do to not scream,” Laurie recalls. She gave her daughter very specific instructions about what to tell Nicky, because as a self-described technophobe, Laurie wasn’t on Facebook.
Soon enough, Laurie reconnected with Nicky through email, phone calls and even on Facebook. Nicky still lived in Zambia and had progressed a long way from childhood. He was the only one of six siblings to attend college, and he had married a woman named Ketty.
Nicky and his wife, Ketty, meet his sponsors for the first time in Los Angeles.
“The sponsorship, for me, meant a lot,” recalls Nicky, who is now 32. “I felt so special among my siblings because I had all my school needs taken care of. I still remember my parents never bought me a uniform, a pair of shoes or books during my primary and junior secondary school. I can’t forget about this, and my memories are still fresh even if it’s over a decade now.”
When the sponsorship ended, Nicky says he was fairly discouraged and unsure if he would complete school, but he says that his faith in God gave him courage to continue. Today, after earning a degree in business administration, he is a sales adviser for a bank.
After several months of contact, the two families took a big step; Nicky and Ketty came to California for a visit in 2012.
“California, and particularly Los Angeles, is a great and beautiful place,” Nicky says. “There is so much to learn there. I enjoyed myself, had so much fun with my lost friends and family.”
An American grocery store was a particularly interesting stop for Nicky and Ketty.
“We just seemed to get each other,” Laurie says, and friends from her synagogue and neighborhood were drawn to Nicky like a magnet. “People were absolutely blown away [by the story].” Laurie and Nicky’s friendship also served to show that sponsorship helps real people, she adds. “People were so reassured to hear that the money went where it was supposed to go.”
Today, Ketty and Nicky have a baby son whom they named for Laurie’s husband Terry, and Laurie visited them in Zambia this past spring. Both families are so happy to be reunited.
“As a young boy,” Nicky says, “I always knew these were very good people and felt strongly attached to this family.”