I was anxious to meet Kenny. I have only been his sponsor since May, but since seeing his picture I felt a strong responsibility and affection for him. We’ve exchanged a few letters and I sent him some photos I took in the Galápagos, but for the most part my sponsorship had been a payment and a subtle assurance of my own charity. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. Would we be able to communicate? What would we talk about? Would he feel indebted to me? I only hoped we could be more like friends and that my support would not be a barrier of obligation.
The Children International truck picked us up right from our hotel and brought us to their education center for the kids in Kenny’s area. Along the way Anita, the CI representative, curtly filled me in on the rules of the visit (no hand-holding, sitting on laps, unsupervised visits) and reviewed my gifts. She approved of my soccer ball and colored pencils and proceeded to tell us all about the organization. For those who’ve ever doubted any of those organizations in which you think one penny ends up actually getting to the kids, pay attention to this part.
The Guayaquil branch of Children International works with 35,000 sponsored kids in seven areas of the city. They support several thousand more who are waiting for their own sponsors. The 85 employees of Guayaquil CI plan extra-curricular activities (a man showed us pictures of dances, plays, soccer matches, and even air-brush graphic art), year long classes, leadership groups and health studies. Touring the office later in the day we saw how hard everyone worked. The office looked like a movie set for a futuristic company motif in which the main character is overwhelmed at how efficient and work-oriented everyone is. Tacking typers stopped in unison to look up and greet us – momentarily – before recommencing their organizing, filing, and do-gooding. Each department head courteously gave us a succinct description of their task and patiently asked if we had any questions. A doctor told us general trends of malnutrition and their vitamin regiment. A teacher told us all of the curriculum, from children with mild dyslexia, having difficulty differentiation “l’s” and “r’s,” to the scholarship opportunities for the top students. All of these benefits are passed to the kids through the seven neighborhood centers; we were heading to Area 2, where Kenny was in computer class.
Kenny only has computer class on Fridays. The rest of the week he’s in his normal, public school, but his time at the CI center augments his education and provides them the opportunity for his checkups and responsibility corresponding with me. Not wanting to interrupt his class, we peeked around the CI center. Nurses welcomed us in a room full of files, a volunteer chef showed us the week’s menu, and we walked in on a doctor and dentist (both employed by the center full-time) administering to patients. The dentist stopped what she was doing to greet us and explain her work but we smiled and backed out as I’m sure her patient wanted to close his mouth soon! When I started my sponsorship, I knew that CI ensured the children go to school and get basic medical benefits, but actually seeing the facilities and the extent of care was inspiring. And all for 73 cents a day.
As we enter the kindergarten classroom I can hear the computer class next door. My excitement surges. I’m about to meet Kenny! I am giving him access to all of this and I am about see that he’s real too. As we enter the room I feel like I’m going on stage. I walk into a computer lab and thirty little faces turn to mine. I scan the room, smiling. Anita is introducing us, but she sounds far away, like I’m underwater; I take a deep breath of the view, scanning…And there he is! In the corner, the desk farthest away from me. He is smaller than the others. Our eyes meet and he is smiling too. They announce I’m his sponsor and all the faces rotate away from mine and point at him. Whispering and giggling, the other kids’ attention make Kenny look down and away, excitedly embarrassed. I feel like I’m in his shoes as well; when I was in elementary school, my mom would come into my class on the way home from her night shift and give me a big kiss. It’s a little embarrassing to receive a public show love and care.
Kenny comes with us to his family outside the classroom. His small frame, wide mouth, and slightly bulging eyes don’t hide a childhood of empty plates, but he looks just like his picture, and that’s all I care about! I shake his hand to give him the respect any eleven-year-old deserves but I want to squeeze him too hard. His family bares the same signs of burden. His mother Yvette has only a few teeth and looks much to old for how small her children are. She grins, delicately, graciously shaking my hand. Kenny’s sister’s name I can’t really remember or say correctly. But that’s because they introduce her to me as “Kelly” and Kenny tells me we have sisters with the same name. I think hers is Milena, and she’s tiny, adorable, and never stopped smiling. Today Yvette is caring for Kenny’s cousin, Carlito, so he comes with us everywhere we go as well. Shay took a picture of the family, and then one with me with the group. I am a giant! Even crouching I look like a bear interrupting a family picnic.We all pile into the CI truck and head to Kenny’s house. Yvette gives me a picture of Kenny at his first birthday party and another of him holding the Ecuadorian flag at an awards ceremony – he is in the top ten students of his class. I don’t need to give Kenny his gift. After spotting it in the truck he cuddles his soccer ball protectively and adds the photos to an album he made out of others I had sent in a letter before.
Kenny’s house is a one-room cement block with a sewage moat. They have no floor. The four of them share two twin beds. The metal appliances are rusted. On the red brick wall is a shelf with all sorts of stuffed animals. On the gray brick wall a few drawings of the family hand on a thread. We sit on the bed and Yvette shows me some photo albums. It’s seems that she once lived a more comfortable life. Kenny used to have a little curly afro.
We plan to take the kids to the Aquarium we saw yesterday in the Malecón area and then to an IMAX. On the drive I ask Kenny abit about him that I learned from his letters. He likes chess and math and of course he plays soccer. He quizzes Carlito and Kelly on numbers he sees and then the three of them talk about scenes in movies they’ve seen in an unihibited children’s way.At the Aquarium the kids instantly start running around the boardwalk. Inside I tell them the types of fish I’ve seen diving and let them take pictures with my camera. In a world where you can create a connection with an unknown child 7,000 miles from home, I ran into a woman from Vida, OR, a three hour raft ride upriver from where I grew up, who has moved down to Guyaquil with her family to start a mission. Since there aren’t any IMAX movies we go to the mall to see that Guardians owl movie in 3D. Kenny continuously tests his boundaries, running ahead just to the limit of Yvette’s admonishments and skipping on the tiles, avoiding all the white ones. I join him and feel like a kid too. His excitement and curiosity are infectious. Right after I feel like a parent ordering the movie tickets for everybody; it was expensive and I know the kids have no clue what kind of work it took to make the money and they don’t even seem that appreciated – they’re more interested in the popcorn they reminded me usually goes with the movies. But none of that matters because I know how happy they are.
After the movie and their food court choice of Pizza Hut, I struggle to come up with a conversation with Kenny. Christmas is his favorite holiday, he liked the movie, and he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. Living so poor, I’m sure he’s more of a one-day-at-a-time kind of kid, and I’ll have years of letters to learn these developments as they come. I leave Kenny after watching him and Kelly draw with the colored pencils I gave him, secretly hoping Kelly would draw a little stick figure of me too. She showed me each family member as she drew along, and even after such a short time together I feel I have made a lasting connection that will permanently energize my responsibility in watching Kenny grow up healthier and happier.