I started working for Food for the Hungry (FH) over two decades ago, believing myriad myths about child sponsorship. Within a few short weeks of joining the staff in Bolivia 1995, most of those myths were busted.
Below are some myths that I believed at the start, while some of these come from the phone calls and emails that we’ve received from sponsors lately.
Myth #1: The children whose pictures you see aren’t really part of the program.
I’ve spent many hours with staff checking that children available for sponsorship, were really still in the community. We partner with teachers and school administrators to certify that the children are around. And our staff members are assigned to regular home visits to verify that the families still live in the community. I’ve seen our staff express concern when they have not seen a child recently. Remember, even if the child doesn’t yet have a sponsor, they’re still fully part of our program activities. Our staff have God’s heart for that one lost sheep, and become dedicated detectives in the neighborhood, to locate a child. I’ve watched staff literally go door-to-door, asking neighbors if they’ve seen a child lately or know where the family is.
Myth #2: FH offers the same child to several different sponsors.
When I started with FH in the mid-1990s, our Bolivian office received periodic floppy disks from Phoenix via DHL (since there was no internet transmission possible). We used that data to create reports to make sure we had just one sponsor per child. We then sent the updates to our fields….by bus. Which meant, I often had to go to the bus station, and buy a ticket for the packet, so to speak. The packet with the sponsor names traveled to the different towns where we ran programs in the belly of the bus, to be picked up on the other end by local field staff. Reports on new children, children who’d left the community, and letters between sponsors and children traveled back to me the same way.
In short: We cared deeply that we kept our word, to maintain that one-to-one relationships between child and sponsor. It took a lot of time, effort, and prayers against blown bus tires on bad Andean roads to make it happen. While we now have a shared Internet data base that makes life easier, we’re no less dedicated to keeping accurate records about the relationships between you and your one-and-only sponsored child.
Myth # 3: Sponsorship is about providing food to children, with my monthly donation.
FH’s name, “Food for the Hungry,” refers to both physical and spiritual hungers. In reality it’s unusual for FH to provide food distributions to sponsored children. We only do that in dire circumstances (for example, the death of a parent, or an ongoing severe drought in the community). What your support does provide is a solid financial base all of the programs, projects, and staff needed to lift a community out of poverty.
Myth #3: FH runs schools for sponsored children
One thing I learned quickly, when I started working for FH, was that ending poverty takes time. Often, the primary reason there was no school was because the community lacked teachers. Buildings can be built in a snap, but if there is no one to teach, classrooms are useless. So instead of importing foreign teachers and starting its own school, FH worked with community leaders and government teacher’s colleges to start a flow of qualified teachers.
We do sometimes build schools and dormitories for teachers (who often come from outside of the community). But we do it alongside the community, so they have ownership of the process. It’s not FH’s school, it’s theirs. It’s a longer road than simply opening a school with FH’s name on it, and importing a raft of foreigners to teach. But helping the community run its own government-approved school cements a long-term solution, and prevents problems like certification issues that can block students from accessing higher education.
Myth #4: The children always look so sad. These people must be sad all the time because they’re poor.
Our children, in general, love to laugh and play. We have over a hundred thousand sponsored children, and for each one, the story of their picture-day is unique. And the photos are a history of their learning to trust our committed field staff.
I remember my first sponsored child from Bangladesh, a girl about 13 years old. In her photo, she wore a formal traditional dance costume, including a large ornate headdress. And instead of a smile, she wore a slight scowl — nothing menacing, but she seemed annoyed.
In the next photo I received, the girl wore a simple school uniform. She smiled broadly and her eyes sparkled. Several years later, I visited our program in Bangladesh and related her transformation to our staff. They laughed when I told them about the first photo. “Those headdresses are extremely uncomfortable,” a female colleague told me. “They give you a terrible headache. She probably just didn’t feel good!”
Some of our children may be hungry, or feeling sick on registration day when we take their photo. Some are very young kindergarteners on their first day of school. Others have been commanded repeatedly NOT to smile for photos, because they only photo they’ve ever taken is for a government ID. It’s hard to retrain them immediately, that we want smiles. Our staff try hard, speaking softly to frightened children, using toys to get them to smile just like photographers here. In time, as our relationship develops with children over the years, their true personality comes out.
Myth #5: FH staff evangelize the children
This is a trick myth. It’s true on some levels, but too simplistic.
FH works hard to grow relationships to Jesus Christ. Our staff members are indeed committed to embodying Christ in word and deed to the children. But we rely most on local churches, pastors, and church leaders. In fact, we let them take the lead. And while we focus on the children, we know that it’s important for the whole household to hear the Gospel, not just the children. I’ve prayed with many tearful mothers and fathers, thanking me over and over that FH staff helped lead them to Christ.
So it’s a team effort. Our after-school programs will include an evangelistic component. We often help the communities arrange long-term relationships with national seminaries, sending out evangelists, church planters and pastors from their own culture. We’ll help local churches learn how to run Sunday school or children’s evangelism programs. Or it may be as simple as offering a seat to a church worker in one of our vehicles, alongside staff traveling to a far-flung community for our daily work.
Myth #6 (Bonus): The Biggest Sponsorship Myth of All
The bonus myth is the one that you can’t end poverty unless you live overseas or have a lot of money. The truth is that for the cost of a couple of fancy cups of coffee each month, you can make a tremendous impact. Sponsoring a child through Food for the Hungry truly changes lives.