Look at that Smile!

Almost exactly two years ago I wrote a post about my Compassion International Child, Helen Angela, and her Almost Smile Photo – a photo that I was so happy to get because it was the first time I had seen her remotely happy. Always a serious photo taker, Helen Angela comes off as stern and no-nonsense, which is the opposite of how her letters portray her. In fact, the contrast is so great that I’d already made up my mind to somehow get a smiling photo of her in June when I travel to Peru to meet her…. but then, I got the most amazing gift in the mail:

HelenAngelaSmile

Look at that smile! That big, beautiful, full on smile! Tucked away in a thank-you letter (telling me what she was able to get with her birthday money I sent –  the clothes she’s wearing) was this wonderful surprise. I cannot even begin to describe how happy this makes me. In my 10ish years of sponsoring her, this is the first real smile photo I have. 10 years!

I whole-heartedly believe this photo is a direct result of the increased amount of letters I’ve been sending her. I’ve noticed a warmth in her letters, and now I see the physical proof. It’s just one more reminder of why writing is so important.

And now, I can’t wait to meet this beautiful young woman with the smile that brings me so much joy. So, thank you, Helen Angela. Thank you for your wonderful letters and infectious happiness. Here’s to hoping I get many more smiling photos!

 

Questions for My Sponsored Kids

If all goes to plan, in just a few short hours I’ll be hugging my sponsored kids and dining with them at the hotel. I am beyond giddy! When I traveled with Compassion International to meet my two Ecuadorian sponsored children, Josué & Emily, in 2013, I had no idea what to expect. No idea how I would react or what I would see. And so, when I returned, I ended up having a long list of questions I wished I had asked my kids while I was with them. I first shared this list back in May of 2014, but I thought it would be fitting to re-share and review it, today. This time, I’ll be ready. I’ll be prepared to delve deeper into their everyday – and hopefully, I’ll gain a better understanding of their family and their lives.

EcuadorFunDayBus3

Back in 2013, they, our group leaders, did tell us to be thinking of questions to ask our kids – they warned us that we would get caught up in the moment and forget what we wanted to know if we didn’t write it down. They did tell us, and I did ignore them. I couldn’t think of anything in particular that I wanted to know – I just wanted to know my kids. I just wanted to see them, hug them, and tell them I love them. I didn’t have anything to ask them. I am, by nature, a quiet person, an extremely introverted person. Small talk tires me – it was enough, in those few moments, to simply hold my kids. To just be there with them – to be completely there. To breathe in the air and know that this moment will never happen again.

And so, like they warned me, I forgot anything I wanted to ask. I stumbled over the small talk- amazed at simply being there. I had no idea what to say or what was appropriate to ask. Fortunately, I was blessed with an amazing translator who kept the conversation going as me and my kids are all quiet, reserved souls – and there were so many new people. Only when I had said my “bye-for-nows” did I realize there was so much that I didn’t ask.  So much more that I wanted to know.

Below are the questions I forgot – the ones that I’m now including in my letters, but wished I had included in my face-to-face conversation. Some of them don’t seem like much, but they are gold to me. Let me encourage you, if you are ever taking a trip to meet your sponsored child, take a notebook with you. Write down your questions for them, and their answers to you. Write down all the names of all the people you meet. Write everything down. Memories are frail and fleeting when it comes to small details – notebooks, pen, paper, cameras – invaluable.

Things I wish I had asked both Emily & Josué:

  1. How are your father & siblings?
  2. What did you do when you found out I was coming to visit you?
  3. What kind of “extras” do you like to get with the letters? (do you still like stickers? Do you like the paper planes better? What makes you most excited to open the letters?)
  4. Which letter is your favorite, and why?
  5. What size clothes do you wear?
  6. Exactly how tall are you?
  7. What is your shoe size?
  8. What is your home like?
  9. What does an average day for you look like?
  10. What is the hardest part of your day?
  11. How many kids in your project get regular letters from their sponsors?
  12. Do any of your friends/siblings not get letters?
  13. How old is your Compassion Project?
  14. How long have your tutors been working with Compassion?

Things I wish I had asked for Emily specifically:

  1. What is your favorite part of the Compassion Program?
  2. What kind of lessons does your mother teach for Sunday School? Does she have a favorite lesson?
  3. Has your father found stable work? Did he get his teach accreditation?
  4. Does your mother still work with Compassion at the Project? What does she do there?

Things I wish I had asked for Josué specifically:

  1. How did you get started with your baseball team?
  2. Tell me more about the service projects you and your friends do for your neighborhood.
  3. Who is your best friend, what do you like most about them?
  4. Of all of your baked goods, what have you been most proud to make?

What would you ask your sponsored child, if you could ask them anything?

One More Day

OneDayEcuador2015

I have one day until I get on a plane and fly back to South America. One day. Less than 24 hours until I’m in Miami with my dear friend Deb, and we’re meeting with the rest of the group. This is so surreal. The last trip still feels like a fantastic dream – it’s so out of the ordinary that I cannot believe it actually happened…. and is happening again. One day. One day until I see the beautiful mountains, taste the fresh fruit, and begin the process of having my heart ripped wide open. One day until the poverty and the joy mix in such a profound manner that you can’t help but feel God around you. One day until I meet other sponsors who pour love into words and mail them to far off places, praying simple letters and mere dollars change the lives of children and families around the world. One day until I haul near-overweight luggage 2621 mile from northeastern Arkansas to Quito, Ecuador, to give gifts to my kids and the kids of several other sponsors. Just one more day. 

And so, today as I’m wrapping up the few items left on my to-do list (i.e. homework, laundry, errands, and final bathroom/shower prep) I’m also taking some time to let it soak in – let it hit full force – this is really happening. I’m really going back. I really get to see that girl that smiles a mile-wide at mere water and the boy whose sincere love tore me in two in 2013. I get to see them, talk to them, hug them, and love them all over again. And it all starts in just one day.

Preparing for Ecuador Part 3: Sponsored Child Gifts

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a series of posts as I gear up to return to Ecuador in April. This is the third in that series.

One of the things I always wonder, and end up Googling, is what other Sponsors take to their sponsored children when they meet. So, I thought it might be fun to share a general overview of what I’m taking to Emily, Josué, and Valeria in less than 3 weeks. Fair warning, I’m probably taking too much – and this is totally the reason my bags are busting at the seams and bordering on being overweight. But hey, that’s to be expected, right?

What I’m taking to Emily (age 10):

EmilyGifts2015Highlights include: lots of clothes (several complete outfits, swimsuit, swim shorts, terrycloth coverup, socks, and underwear), hair bows/ties/bands, school supplies (backpack, colored pencils, markers, highlighters, crayons, sketchpad, binder, ruler, & pencil sharpener), “Guess How Much I Love You” in Spanish, flip flops, doll, filtered water bottle, Bible, duffel bag, washcloths, shower gel, shampoo, loofa, digital camera, makeup/pencil bags for mom & sisters, and quilt.

What I’m taking to Josué (age 16): 

JosueGifts2015

Highlights: clothes (red hoodie, swim shorts, tank-tops, t-shirts, light-sweaters, and gym shorts), batting gloves, school supplies (backpack, pencils, colored pencils, highlighters, markers, crayons, sketch pad, notebook, baseball themed ribbon and fabric, toothbrushes, filtered water bottle, Bible, baseball post-it notes, portable baseball bases, flip flops, quilt (unfinished), duffel bag (not pictured), “Guess How Much I Love You” in Spanish, washcloths, duct tape, makeup/pencil bags for mom & sister, and engraved baseball & bat (better photo below).
JosueBat2015

What I’m taking to Valeria (age 10): ValeriaGifts2015

Hightlights include: clothing(coat, sweatshirts, sweatpants, track suit, bathing suit, swim shorts, terrycloth coverup, tshirts, socks, and underwear), school supplies (pencils, crayons, colored pencils, binder, ruler, pencil sharpener, backpack, and water colors), toothbrushes, shampoo, shower gel, toothpaste, flip flops, digital camera, hair bows/ties/bands, duffel bag, quilt, doll, filtered water bottle, “Guess How Much I Love You” in Spanish, washcloths, and Bible.

Of course once I took these photos I found a few items that I’d inadvertently left out including the small birds my Mom cross-stitched for each of the girls, the necklaces we got for the girls, and the hand-trainers I got for Josué. My mom also cross stitched a tea towel for Valeria’s family (all not pictured).

And I think that’s everything – I’m taking several gallon-bags of gifts from other sponsors, and a few things for the child development centers. But, most of my room goes to the gifts I’m taking to my kids – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How about you, what did you take or would you take to your sponsored kid(s)?

 

 

Returning to South America

EcuadorFirstHomeVisit08I’ve got some exciting news to share with you today – it’s been semi secret for a while, if only for the fact that I haven’t shared on any of my social media outlets yet. But, as it’s fast approaching, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag.

In just under 3 months I’ll be returning to Ecuador to visit my amazing Compassion Sponsored Children, Emily & Josué.

EcuadorFunDayBus3

I cannot begin to express how anxious I am to get back to these kids – my shy little girl and my boy with a big heart.

MeetingEmily&Josue01

What’s even more special is the fact that I’m going to get to see sweet Valeria (in blue below) again – after my last trip, my Mom decided to sponsor her.

EC469Afternoon03

I am so excited! Almost from the moment I got home, I’ve been wanting to go back (I say almost because, let’s face it, nothing beats sleeping in your own bed). As the days have ticked by, the urge to go back to Ecuador have gotten stronger and stronger. The letters take on a whole new meaning when you can put a candid face with them – when you can almost hear the voices of the kids who wrote the words, when your hands remember their hands, and your heart remembers their hugs. When you can see the overflowing love and gratitude in their mother’s faces. When you remember the heart-wrenching stories, and the sheer joy of the short time you shared. Current sponsors: if you ever doubt the importance of meeting your kids, let me assure you – it’s worth it. Worth it to the kids and so worth it for your spirit.

I had actually hoped to go to Peru in the fall of 2014, but there was not a sponsor tour available that fit within my available timeframe and budget – which leads to my other bit of news:

In just under 5 months I’ll be going to Peru to meet my sweet Helen Angela.

This will be my first trip to Peru, and considering I’ve sponsored Helen Angela the longest, it is really overdue. Helen Angela will be 15 in December, so it’s a big year for her – and I am very excited to be able to visit her and share a small part of her life with her. I’m even more excited to try to get a photo of her with a smile. In all the years I’ve been her sponsor, I have yet to see the child smile. I got a hint of a smile in the last photo-update from Compassion – but it left me hungry for the real thing. She writes such happy letters, I know there’s a smile buried in there somewhere.

HelenAngela2013

Thinking about returning has me both excited and anxious. That last trip, it broke a deep part of me. There are things you experience when faced with such poverty that fundamentally change your being. Ecuador has forever altered my world-view. There is no doubt in my mind that the days I spent in the mountains of Riobamba and the the parks of Quito were some of the happiest of my life – but they were also some of the saddest. Saying bye for now to my kids was almost impossible. But also, seeing families struggle with just having enough is hard. Seeing joy in such poverty is hard, too. Genuine joy convicts the spirit – you either genuinely celebrate, or find your eyes opened to the true-faith of those who have nothing but faith. It’s not something you walk away from without scars. So, while I’m excited to go back, I know those scars will be reopened, deepened, and made raw. It will be a blessing, but it will be hard.

There’s a Fray song that I love (well actually there are several – I’m a huge Fray fan – but I digress) – it fits perfectly with how I am feeling and how I am processing the days leading up to these trips:

Happiness feels a lot like sorrow; Let it be, you can’t make it come or go … Happiness damn near destroys you, breaks your faith to pieces on the floor. So you tell yourself that’s enough for now, Happiness has a violent roar.

 

25 Easy & Fun “Extras” to Include in your Compassion Letters

******EDIT: Please note that this post pre-dates Compassion’s New Writing Guidelines that go into effect on April 11, 2016. You can read about the new guidelines here.************
25extrasPinterest

As you know, I’m a passionate Compassion International Child Advocate with three sponsored children in South America. As a sponsor, I give $38 per child per month to provide for their education, health, and Christian studies. More important that the financial contribution, however, are the letters I send. The words of encouragement and love mailed half-way across world to children in desperate need of validation. Words that serve as hugs on difficult days and offer glimpses into the life of someone who cares. By far, the letters matter more than the money.

Over my 8 years as a Compassion Sponsor, I’ve picked up a few tips for letter-writing, and now as an Advocate, I am called to support current sponsors and encourage them to make letter-writing an integral part of their sponsorship experience. In doing so, I thought it might be fun to share a few examples of the many “goodies” sponsors can send along with letters. Please note, Compassion restricts “goodies” to: small paper-based items no larger than 8-1/2″ x 11″ and cannot be more than 1/4″ thick. Also, it is a good practice to label all pieces with your sponsor number and the child’s number.

And so, here are 25 Fun Extras to Include in Your Compassion Letters:

  1. Bible Coloring Pages (include 2 – you color one and let your sponsor child color one)
  2. Extreme Dot-to-Dot (great for older sponsored kids)
  3. Bright Pocket Folders (no brads – these are slightly larger than the 8 1/2″ x 11″, but I’ve never had a problem with them going through)
  4. Sticker Sheets
  5. Sticker Dress-up Dolls
  6. Holiday Cards
  7. “Thinking of You” Cards
  8. Letter Templates
  9. Paper Origami Sheets with picture instructions
  10. Color by Number Pages
  11. Watercolor Pages
  12. Hidden Picture Posters
  13. Temporary Tattoos
  14. Card-stock Dollhouses (Found at Dollar Tree)
  15. Travel Postcards
  16. Photos of You
  17. Photos of You when you were your sponsored child’s age
  18. Photos of your sponsored child (They may not have one)
  19. Travel Postcards
  20. Decorative Post-it Notes
  21. Certificates of Achievement
  22. Decorative Band-aids
  23. Paper cut-outs for bulletin boards (stars in above photo)
  24. Small, thin story books
  25. Lacing Cards

For an ever-evolving list of “goodies” to send to Sponsored Children, be sure to follow my Pinterest Board.

 

Ecuador: Fun Day

Today, after a long break from this space (my deepest apologizes, dear readers) I’m continuing my series of posts relating to my recent trip to Ecuador. For previous posts, click here.

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After our hour-long bus ride, we arrived at a water/play park. Since it was Saturday, the park was open to the public, but Compassion had reserved a special area of covered picnic tables just for our large group – we even had our own swimming pool. EcuadorFunDay01Before I left home, I scoped out the end-of-season sales for swim/summer wear. I was fortunate enough to catch an amazing sale on swim suits, flip-flops, and summer dresses. EcuadorFunDay02Clearly, it was a bit dicy as to what sizes Emily and Josué wore. My thought process was buy bigger than you think – they can grow in to it. And, for the most part, that totally worked. (Emily got some shoes that were way too big, though. But, I’m sure there is someone in the family that can use them.)

EcuadorFunDay07I was more worried about the clothing size for Josué – he’s so tall! But, I stuck to shorts and t-shirts, and overall the sizes were perfect. The kids loved their new swim suits, and the water park in general. I was determined to have a day of “yes” not a day of “no” – so yes, I did go down the water slide. Yes, we can have ice cream. Yes, we can play baseball. Yes. Yes. Yes! And you know what, I have no regrets. We started the day in the pools, moved to the picnic area for a game of catch, and then went off on our own for the “gift” time. 

EcuadorFunDay08

Knowing that Josué is an award winning baseball pitcher, I wanted to buy him a new baseball glove – but I wasn’t sure if he was right or left handed…. so I took one of each. Turns out, he’s right handed; but there’s a boy on his team who is left-handed (so I had Josué take him the extra glove). You would have thought that I had given him a brick of solid gold. He was ecstatic.
EcuadorFunDay09I also took each of them (including the moms/tutors) an age-appropriate Spanish Bible – which they all loved. At the end of our time together, I wrote a quick note to each person in their Bible and my translator was kind enough to read what I had written in Spanish.

EcuadorFunDay11For Emily, I searched high and low for a Hispanic Doll. It was really important to me that she had a doll that looked like her, not a white doll with blonde hair and blue eyes. I ended up finding a Hearts for Hearts Doll at Target. I was also super happy to learn that when you buy a doll, a dollar of the purchase price is donated to programs that support children in that doll’s region.

Emily adored her doll, and I have a ton of great photos of her hugging the doll, smiling, and playing.

EcuadorFunDay10I also took Emily one of my #26quilts. For more on her quilt, and her reaction to it, click here.

EcuadorFunDay12Emily and her family we so, so, so thankful for the gifts. They overwhelmed me with their gratitude; and I was so, so thankful for the precious moments I got to spend with them. 

EcuadorFunDay13Josué, after seeing Emily pull out her quilt, dove in to his gifts to find his right off the bat. His face light up the moment he found it, and even more so, the moment he found his name. 

EcuadorFunDay14For more about Josué’s quilt, and his reaction, click here.

EcuadorFunDay15A few of the other items I took both of my kids include: Project Life photo albums from my stash, school supplies (pencils, markers, notebooks, folders, pencil sharpeners, colored pencils, crayons, and glue), clothing (shorts/dresses, shirts, swim wear), toothbrushes (for the entire family), family-sized toothpaste, Bibles, small toys (tops, kaleidoscopes), Filtered Water Bottles, hair supplies (bows, ties, combs, brushes, headbands), hand towels, kitchen items (pot holders, wooden spoons, oven mits), and a nice backpack.

EcuadorFunDay16Toward the end of our time together, the group of us headed over to the ice-cream shop in the park and enjoyed a nice treat. It was a wonderful time to fellowship and ask any final questions. Some of my favorite photos come from this easy time. 

EcuadorFunDay17The smiles, the familiarity, it still overwhelms me.

EcuadorFunDay18The very last part of the day was spent taking a huge group photo. It was during this time that Josué, my wonderful boy who fully understood what this day was, broke my heart.

EcuadorFunDay19This 15-year old boy sat with his hand in mine, his head on my shoulder, for the entire photo time. Neither of us wanted the moment to end. All to soon the “goodbye” was creeping up on us, and we would have to part ways.

EcuadorFunDay20And, without a doubt, that “bye for now” never “goodbye” was the absolute hardest part of the entire trip. 

EcuadorFunDay22You’ve opened your heart to these precious kids and their families. You’ve learned so much about them – put a voice with a photo, felt their hugs, danced with them, loved them, and now – all of a sudden – you have to say bye. And you don’t know when or if you’ll ever see them again. And your heart can hardly take it.

EcuadorFunDay21Especially when the kids understand the gravity of it, too. That’s so much harder – you both realize that this might be a once in a lifetime thing and how do you end that? How do you just walk away? – You cry. You ugly cry. You sob the whole way to the bus. You don’t look back – because if you do, you’ll never leave – you’ll lose your nerve. Some do lose their nerve, some have to be escorted from their kids by the tour leaders. Every sponsor cries. You hug everyone. You sit quietly as the bus drives back to the hotel. You gather with other sponsors in impromptu therapy sessions. You share the stories you just learned, you process what you’ve been able to do, and you cry some more. You write your kids – tell them how happy those few moments with them made you – how you already miss them – how you now long to see them again one day. 

EcuadorFunDay23And this, this right here is the entire reason I flew to another continent by myself. For this connection. For this heartbreak. For this relationship. This is everything. 

Want to sponsor your own Emily or Josué? I urge you to check out Compassion International and change the life of a child forever.