Making the decision to sponsor a child is the easy part. Choosing which child to sponsor is significantly harder. Going through page after page of children waiting to be sponsored on Compassion UK’s site, looking at photographs and reading profiles of their background and circumstances didn’t make it any easier. Making the decision to help one single child seemed insignificant. I hadn’t yet realised the ripple effect that it would create. All I could think was, ‘How can I possibly choose just one?’
Opisia Doreen’s shy smile was the first thing that caught my eye when I first saw her photograph on the Compassion website. Her profile stated that she was eight years old and that she was being raised by her father and grandmother, both of whom worked as subsistence farmers, earning the equivalent of approximately £6 a month. There was no mention of her mother. I didn’t know anything else about her but of all the children, it was her profile that I kept going back to.
Let me take a moment to explain that in some regions the second name may be used and interchanged with the first, so I’ll be referring to her as Doreen rather than Opisia. And so, in the autumn of 2008 and just a week or so after sponsoring our first child, a little boy called Hilario in Honduras, Doreen became our second sponsored child.
The truth be told, I was a little nervous about writing my first letter to Doreen. What would I say? How would I begin? It didn’t take long to realise what a joy it was to receive letters back from our sponsor children, their latest news and updates decorated with colourful drawings. It soon became apparent that Doreen’s letters would have one recurring theme. As well as the gratitude that filled every letter came the question, ‘When will you come and see me?’
It was always a question I avoided answering.
I never made the promise that I would.
I didn’t know that I would ever be in the position where I could.
So I didn’t make a promise that I didn’t know I could keep.
And it was a conversation we never continued.
Until last year, when Doreen received the news that I would be travelling to Uganda with Compassion UK to finally see her!
Unfortunately, only two days before we were due to leave I had to cancel our long awaited trip due to my father’s deterioration with cancer. He died on the morning Cait and I would have landed in Africa. The trip was rearranged for later that year but tragedy hit our family once again, with us losing my brother to leukaemia two days before we were due to fly out. Whilst I hoped Doreen would understand the reasons why I couldn’t make it, I knew all too well that she already did. She had lost her mother – I did not know how – and her father was killed in a road accident having been hit by a bus while on his way to work just the previous year. Doreen was now being raised alone by her grandmother who was ill, having suffered heart problems for several years already. This woman was all Doreen had left.
Thankfully, our trip was rearranged for a third time and finally we were on our way to Uganda for our long awaited visit. How would we feel? How would it go? How would Doreen be? How would she feel about seeing us? What would we talk about? We had no idea what to expect at all.
It became clear as we drove onto the project grounds that our welcome was about to get very noisy indeed. Whoops, cheers, claps and screeches filled the air in an overwhelming cacophony accompanied by throngs of people pushing forward, crowding us from all directions to welcome us. To say this welcome was unexpected would be an understatement and I couldn’t keep up with everyone who wanted to hold our hands or to hug us, all shouting ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ further adding to the crazy confusion. What were they thanking us for? I certainly didn’t feel worthy of being thanked for the sake of sponsoring one child, so why were so many people – 279 children in fact – and their parents who had also been patiently waiting in the heat of the sun since morning – making so much of fuss over us? I felt grateful but also embarrassed, almost like a fraud – we really didn’t deserve this Beatle-esque welcome.
The throng of the crowd was so strong that it took a while to realise where Doreen was and so we were swept away through the project’s grounds, quite an immense area indeed that seemed to take forever and a day to walk through along with the screams and cries of ‘Muzungu! Muzungu!’ – a Bantu language term used to describe white people – of anyone trying to get our attention. Finally we reached the small building made up of one central room with a further four rooms leading from it, which housed the project’s offices.
It was here that we were welcomed by the staff and some of the volunteer’s which make the work within this community of Jinja possible. And there is work to be done here. This exceedingly poverty-stricken area is overshadowed by the sugar factory nearby. Using the impression that it is presenting opportunities to the community, the factory instead manipulates the vulnerable, imprisoning families by creating a dependency. In doing so, workers are forced to work more and more for less and less, with their increasing desperation resulting in them working for nothing or, more than that, working for a negative wage.
Project worker Dauda, the project’s Finance Director, explained how the factory is the greatest influence within the community. The already dire circumstances are exacerbated not only by its presence, but also its actions towards the local population. The project, Dauda explained, is in a critical position to help these families, offering food, education, medical care, spiritual care, hygiene education and skills training not only to the 279 children registered there but also to their parents. The support offered by the project is vital in enabling the community to become independent, to escape the factory’s clutches and the poverty it plunges them further into. It teaches parents to be better parents and allows children to be children, whilst giving them the social and vocational skills to break the cycle for their own children in the future.
Mattresses were stacked up high outside the office and in one of the rooms. Dauda explained that the project had managed to purchase a mattress for each of the children at the project. Even the 15 children that were still awaiting sponsors would be receiving one. ‘No child, even if they are waiting for a sponsor, goes without. Every child registered at the project is treated the same. At Christmas, every child receives a gift. Every child receives an education and medical care. We provide shoes for all the children. They are all treated the same, even those waiting for a sponsor.’
Because while over 80% of sponsorship money goes towards your sponsored child, the rest isn’t all spent on administrative costs but part of it goes towards helping more of the children registered that are still waiting for a sponsor of their own. This way, each project can help more of the poorest of the poor. This is just one example of the ripple effect that your sponsorship creates.
Just 15 of the 279 at this project were waiting for a sponsor that day. Here’s how to lower that number.
Dauda continued to welcome us, touching upon our own difficult year and comforting us with his words. I had no idea that this community, despite their own suffering and hardships, had been keeping us in their thoughts and prayers for almost two years it had taken for us to arrange this visit. The realisation of this, on top of the already overwhelming welcome and the first meeting with Doreen was emotional for me and I found it difficult to try to maintain my composure.
Dauda began to tell us a little more about the project itself. It began in August 2008 and, he told us, Doreen was one of the first children registered there which meant we were one of the original sponsors. I had no idea at all and, I admit, at that moment, I felt incredibly appreciative to have been there. That we were here together, Dauda, an ex-Compassion sponsored child himself, Doreen and me – all part of this project from its very beginning, was an amazing feeling and I suddenly felt a more personal connection, not just because my sponsored child attended this project but to the place itself.
‘You are a pioneer!’ Dauda told me.
Wow. What a privilege!
They brought out Doreen’s files and showed me how every letter is kept, how every medical examination is recorded and how each child is doing in every aspect of their growth, physically, educationally and characteristically.
The holistic approach and its results were in here in front of me. The last nine years of Doreen’s life were on these pages and here we were together, finally.
And all the while, Doreen thanked me.
We continued to sit around the table, joined by who we originally thought was Doreen’s grandmother, one of the main greeters who had hugged and screamed and cheered on our arrival, and inarguably the most enthusiastic of all. She sat with us as we spoke to Doreen, and it was soon explained that Fatumah was not actually Doreen’s grandmother but was there to support Doreen during our meeting, along with her daughter, Muzungu, who also attended the project. It was explained via Dauda’s translation that Fatumah had helped Doreen and her grandmother who, on finding themselves homeless and with nowhere to go last year, had offered them a home. The grandmother could not always pay the rent, Fatumah went on to explain, so she allowed them to stay there regardless. She cared for them and made sure they were well, and so, as Doreen’s grandmother had to leave for a while due to ‘family business’, Fatumah was there to look after Doreen on her behalf.
Doreen said very little in response to this, holding onto my arm as we sat and listened to the translation.
‘Where is Doreen’s grandmother?’ we asked?
‘Arua,’ we were told. It was an area in the north of Uganda, where it was believed her grandmother was originally from. Land issues, Fatumah told us.
‘When will she be back?’
Nobody knew. The staff had no idea until that moment that the grandmother would not be attending or that she had left the area on this family business.
I turned to Doreen and quietly asked her how her grandmother’s health was. For the first time her smile faded.
‘She is old.’
Fatumah excused herself to go onto the property that she rented to Doreen and her grandmother, the place that they called home that we would be going to visit in an hour or so.
The crowds had dispersed and Doreen and I closed the book. Softly spoken and constantly smiling, Doreen repeated the words, ‘Thank you. Thank you!’ as she touched my hand. I wanted to tell her it was nothing but to her, sponsorship was anything but.
As she sat with her arm linked into mine, I asked her what she thought being sponsored through Compassion had done for her.
“It has given me a bright, bright future,’ she beamed.
And with that, she took my hand as we left to visit her home.
You can give a child a bright, bright future too. Find out more about sponsoring a child through Compassion UK here.
Photo Credit: Ella Dickinson/Compassion UK