Making a real relationship with a Sponsored Child

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.

A Mad Hatter Day with Wonderful People

Santa Ana and Visquije en Medio, Ecuador

Have you ever felt like you’re being held hostage by incredibly nice people? When you’re catered to by kind folk stumbling in their generosity and you feel bad for saying no but they give to you regardless, and then your whole day’s plans are blown because a whole group wants to show you a good time and you have no way of getting on track without really disrupting the group’s mood, you might be in Santa Ana, Ecuador. You might have been in a similar situation, but in my case, the wonderful people were the kind-hearted staff of the Escuela Especial Jesús de Praga, and their coup d’grace was the nearby Hydroelectric dam.

Happily ruined all my plans.

Shay and I have come to this special education school in this rural area near Portoviejo… which is to say near Manta… which is to say four hours north of Guayaquil an hour inland from the coast… in order to make a video about the work the volunteer organization Venaecuador has done in the area. If you recall, our host in Quito Mariana is the founder of the foundation, and I promised her I’d help her out with some publicity. After an absent night’s sleep on a night bus, staying half awake so as to not oversleep our stop and another half awake in the cold, windy Andes, we wait for an hour in the bus stop of the forgettable Portoviejo. A taxi driver calls our contact and a while later Aracely #1 joins us. She has short hair, a black evangelical gleam in her eyes, and has helped coordinate with Mariana’s volunteers since the beginning. (After a while we learned that she’s related to almost everyone we meet, including the family we spend the night with.) Aracely #1 lives in the bonsey town of Portoviejo with her husband; he has a dairy store and is the merchant for the country areas we were headed. Other than that, Portoviejo has a ketchup factory, a mustard factory, a mayo factory, and a chifles factory.

At one point in the groggy morning a van went careening past our bus stop, and Aracely #1 quickly makes an angry phone call. Then same van makes a return trip and we board, joining a crew of a growing number of chatting teachers. Apparently, this is the van a volunteer from South Carolina fund raised for, because in the next twenty minutes we picked up teachers and students until we were obscured under our backpacks with 17 people in a 9 person van. Arucely introduces me with importance, emphasizing, “Él es un periodista (He’s a journalist),” and we meet Aracely #2, the school director, Mercedes, who shies from my camera until she does her hair and makeup, Andrés, a slow-talking teen, and the driver Julio. Shay and I laugh to each other as everyone else seems to be chatting and laughing and happy to see each other and start another day together.

The group gives us a toast at breakfast and we eat with all the teachers while the kids do whatever it is they go off and do in the morning. Many people we meet seem skeptical when we tell them we’ll only be in town for the day, but I think it’s just a poor mask of their drop in excitement. Mariana did not tell me about this stop so I’m kinda anxious to get to the library I’m suppose to film before my meeting with the mayor who helped the foundation build it, but for starters I humor Aracely #2 and go about filming the school. A physical therapist named Mónica gives me a tour. They work with babies up to adults and account for all kids with any kind of disability they encounter. A few kids look like they have Downs Syndrome, some have debilitating physical needs, one girl is deaf, and they all were unsure about me until I smiled; then they would accept my challenge and easily win the competition.

In an interview, Arucely #2 tells me they are trying to build a bigger therapy room. In one room their “patient table” is a ping-pong table with a pad. They are counting on Venaecuador, as the gift of the van has already improved the students’ lives in the forms of increased school attendance and medical transportation. I ask Fabian what color he’ll use next, hear a clapping song, and am greeted with smiles. Shay set right into work helping a girl write her name and I was sorry to collect her and leave these great people. But we’d get our fair share later.

We made it to the along-the-only-road-that-goes-through farming village of Visquije en Medio and I got a tour of the school Mariana told me I would film. Our host Maria Cecilia showed me the new bathrooms, kitchen, and water tower the volunteers helped buy and build, and the desks and wobbly wall next on the agenda. Sooner than we thought we met up with our happy circus troupe for lunch; it was one of their birthdays and so the only male teacher repeatedly broke any instant of silence with clapping for the birthday girl. I gave them all pictures I took in the Galápagos, and I reveled in pouring as much mayo on my rice as the next Santa Añan. I got the feeling we should just go with the flow – especially after I found out that the mayor was actually in Spain, that the vice-mayor’s dad had just died, and that instead of going to work on the video I would be getting an all expenses paid (by me for the gas money) trip to the Poza Honda Hydroelectric Dam!

Working for the Forest Service this summer, I would sometimes feel bad for going too fast on roads with washboards in a Heavy Duty truck paid for by taxes. In a van donated for disabled children to get to school and to medical appointments, however, Julio bore no chagrin as we

pummeled through the earth’s crust – exposed as every road within this power grid is in the middle stage of repair. Chatting and laughing all the way, our crew endured our role-playing game of Yahtzee! until we had to stop because some hunk of metal fell off our back end. They laughed it off. If this were a cartoon, Shay and I would be sitting in a mobile, chattering henhouse as Julio, a wolf, drove us into some unforeseen danger. He seems to be a good guy, but his squinty “The Fonze” too cool look and his clattering urgency would definitely make him the wolf.

They were obviously impressed with Poza Honda. I wasn’t. It blocks the confluence of three rivers and boils turtles and fish. They were proud, though, and Shay and I feigned our being taken aback.

On the way back we stopped at a farm/resort and sat in some hammocks for a bit. Shay tried to pick an orange and ended up needing Aracely #2 to pick out some flies chimpanzee-style from her hair. I think they sensed our exhaustion, and after an unseen Scotty “holdin’ her tugether cappin’” our van dropped us off at our farmhouse, and I filmed a girl reading a book.

We certainly had a mixed reaction about the place. It wasn’t until some time to relax that we were able to accept their kindness and see the beauty of the place. Maria Cecilia’s brother, Luis, gave us a tour of the farm. Up the hill grow bamboo, papayas, bananas, coffee, cocoa, pumpkins, mangoes, oranges, and a tropical tree that grows 10m a year! The cows were in the pasture and the sun left the valley soft and green. Luis bragged about the tranquility and after a break from the day’s excitement we let it sink in. After a full, diverse meal entirely grown on the farm (rice, chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, plátanos, lemon, and cheese) and an outdoor shower under the full moon and surround sound of the forest, we were certainly appreciative.

The next day I got the shots I needed of children at the school. I interviewed another of Maria Cecilia’s brothers to fill in for the mayor. The whole time a skinny, mumbling boy was following me closely. He was blind in one eye and also had some trouble communicating, but he told me where to put my camera and to take pictures. As we walked to school he hugged me, and I put my arm around him. I told him he should be a director, and he kissed me on my chest and cheek. I couldn’t even understand him when he said his name, but I hugged him when I could. This boy – actually the same age as me – gave me a final, touching reminder to never doubt the good intentions of people with a lot of love to give.