Monday, July 27, 2015

Re-Visiting Antonio in Nicaragua - A Lesson In Perspective and "Things are Changing!"

My final visit on this trip was to Antonio in Nicaragua. He is 11 years old and lives with his mum and little brother during the day, and under the care of his grandmother at his father’s house at night. Their family situation is complex and I didn’t fully understand it, but he is not part of a “normal” nuclear family. Having said that, I know he is still surrounded by love through his mum, grandma and the staff at the church and Compassion Project.

I have been sponsoring Antonio since 2011 and visited his family in 2013. Last year when I was in the Philippines, my friend Kayla Groth took over his sponsorship but when I returned to Australia, circumstances allowed me to take him back. 

I was apprehensive about this visit. To give you an idea why, this was my Facebook status immediately after I visited them last time:

I cried today. Mama is so young at 23, with an 8 y.o. boy and a 1 month old baby. She's just moved into this "house" (brick-box), with her equally young husband who sells newspapers at the market, and her loneliness is palpable. This was the first time on my trip I did not ask to take pohotos of their house. I could not bring myself to do it, to preserve their dignity. For all the possessions, knowledge, money and "stuff" that I've been blessed with, standing in this family's backyard, looking at the hole in the ground that is their toilet, all I could do for this Mama was hold her and lift her up to almighty God. It was a holy moment. She was so broken, but God was there, and I could feel her respond in her spirit. Even as I fervently prayed for this family, my words felt so empty and trite, and I realised how much I needed to increase my own faith. Without Jesus and the help of Compassion, she has nothing. However, there is hope, and for this Mama it comes in the form of her 8 y.o. son, my sponsored boy Antonio. This kid is a riot, joyous and full of life, and "smart as a whip" (whatever that means). He is a fount of knowledge of all things animals (from the Discovery Channel) and I could see the pride and love emanate off this Mama as we squeezed into their house, and she sat feeding her baby, while her boy rattled off fact after fact and entertained us all. My relationship with this family is definitely a gift from God, for me as well as for them, and may it long continue....

I was brought apart. I could feel their brokenness, and it was all the more personal since they weren’t just ‘some poor family in Nicaragua’ but we were connected through Compassion sponsorship. It hurt to see their situation and know that that in all honesty I couldn’t do much for them on my own. God used this visit to remind me that without Him, we have nothing.

So, these were the thoughts and feelings swirling through my head as we travelled to Leon. We arrived at the church, and Antonio arrived soon after. It was clear right from the start that his personality had not changed since our first meeting, which is a very good thing. He is a riot; he did not stop talking the whole time, which made hard work for our translator Carlos, and I was left laughing at some of the random stuff he came out with. He is an intelligent lad, a very good big brother to two-year-old Jovie and I believe he is a future leader.

Antonio is very good at maths and said he wants to become an architect because they make lots of money and he wants to help his mother because she has taken care of him. Wise words, well beyond his years.

We met at the Project and after greeting Antonio, the first thing I noticed was the difference in Mama. Aside from the fact that the newborn bub she had last time was now an energetic two-year-old, her whole disposition was more positive. She looked relaxed, confident and started talking with us straight away. This indicated to me that something had changed since my last visit and I was keen to find out what this was.

It turned out that two years ago (about six months after my visit), Antonio’s paternal grandmother bought them a house. In Nicaragua, as with many developing countries, this is a huge thing. Having a place of their own, with no need to pay rent or possibility of getting evicted with no place to go was a huge burden lifted off their shoulders, and it showed. I was so happy to hear this.

I had met Antonio’s grandmother on my last visit, and was deeply impacted by her love for Antonio and his family. Even though her son and Antonio’s Mama were not together, she still treats her like a daughter and is active in their lives. This incredible act of love and sacrifice of buying them a small property had changed their lives forever.

Accompanied by cans of Coke, we had a good conversation about normal everyday stuff, including what we did on our last visit. My translator Carlos was impressed by how much Antonio remembered from two-and-a-half years ago. It just shows the impact that a visit has, even if only for a few hours. I also talked to mama when she wasn’t busy wrangling the two-year-old. She sometimes sells fruit at the local market for some extra income, and has a dream to open a vendor store at her home, which would make things a whole lot easier for the family.

I showed Antonio updated pictures of my family including my nieces and nephews, and for some reason he became besotted with one particular nephew, three-year-old Seth. He just captured Antonio’s imagination, and he would talk about him repeatedly during the day.

We took a tour of the Project and met many of the staff.

It was clearly evident the bond Antonio had with many of the Project staff, and they have a big impact on his life. When introducing them he would sidle up to them and put an arm on their shoulder or around their waist.

During the day he clearly enjoyed having the attention of two males, me and Carlos. He would repeatedly pat us on the back or the arm and say things like “I’m so glad you are here,” or “I am really happy you have come.”

We were also able to see the recently-opened Child Survival Program, which cares for pregnant women and their babies up to three years old.

Antonio was something of an advocate, telling me all about it and showing me some of the materials and resources the mothers receive. At one stage he became a bit jealous and said “Look at all the toys!” I replied with “Do you want to become a baby again, so you can play with the toys?” He answered in the negatory. I think he’s quite happy being 11.

It was then time for a brief home visit before heading to lunch. For me personally, even though it was amazing to hear they have their own house, the state of the actual house still made my head spin. It was pretty much a room which was 4m x4m (12 feet) at best, and the bed took up most of the space. Their kitchen and shower are next to the house with a roof over the top, but no walls. Barbed wire surrounds the property and there is an enclosed toilet out the back, which is an improvement from their last house. With much pride, Antonio showed me a thriving tree he had planted when they first moved there.

My initial reaction to the house showed I was failing to see things from their perspective. While I looked at the condition of the house and compared it to what I knew, to them it was completely different. They were in a safe neighbourhood with a place they could call their own. I could sense the security, contentment and satisfaction that came with this. This isn’t to say that they wouldn’t move to a better place if the opportunity arose, but rather than looking at and yearning for what they don’t have, they were thankful for what they do have. God has provided for them through the love of Antonio’s grandmother, and this freedom of home ownership provides a good foundation for their future.

After this we went into town for lunch. Burger King was the venue of choice today and the two brothers had fun on the little playground.

During lunch, somehow the conversation got onto WWE Wrestling. I had no idea he liked this, and it’s also something I enjoy. We talked about our favourite wrestlers and then I dropped a bombshell. He mentioned how it was sometimes quite violent and, I figured to reassure him, I said “You know they’re not actually punching and kicking each other?” His face fell and he said “You mean it’s not real?” and I explained they were just actors who were pretending. I said they are still athletes and it’s for entertainment but no, it’s not real.

Next stop was the supermarket, where we loaded up some much-needed supplies for the family.

I’d say it was probably little brother’s first ride in a trolley and Mama faced that conundrum that all parents face at some point: keeping the little one occupied and keeping the trolley far enough away from the shelves so little fingers can’t grab stuff.

We also went to the market to buy a couple of gifts for Antonio. He chose a watch and a soccer ball.

I brought him a soccer ball last time but unsurprisingly, with the amount of barbed wire around, it didn’t last long. 
While we were at the market I saw a little 25 centavo coin on the ground and pointed it out to Antonio. He slowly approached it, picked up, held it up with a smile on his face, then shoved it in his pocket. The kid had won the lottery! 

Finally we went back to the family home for some time together. By this time little brother was a bit tired and grumpy, but it’s amazing what an Australian football can do to cheer little ones up. He took a while to warm up to me, but by the end we were sweet, and tossed the ball back and forth as I chatted with Mama and Antonio. 

I asked Mama “If there was one thing you need above everything else, what would it be?” She took a while to answer, and seemed uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed by the question, maybe misunderstanding me. I quickly moved to reassure her and Carlos helped me by conveying to her that as Antonio’s sponsor I wanted to help them in any way I could and I was just trying to understand their situation better, but there was no pressure. She seemed put at ease by this and answered that since they only had one bed for all of them, another one would be helpful.

During the day, one thing I was blown away by was the impact that his previous sponsor Kayla Groth had on the family in the space of one year. Like I mentioned, Kayla was impacted by the family’s story and agreed to sponsor Antonio for me while I was in the Philippines in 2014. When I came back I was able to take over the sponsorship, but it was evident that in the space of twelve months Kayla had worked her way into their hearts in a huge way.

While we were talking, Antonio made a couple of videos for Kayla and showed that he still has all the letters and pictures she sent. He also made a video for my nephew Seth, in which he imparts 11-year-old wisdom to the little guy which I’m sure will set Seth up for a good life.

We finished with a kick of the footy, which I left with them as a gift. Not sure how long it will last, but anyway.

This day was a real blessing, and it went about as well as I hoped it would. The contrast between the two visits could not have been greater, and it was so good to see the progress that was being made in this family’s life thanks to God’s provision. It is an honor that I get a front row seat, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for them.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Re-Visiting Kelle in Nicaragua

Imagine this: You're an 8th-grade kid in Nicaragua, sponsored through Compassion. Your previous sponsor came to visit a couple of years ago and you had a wonderful time together, but now you have a new sponsor who you're just starting to get to know. One morning you're sitting in school and someone tells you your previous sponsor has arrived from the other side of the world and is here to visit you!

That was the scenario facing 12-year-old Kelle yesterday when I visited. It seems that Compassion countries differ on when they tell the kids they are receiving a visit. The two kids I visited in Guatemala both knew a month in advance, whereas Kelle only found out on the morning I arrived.

So she ran from school and arrived at the Compassion Project she attends where I was waiting with my translator Carlos. We had been chatting with Pastor Wilmar who has been in charge of this particular church for 18 years, and, like all the Compassion church Pastors, is a passionate advocate for seeing children and families released from poverty in Jesus name.

He told me about something interesting the church is doing. I can't remember the exact terminology but I think it's called an "extended arm" which basically means that the Project starts another 'campus' in a nearby neighbourhood in order to reach children who live outside the distance limits which Compassion have in place.

I visited Kelle and her family in January 2013, as part of my 14-kid, 7-country trip, and it was one of the few days I left with a positive feeling in terms of the family situation. Materially they were doing it really hard, a family of six living in a tin box, but what impressed me was their faith in God despite their circumstances. They were a united and loving family, determined to stick together and trust God to provide their needs.

Mama is a cleaner at the school her sons attend. Papa is a photographer who takes a couple of props, such as a car and a horse, along to local events, festivals etc, dresses the kids up, pops in a fake background and takes a keepsake picture for the parents.

Kelle's oldest brother has graduated high school and hopes to go to university to study engineering. He is the only one of the siblings who isn't sponsored, which I can see is not easy for him. He is at a real crossroads in terms of the direction his life takes, since it is very easy for someone in his family's position to make bad choices and end up somewhere he doesn't want to be. Carlos was able to speak into his life and encourage him to follow God and stay on the right path.  

I could sense Kelle was overwhelmed with my presence, and also had questions running through her head in terms of why I wasn't her sponsor any more. I had written a final letter explaining that I was moving to the Philippines at the start of 2014, working as a volunteer so I wasn't earning any money and couldn't financially sponsor her any more. However, I made sure I found each of my kids a new sponsor, and introduced the new sponsor in the letter.

Even though I had written the letter with a full explanation, I could understand the confusion and that there was potentially a sense of abandonment there. I was happy to verbally reiterate what I had written. I assured Kelle that I still loved her and thought about them often. I said I was very excited to come and visit on behalf of her new sponsors.

We took a tour of the Project and then visited the family home. The home seemed somehow different. The picture below was taken on my previous visit. We are outside. You can't really tell, but it is the same area in which the kids were playing UNO on my visit yesterday. So it turned out they had extensions done to their house since I was there last, which is a very good thing because their original house was way too small for a family of six.

However, to do so they had to get a loan from the bank which they will be paying off for a long time. It also meant that in order to make the walls of their extension they had to take some material off the old roof, which has left a gaping hole in the roof, in a community where it rains often. This is their main challenge at the moment. Kelle's father is a very resourceful man, and he built a small drain in the floor which allows the water to filter out. There is also cardboard filling in gaps in the walls and the whole place is basically held together by tree branches.

I am reluctant to post too many photos because, while it might add to the impact of their story, in the past I may have unwittingly broadcast the poverty of some of my families which, while it was never my intention, I know they probably don't appreciate. 

Mama was the one who went to fetch Kelle from school and when she came into the house her eyes lit up and with a smile and arms open wide she exclaimed "You're back!" She was a beautiful, friendly and chatty woman who exuded gratitude and thankfulness throughout the day: to God, to me and Kelle's current sponsors. She said they were sad when they found out I was no longer Kelle's sponsor and they never thought they would see me again. I replied "Well, God had different ideas!"

Sponsors, this is for you: I think we sometimes focus so much on our sponsored child that we forget that sponsorship positively affects the whole family. On my visits I have noticed that it's the parents in particular who are so thankful for the impact sponsorship has on their family, often to the point of tears. Of course the kids are grateful, but I guess adults can generally express it better. I have so often been humbled by their reaction and emotion, and God uses it as a reminder of what an important job He has given us as sponsors.

After a brief time at their home, during which I met their pet dog, parrots and squirrel(!) we travelled to a local mall for lunch. On the way there we had a vote as to what to eat for lunch: Pollo (chicken) or Pizza. Two family members voted for pollo, two voted for pizza so Kelle had the deciding vote, and she chose pollo, which meant three visits in a row to Pollo Campero for me.

During lunchtime I learned that Kelle and one of her younger brothers had completed a computer course as part of the Compassion program. This involved areas such as word processing, typing, internet etc. One thing I love about Compassion is their focus on employment training for the older kids which equips them with skills to earn an income and help their families.

I also asked Kelle if she could go anywhere in the world, where would she go. Her answer was "Argentina" because she's a big Lionel Messi fan and that's where he's from. I discovered that soccer rivalry runs deep among the siblings and is divided along gender lines: Kelle supports Barcelona because of Messi and the boys go for Real Madrid.

Following this we went shopping at a nearby supermarket, and each of the kids got to choose something for themselves. Kelle's greatest need was a school backpack. At 12 years old she had never had one of her own before (always used her older brother's stuff), so this was a great opportunity to get one. The supermarket had limited varieties so went went to a nearby market, where I was advised to only bring the correct change due to safety issues. Kelle found a backpack she liked and we were away.

At this point, as if the gringo wasn't drawing enough attention to himself just by being there, I decided to go further. As it was a warm day I was just wearing flip-flops, and on the way back to the van I stepped in some cruddy liquid. It appeared to be just mud, so I didn't think anything else about it. However, they stopped me from getting into the van and Carlos bought a bottle of water and washed my feet with it. Fair enough, I thought. I'm still not sure what it was.

Finally it was time for one more visit to the house to spend some time together. With the (missing) roof situation still in my mind I asked about what they did when it rained. Well, it looked like I was going to get an answer to my question because it started to rain, just lightly, while we were there. I took some photos and videos of the house to show Kelle's sponsor and then we got out the "pelota" (ball). The Australian football had been a big hit with this family on my last visit, and we had a jolly old time handballing to each other out in the yard. This time we were in the house (so we had to be a bit more careful) and ended up playing a bit of "hot potato" as the ball flew in all directions.

Finally I got out the big guns: the UNO cards! Once again they had never seen them before, so Carlos and I went through our bi-lingual explanation and for the next half hour the place was alive with chatter, laughter, good-natured sibling rivalry and joy. Pure and simple joy.

I was going to take the cards with me, but I decided to leave it with the family. Just like with Yeymi's family in Guatemala, it gave the four kids a chance to just be kids and do something fun together, which in their community and family situations is not something that is all that common.

Watching Kelle during the UNO game was priceless. I felt like she had spent most of the day still coming to terms with the fact that I was actually there. I probably still don't quite grasp that when someone from the other side of the world goes out of your life and suddenly turns up at your house one day, it can come as quite a shock. She was camera shy and not really expressive. However, during one of the UNO games she finished third and when she put down the final card she let out a nice loud squeal of delight. That made my day.

Finally it was time for me to go. Mama got very emotional as she spoke of the difference Compassion sponsorship made to her family, particularly in regard to school supplies. She shared her struggles raising four children in a material world (not trying to conjure up any song lyrics there) as they constantly see things they want, but are not in a position to buy. Her gratitude to me for the visit was constant, but this line was the kicker. Through tears she said: "This day is a real blessing to us because we have been going through a real hard time. We believe God sent you here."

I shared some final words with Kelle. I told her that her sponsors love her very much and to always remember that even though I am not her sponsor any more I still love her and think about her often. I told her I was proud of her and to always remember that no matter how hard her life gets, that God has her in His hand and wants her to trust Him.

And for the second time I left this family in a positive frame of mind. For all the challenges they face, I was in awe of this united, loving family standing firm in their faith, thankful to God, the church and Compassion.