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November 05, 2008

Have you ever looked through the photos of children at Compassion’s site or at a table at a concert and wondered why sometimes five or six girls are wearing the same dress? It’s not a school uniform and is not a particularly nice dress, so why are several of the girls wearing it? Today I found out why. With tears of shame, even fifteen years later, Julia (pronounced “HOO-lia) sobbed her story. She had been born in such poverty that when, at age five, Compassion had taken her photograph in the hopes that they would be able to find a sponsor for her, she had no clothes she could wear in that photograph. And so she huddled in a bathroom naked with eight other girls while they waited their turn in the dress. One by one they put it on, faced the camera, and then took it off and returned to their tattered clothes. Today Julia, vivacious and hilarious, broke down as she remembered the shame of poverty. Today Julia, a university student and participant in Compassion’s Leadership Development Program, helped showed me how Compassion defines success.

Compassion’s child development model has three core programs. We saw the first of these on Monday in the Child Survival Program which helps children from before their birth up through their third birthday. We saw the second of these on Tuesday in the Child Sponsorship Program. This is the program Compassion is best known for as it connects one sponsor with one child. Today, Wednesday, we saw the third one of these in the Leadership Development Program. This is the program that accepts graduates from Child Sponsorship who display exceptional leadership potential. These young people receive a university education and leadership training that helps them become leaders within their church and within their communities. And so, in these three days, we’ve seen the broad sweep of what Compassion does and how it works with children from before they are born all the way through their university graduation. It takes children who would otherwise have very little opportunity and sets them up as future leaders. It ends the cycle of poverty by equipping children to be productive members of society.

Our day began with a visit to another one of Compassion’s Santo Domingo projects. Here we were greeted as we have been greeted each day—with a program of music, prayer and Scripture. It seems clear by now that music is an integral part of Dominican Christianity. Most of the songs seem to be simple but to contain great truths; most are accompanied by loud clapping and joyful praise. We accepted an invitation to the project’s office and here we were shown the project’s records—ledgers, records of attendance, and so on—everything they could do to give us confidence that they are faithful stewards of the gifts God has given them. I paged through the ledger for some time, doing currency conversions in my head and expressing amazement that they can do so much with so little. We visited some of the classrooms, slipping in and sitting down among the children (and in my case even being expected to participate in a lesson on the Good Shepherd).

But the day’s main attraction was meeting two of the students of this project who are currently part of the Leadership Development Program—Julia and Mariolvis. Both girls had grown up in the neighborhood and both attended the church associated with the project. Both had been sponsored from a young age. Each of them shared her story, telling of fathers and siblings who had died, of extreme poverty, but of the joys of attending the project and of graduating to the Leadership Development Program. We toured both of their homes—homes that in any context but what we saw yesterday would have been shocking—meeting their mothers and their siblings, admiring their academic accomplishments and expressing joy at their graduation photographs.

Someone asked the questions that always arise: “Did you have a sponsor?” “What were their names?” “Did they send you letters?” In both cases today, the girls were sponsored, knew the names of their sponsors and told of the letters, cards and gifts they had received. Mariolvis, was asked what it meant to her to be part of the Leadership Development Program. With joy she said it meant the world to her, but it was her next words which grabbed me. “The Lord was hiding that gift from me,” she said. It was a gift God held back until the proper time. God has blessed her so richly, calling her out of the hopeless life awaiting her and freeing her from the cycle of poverty. Now Mariolvis is studying marketing at a local university and is actively involved in evangelism there. She thanks God for Compassion, aware of the life-changing impact it has had on her. She thanks God for his hidden gift to her.

And this must be the question Compassion has to answer all the time. What happens when sponsorship ends? What happens when a child gets too old to be sponsored? What does success look like to Compassion? From what I learned today, I’d say that it looks like this.


Here are some more photos from today:

November 04, 2008

(When you’re finished here, please visit my son Nick’s blog at challiesjr.com.)

I must have met 100 children today; 200 maybe. I had children touching my skin, poking my nose, grabbing my ears, hanging off my back, arms and shoulders, poking their hands into my pockets and asking, always asking, to have their photo taken. I shot photo after photo of children posing for the camera, smiling and giving a thumbs up or “rabbit ears.” I’d show them their photo on the little screen on my camera and they’d laugh and point and run to fetch their friends. It’s a trick that didn’t ever seem to get old. We were in this small batey to see Compassion’s largest program—the Child Sponsorship Program.

As we did yesterday, we did two home visits today. We dropped into the homes of some of the children who are sponsored by Compassion International. Here we saw abject poverty—a different kind of poverty than we saw the day before. A shocking, terrible, unjust kind of poverty.

We arrived just after nine at a batey well outside the city limits of Santo Domingo. A batey is a plantation and in this case a sugar plantation. The people living there are perhaps not quite slaves but neither are they free. While I was not able to figure out the exact circumstances in this particular batey, a typical story goes like this. A man is wooed from Haiti and convinced to move to Dominican Republic where he will work at a plantation and improve his lot in life. The situation in Haiti is so desperate that many are unable to resist. But when they and their families arrive, they find that they’ve been lied to. They have revoked their Haitian citizenship and are unable to qualify for Dominican citizenship. As non-citizens, they have no real rights. And so they find themselves working at bateys, living nearly as slaves. Their wages are very low. They are forced to buy everything they need from company-owned stores that charge exorbitant rates. Soon they are in debt, unable to leave but unable to make a living by staying. They may live out their lives in this state of constant injustice. And all the while they are employed (or is it owned?) by American-owned companies—maybe the company which sold you your last bag of sugar.

The homes are tiny and dirty and decrepit. Many are falling apart but the company refuses to fix them. When asked about this, I heard one woman say, “Promisa, promisa, promisa.” The corporation promises, but never delivers; the poverty continues. In the first home we met an old grandmother who had ten children of her own and who had taken in several of her grandchildren after their mother had died. In the second home we met a mother and grandmother and watched their boys play together with my Nick. In both cases, these families had a child sponsored by one of our group. The second grandmother, who looked impossibly young to be a grandma, was asked about her hopes and dreams for the future and she had little to say. She had dreamed of being a doctor or a psychologist in her younger days, but her hopes had been shattered. Now she lives on this squalid batey. I don’t think she dares hope any longer.

Yesterday I said that Compassion is in the business of stories—of writing stories through the lives of children. But today I saw that they are also in the business of giving hope. By meeting the needs of these children they are offering hope. In the midst of this sad little batey in a small and overlooked corner of the Dominican Republic I saw hope. I saw a school teaching children to read and write and to think bigger than the life they’ve always known. I saw children whose physical needs were being met, who were being told of a God who loves them, who were being educated and who are being given the skills they’ll need to make a real living. In the midst of dirt tracks running with refuse, in the midst of trash being picked through by mangy dogs, in the midst of such poverty; in the midst of all of this, I saw hope. If you look at these photos, maybe you can see it too (RSS subscribers will need to click through to see the slideshow):

November 03, 2008

This afternoon we toured through Compassion International’s Dominican office. There we saw the men and women who create the programs, who choose which children will be selected for sponsorship, who translate letters from sponsors to children and children to sponsors, and who manage the finances that make possible all that they do. At one point one of our group asked about adhering to the rules Compassion lays out, and especially the rule that only a certain number of children per family can receive sponsorship. Here the man who was charged with selecting children paused and, while acknowledging the value of the rule, said, “not all is paper.” And how right he is. We sometimes reduce complex matters and difficult situations to trite words and phrases. Sometimes things that seem so clear and so simple on paper are far more difficult and intricate when viewed up close and personal. Not all is paper. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned already in my short time in Dominican.

Our first full day in the Dominican Republic began early. Shortly after 8 o’clock we were on the bus and heading to one of Compassion’s local Child Survival Programs. As you may know, Compassion works with children of all ages and offers different programs depending on how old the children are. The Child Survival Program is targeted at infants—from before they are born until they are three years of age. Compassion helps the children by helping their mothers. Today we saw the program in action as we sat in on a workshop teaching mothers about proper nutrition for their children. They worked on the very basics—the importance of breastfeeding in the first three months, how many meals a child should eat in a day and even how to deal with a child who simply does not like to eat.

This program was held in a neighborhood that in many ways defies description. The streets were dirt and, when rains pass through, mud. The buildings were ramshackle—tin roofs rusted through with holes, board walls full of gaping cracks, rough concrete floors and, in many cases, windows that were bars rather than glass. But everywhere there were children. Laughing, running, screaming, silly children.

The program takes place in a church with the pastor as a lead facilitator. As the morning Survival Program concluded, we went to the upstairs of this church, a small room that sits upon the flat roof , and met some of the mothers and their children. Nick met Sue and Lue, two beautiful little twin girls, and played with them as if they were the little sisters he has left at home. And then we went to the homes of two of these women.

Isabella’s husband was at work. He is a woodworker and, judging by the cabinetry in their home, a very talented one. Though it was in a strange location, far down a muddy path in the midst of a grove of banana trees, the home was quite sturdy. There were holes in the walls and tiny, bedraggled cats wandering through it, but the home was, well, homey. Rosalia’s home was far smaller. She shares the home, certainly not much larger than my living room, with her husband, Adolfo, and their four children (three of whom are boys and all of whom, at least as far as I could tell through our translator, are also known as Adolfo). Dad is a mechanic but, at least at the moment, an unemployed one. Rosalia attends college twice a week and is studying education. Asked what we could pray for she asked that God would provide her husband with a job and her children with opportunity. She wants them to be great men and women of God, but ones who have the privilege of an education. This, she knows, offers them the best chance of escaping the neighborhood they live in today.

We ate lunch at the church and, with the help of translators, asked the pastor about his relationship with Compassion. One member of our group asked him for some stories and he had no end of them. There are as many stories there as there are children. You could read Compassion’s web site or read the pamphlets and see that it is an organization that helps this many children in that many nations. It could so easily be reduced to numbers and statistics—words, lines and figures on pieces of paper. But Compassion does so much more than that. Today I saw so much more than statistics. There in this poor little neighborhood I saw and heard hundreds of stories. Just as the man said, not all is paper.

November 03, 2008

I’m writing this morning from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. As you know, my son and I are here with Compassion International to see how they serve God by serving this nation. From now until Thursday we will be touring the country and seeing Compassion’s work among its people. We will be busy all day and writing in the evenings, so, as a break from the usual routine around here, I’ll be posting later rather than earlier. In just a few minutes we’ll be meeting up with the rest of the team and, as I understand it, taking a look at one of Compassion’s Child Survival Programs. Stay tuned this evening and I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.

November 02, 2008

Early this morning (really early this morning), my son Nicholas and I are heading to Pearson International Airport and, from there, to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (after layovers in Chicago and Miami). We will be traveling with Compassion International, a child sponsorship organization that ministers to over 40,000 Dominican children. Along with a few other bloggers, we have been invited to see how Compassion serves these children; we’re allowed to open any file cabinet and look behind any door (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Here are just a few applicable facts about the nation:

  • One-third of Dominican children never complete their elementary school education.
  • About 42 percent of Dominicans are considered poor, and 16 percent of those live in extreme poverty.
  • Ravaged by several recent hurricanes, the damage is severely hurting the country’s many poor families.

I will be blogging about all we see, do and experience; I’m hoping to share the journey in Web 2.0 fashion—via text, pictures and maybe even some video. Nick will be blogging from an 8-year old’s perspective at ChalliesJr.com. I’d encourage you to let kids know about his blog so they can experience it vicariously through him.

Here is the motley collection of bloggers that will be traveling with us:

Melanie from TheBigMamaBlog.com.

Mary from OwlHaven.net.

Marlboro Man (and his two daughters) from ThePioneerWoman.com.

Jennifer from 5MinutesForMom.com.

Brian Seay and Shaun Groves will co-lead the trip on behalf of Compassion International.

And here is what Compassion says about this trip: “Known for its resort-speckled beaches, there’s another side to this Caribbean nation unknown to most vacationers. Our bloggers will visit a city dump where families scavenge for food and clothing. They’ll tour a neighborhood where drugs are trafficked and children live beside open sewers. And bloggers will also see firsthand how Compassion International and child sponsors are bringing hope to children living in these places by releasing them from poverty in Jesus’ name.”

While we make our way 1800 miles south to Santo Domingo, I’d ask you to do two things. First, pray for us (all of us!). Pray for health and safety for both us and for our families and pray that this experience would be used by God to change us in whatever way he sees fit. And then I’d ask that you keep visiting and that you tell others about this trip (which, if you’re a blogger, may involve dropping a link to our sites). I’ll be in touch as soon as I get settled and find an internet connection.

October 11, 2008

Here is the liveblog from the last of the True Woman sessions.

Immediately after this wrapped up, I hopped a cab and went to the airport. There were several hours before my flight, but I thought I’d find a place to hole up and get some work done. Well…it turns out there was an earlier flight as well and I just had time to get to it. So it worked out well and I got home at least three hours earlier than I had expected. What a blessing…

October 10, 2008

We’re going to keep with the CoverItLive format for this evening’s sessions. Feel free to read along and join in the fun, beginning at 6:30 PM CST.

October 10, 2008

This morning, just for one session, I’m going to try something different. This is a piece of software called CoverItLive and its made specifically for live-blogging. I thought I’d give it a shot.