Seeing the Whole Picture: Poverty

Child sponsorship programs don’t end with one child getting food and clothing
Everyone has seen the ads with footage of sad kids in faraway countries, followed by a plea to help. Some may wonder: “What does the money even do?” Here, Mark Hanlon, the senior vice president of Compassion U.S., discusses the process for finding children to sponsor, how they keep track of the kids and the long-term impact health and education have on their communities.

“Compassion’s sponsorship program is completely built around what we call a Christian holistic child development program. Basically, we work with over 1.2 million children around the world in Latin America, Asia, Africa and in over 5,500 different projects where children are, and as you can imagine, the specifics of what those programs are [like] vary from culture to culture, and country to country and need to need. So, we will always say a Christian child development program has four pillars you can count on. One will be a spiritual pillar—it will always be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then there’s an economic [one]—and that’s often an educational pillar—in that the program is supporting, somehow, economically or educationally, the child that’s being sponsored. Then there’s the social-emotional aspect of our program, in every curriculum we have worldwide. Then there’s a physical aspect, which is typical: immunizations, nutrition, clothing.”

Faith plays an important role in sponsorship

“Jesus said, ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?’ So from that perspective, even if we addressed all the other aspects of poverty, if we left out the spiritual and the faith element, we would be leaving out a key and critical element. Many, many children give their lives to Christ through Compassion’s program. Now, we don’t require the children to do that. They’re not even required to attend the church that is hosting this project. We tell the project leadership: ‘Pick the poorest of the poor in your neighborhood and invite them to be part of the project. Be very clear they’re part of a Christian holistic program.’ But many children do. So our child development program turns, then, into a child discipleship program from a Christ-centered perspective.”

The children are picked by local leaders—and it varies from country to country

“Since this is a partnership with the local church, we give some general guidelines to the local church to make sure there is no nepotistic selection, or one particular family gets undue consideration over other families. But we do leave it to the project staff to basically select the poorest of their poor that can attend the project regularly. Some projects allow more than one child per family to be sponsored; other projects allow up to three children in a family. It really just depends on the situation and the context of that project. Urban projects are different than rural projects. Projects in Africa have different needs than projects in Asia. So, we try to allow for some flexibility in the contextualization of the selection in the program. But our goal is [to include] the poorest of the poor in that community, regardless of whether they are attending that church or are Christians. We have a great deal of children who are Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist.”

Records are kept so no children slip through the cracks of the system

“Our average project size is about 250 children. We limit that on purpose. We know that since this is a child development program, they need to be in touch and in tune with the children very specifically. If a child misses a couple days, or even if they’re not there on a particular day, they’ll do some checking around, and because they’re right there in the neighborhood, they can often go check on that child if there’s any concern at all. Certainly if the child misses two or three times in a row, there’s a huge yellow flag. If things are going well and the child is attending on a regular basis and gets that regular check-in, their homes are being visited by the project folks, which is staffed by the church volunteers. We monitor how much the children write—in fact we ask them as part of their program to write to their sponsor three times a year. We have a lot of different ways to check that the child is engaged in the program, and stays engaged.”

If a child stays in school longer, there’s a greater chance their siblings will, too

“A [sponsored] child has a greater propensity to go longer in school. They are anywhere from 20 and 60 percent more likely to be employed at a steady salary, and somewhere between 40 and 90 percent to be employed in a white-collar job such as a teacher or an office worker. There’s kind of this spillover effect to where a sibling may or may not be registered in the Compassion program, and those that are not, some of this spillover effect happens from their siblings. So, it is important that the family environment changes. What we often find is this: The child will come back, and the parents—or parent, it’s often a single-family home—will say: ‘Wow, there has been this dramatic change in Brian. He’s a better student, he’s more helpful around the house,’ and it opens up the door and the opportunity for the church to become a part of that family if they’re not already.”

Keeping children in school past age 12 is an important hurdle

“It’s a huge temptation, especially after a child gets through primary school. The family will say: ‘Well, my son knows how to read and write. He’s already more literate than I am, so we should get him into the workforce.’ It’s especially challenging for the girl child in that situation, because in so many cultures, girls are encouraged to marry at a very early age, because then they become the responsibility of the husband’s family. Compassion-sponsored girls marry at a later age and have children at a later age. We encourage families to get their kids to complete secondary school. One of the things we ask each child to do is put together their personal plan for the future, helping them to understand they’re not going to be sponsored forever, and what are they putting together for the future? So that way they start building some hope and some dreams. Unfortunately, some parents still take their children out, but it’s not something we just allow to happen without some strong encouragement from the church.”

The goal is lifelong results—that go on for generations

“We have over 400 children a day give their lives to Christ. So we have hundreds of thousands who have been through our program who are professionals, and God-honoring mothers and fathers. Even just day-laborers, but they’ve been enabled to be responsible and fulfilled Christian adults. There’s a family right now where the young man has become a tailor. He’s married, and has kids, and his kids are not in need of a sponsorship program. His children are not sponsored, and he’s able to say, ‘Poverty stopped with me.’ We have a saying that [goes], ‘The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth—the opposite of poverty is enough.’ So, while our graduates may not be wealthy, they have what it takes to stop poverty.”

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