I celebrated 25 years with Food for the Hungry (FH) in August, and after all these years, I must recognize how the concept of a sponsor letter played in my wonderful journey. We think of how sponsorship letters impact the children who receive them, but their impact has been so much greater for me!
When I moved to Bolivia in the 90’s, I was a mid-career university administrator hungry to change the world, and change it in a Biblical way. On paper I had good work experience. But I was struggling with the basics in this new culture. And I needed a simple task where I could practice my Spanish when I wasn’t in language school.
So wise colleagues assigned me to a job that fit my experience — translating sponsor letters. And that grew not only my Spanish abilities but also my love for Bolivian children.
How Sponsor Letters Get There
We’d receive sponsor letters from the US in the city of La Paz, the FH Bolivia headquarters, via international courier service. We’d get them monthly, and I shared a desk with a colleague who was a native Spanish speaker who did most of the English-to-Spanish translation. Meanwhile, I did the little jobs needed to make sure the letters went to the right communities.
Nearly all FH front-line offices serve multiple locations scattered around the country. Making sure the physical letter gets to the right community is a huge job, but a task FH had already perfected. My colleagues in the US arranged the letters just so, grouped by community, ordered by the child ID number. We’d translate the letters then bundle them to be sent to five separate regional offices by car or by bus. I did have the task on some days of delivering the letters in big bundles to the bus station, where they’d travel over winding Andean mountain roads to their destinations. Some of the areas were as much as 12-14 hours away by bus.
A Sponsor Letters as Cultural Training
Of course we had letters coming the reverse direction! And I started learning how to translate from Spanish to the US audience. Most letters were mundane and polite, but we rejoiced in those simple notes. They talked about their pets and after-school chores. They talked about what they liked about school, and their brothers and sisters (hermanos) and grandparents (abuelos). The children often came from families where they were the first in the family to read and write. Every written letter was a victory over hopelessness.
And because we knew how each letter was precious, we took great time to translate accurately. One issue that took an entire afternoon involved a child who really opened up about his likes and dislikes. This is another beautiful thing that happens. With time, sponsor letters show that children develop relationships and really want to be known, and to know their sponsors. “Te quiero escubidu,” read the letter. I stewed…”I like….escubidu?” That last word was a complete mystery. No luck in the huge black dictionary on my desk. There wasn’t anyone in the office to ask. And this was pre-Google Translate.
I prayed over that letter. Finally I started just repeating the word “escubidu,” putting the emphasis on different syllables. I closed my eyes as I chanted “escubidu, escubidu” over and over. And finally it came to me…he liked to watch Scooby-Doo! cartoons on TV.
The final leg of the journey
Later, as I moved into a leadership role in the the department, I accompanied front-line staff members to homes where they delivered the letters to children. In some cases they hand carried the letters to the home because they couldn’t find the child in school or in after-school programs. The sponsorship letter went along on the staff member’s quest to find the one lost sheep of the 99. And in addition to delivering (and often reading aloud) the sponsor letter, the staff member quietly assessed the home situation. Is mom doing OK or does she seem stressed? Is there evidence of malnourishment? Is the house being kept clean and healthy?
I also witnessed children writing letters to sponsors, either at home or at school. Sometimes there’s a letter-writing party at an event, like when the children write their sponsors on cards. The letters you get as a sponsor may have written during a noisy, joyful party. Along with the partiers you’ll see those kids gripping the pencil hard, really concentrating, really wanting this letter to be special. Their letter is a little work of art. Their letter is a labor of love to the sponsor.
Enriched by sponsorship letters
Later, when I came back to the US and continued working with FH, I became a sponsor to children in Bangladesh and Mozambique. I specifically asked for children who had remained unsponsored for a long time. All of my sponsored children are teenaged girls who face the pressure of early marriage and early pregnancy, ending their schooling far too early.
The letters I received have so enriched my life. Letters that went over land and sea, by bus and by motorcycle, by plane and by mail carrier, made my days. I cried when my sponsored child from Bangladesh told me she had been praying for my father to recover from pneumonia. I cried again when my 14-year-old Mozambican sponsored child wrote her first letter in her own hand. She’d started school very late, because her family didn’t have the resources to send her to class. Due to sponsorship, she now reads and writes.
We talk about the sponsor letter journey on terms of traveling from your kitchen table to a child in a faraway land, but in reality, the sponsor letter journey starts and stops at the heart — yours and the sponsored child’s.
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