I’ve met three of the kids we sponsor through Compassion. The first visit, in El Salvador, was spectacular. It felt scripted even, like this sarcastic charismatic little girl was picked out for me by someone at eHarmony. Perfect fit. She hung out on my shoulders most of the day, laughed at all my jokes, held my hand, sat in my lap, hugged me spontaneously, told great stories, drew me pictures, and did I mention she laughed at all my jokes? It was a great day.
When I met Yoseph in Ethiopia is was a little more awkward. He was four I think. His mom was there. She seemed embarrassed. Very shy. It wasn’t the warmest little get together. And he didn’t want to share the toys I gave him with the other kids. He rushed them to the taxi that brought him, threw them in the backseat and locked the doors. After he got his loot he was pretty much ready to go back home. See ya later sponsor guy!
In India we met Sweety. We hadn’t sponsored her long enough to know each other. Only a few days actually. That fact, a massive language barrier, and a culture that isn’t very touchy feely made for the mother of awkward meetings.
My wife, Becky, hugged Sweety immediately. Sweety went stiff, holding her hands in front of her, pushing away. Her social worker kept her pressed into Becky’s arms. Awkward.
Then we bloggers took all our sponsored kids to a science themed amusement park. We figured what better way to put these kids at ease than walking them through the mouth of a giant lizard?
Inside the giant lizard mouth was a giant robotic scorpion, followed by a giant robotic spider, and then a giant robotic wooly mammoth and caveman. Ahh, that sure fostered trust between the kids and their new foreign friends.
How ‘bout we all climb in rusty cars suspended from a rusty cable high over the park? Awesome idea! Now we’re having fun, kids!!
After disembarking from our “gondola” we got in a bus and drove to a mall for lunch.
By this point in the day Sweety had taken to holding Becky’s hand whenever she felt her life was in danger, which, thanks to great planning on our part, was at least once every fifteen minutes. Look! A giant robotic centipede! Worked every time.
An unexpected thing happened when the food arrived. Sweety started whining. We don’t speak Bengali but we knew what was going on. Sweety didn’t like what was on her plate. Her social worker explained to us that Sweety’s usual diet is very simple and bland. Plain rice is the foundation of every meal she has at home and in her project. So the spicy chicken and rice we gave her for lunch was flat out weird.
I started remembering all the times we’ve told our kids something like “There are children who don’t have anything to eat today and I bet they’d love to have what we’re having for lunch. I bet they’d be happy just to have anything to eat.” Well, apparently not. Kids are kids.
And all kids are easily manipulated. Sweety’s social worker has skills. She announced to me that she could finish her food before Sweety could finish hers. Sweety grimaced at her and the race was on.
Sweety soon told her social worker she was done. The social worker asked her who gave her that food. “Jesus,” Sweety answered.
“Yes,” the worker said, “so eat it.”
“Jesus gave me too much,” Sweety said and she hopped down from the table and started pulling Becky and pointing. Robin, who has a hard time following instructions like ”Do not ever leave the group without asking because we can’t ensure your safety if you do” decided to leave the group without asking to ride the escalator with her sponsored child. Sweety wanted to ride too. So she and Becky did. Again and again and again, like it was a roller coaster. Granted, it was more fun than the giant robotic platypus and safer than the “gondola.”
Then it was back to the hotel to say goodbye. On the ride there, Sweety climbed up in Becky’s lap. In the hotel lobby she unzipped the pink backpack we gave her and pulled out the presents inside. She and Becky played and laughed for a while and then, one last picture, and off Sweety went to her house.
You may have noticed how absent I was from this story. Sweety never looked at me. She never held my hand or sat in my lap or let me get near her. She didn’t smile when I complimented her or tried my best to make her laugh. The social worker told me men in the villages don’t have much physical contact with their children, especially girls. But I got to watch Becky at her best: wiping hands, making room on her lap, laughing and hugging, and reassuring that the giant robotic sloth isn’t real, slowly moving a little girl from frightened to friend.