Over long, often thankless, sometimes harsh days, we stand on the street, engaging the public. We might be on a busy street corner in Center City, or in front of a library or university facility, or at a mass transit station – wherever people congregate and throng. We stand there trying to articulate the strife and desperation of people out in the world who are in need, as well as the ability of ordinary compassion to relieve that desperation.
Much of the time, our efforts are met with cynicism, or resentment, or even vitriol. Outreach for the cause of charitable giving has the potential to inspire some bitter reactions in passersby, ones that are somewhat reflexive, and in many ways unfounded.
All of this, however, is made worth it the moment we are able to connect one of the citizens of Philadelphia to the greater channels of human involvement throughout the country and the world, to make them a part of something great: the support of persons and communities everywhere, all of whom deserve the same opportunities to access the same resources, through simple, universal generosity.
The exchange is mutually enriching. The child or community who receives the gift of charity is able to have clean water, food to eat, a place to live, clothes to wear, school to attend. The person who gives is able to grow from the knowledge that he or she is building a better world, by giving others a better life.
It is a progressive action toward healing the world’s ills which is accomplished through individual empowerment and individual betterment. And although those of us who are veterans at OMAAT have been at the game of canvassing, and particularly child sponsorship, for quite a while – with myriad organizations and in many varied forums – we never tire of that experience.
Child sponsorship, however, is an often misunderstood endeavor. Ubiquitous, outmoded television ads whose tones range from the sanctimonious to the downright depressing have become cultural stereotypes, even being parodied recently on Saturday Night Live. There is skepticism as to whether the funds are really being used conscionably, potentially brought on by sensationalized misallocation scandals. And most of all, people simply languish in a sense of defeat, assured that the world is just as it is, and any attempt to improve the lives of others is just an exercise in misplaced optimism.
There are many, in spite of it all, who still feel that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
Child sponsorship was largely born in the mid-1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression. This is when the first major, high-profile charitable NGOs benefitting impoverished children and families arose: Children International in 1936, Plan International in 1937, and ChildFund in 1938.
The distinguishing feature of the child sponsorship charity is that it provides the donor with a particular child who is benefitted by the donation – a face to bring tangibility to the donor’s generosity. The method of introducing the donor to a child in need either in the United States or overseas is then employed as a tactic to positively impact the trajectory of international poverty as a whole.
The various unique groups which fall under the umbrella term of “child sponsorship orgs” construct their own strategies to combat worldwide poverty and aid the children and families affected by it: there are charities devoted to providing houses for the impoverished, or which are geared toward broader-range community development works such as building a working, healthy irrigation system or supplying a village with livestock; others focus simply on direct monetary distribution; some direct a donation specifically to an individual child or family, in some cases putting the donor in contact with the person or persons being benefitted; still others connect the donor with a child or family, while pooling their donations to benefit a community together.
Currently, there are virtually countless organizations active on all seven continents, working to counteract the spread of global poverty by uniting individual lives in impoverished areas or developing countries with individual lives elsewhere in the world.
Spotlight: SOS Children’s Villages
One such charity has been doing this work since 1949, and, like many grassroots organizations for a greater benefit, it started as a contained, localized phenomenon and quickly began to spread.
SOS Children’s Villages was founded in Imst, Austria to give homes to local children whose lives had been torn apart by World War II. The group soon spread throughout Europe and the world, and today is one of the largest and farthest-reaching children’s charities in existence.
The organization takes the unique approach of entering an impoverished community to build an entire village in which orphaned children can live in a protected and stimulating environment. 65 years into its mission, SOS currently supports children in 540 villages, and is present in 134 countries and territories, including the U.S.
To see more on how SOS is working to change the world, and to get involved with their mission, click here.
The model of SOS is singular, but the philosophy is common to all child sponsorship NGOs; so says Sarah Jayne, the group’s Coordinator of Donor Stewardship.
“[It’s] a unique way for a person to make a positive impact on the life of a child who has been orphaned or abandoned due to poverty, violence or disease,” Ms. Jayne asserts. “Sponsoring a child gives [someone] the opportunity to help ensure vulnerable children growing up in impoverished and/or war-torn areas are given a stable home, health care and a quality education."
Ms. Jayne explains that the goal of SOS Children's Villages is to create loving, stable homes for orphaned and abandoned children. She hastens to point out, “What's important to emphasize here is that we are not just providing a home; we’re also providing a loving family.”
The psychological effect of filling this void is not to be underestimated, as Jayne explains: “That's important because children need a sense of belonging. They need that emotional support of a family so they can thrive and reach their full potential.”
“Each of our villages has about 10-12 homes,” Jayne elaborates. “Each house has an SOS Mother who dedicates her time to raising 4 to 10 children. Most importantly, our model thrives on keeping families together, so we do not separate brothers and sisters.”
The organization also works to benefit the larger communities where its villages are constructed, providing education, health and emergency response programs to benefits populations in the hundreds of thousands.
Ms. Jayne’s experiences with SOS and child sponsorship have been deep. In 2007, Jayne became an instructor of art and English at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Bethlehem.
“I didn’t know Arabic at the time,” says Jayne, “but had previously volunteered as an art teacher at the SOS summer camp. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me. I got to start an art program at a school, where none had previously existed, and where there was clearly a need for the children to have a creative outlet.”
Thereafter she taught 400 students each week, the majority of whom were orphaned and abandoned children living in the nearby SOS Children’s Village Bethlehem.
“It was a school of 400 students – many of whom had a lot of learning disabilities and emotional difficulties because they came from traumatic pasts. Oftentimes, I had students that were in my class who had never attended school prior to finding a home at SOS Children’s Village. A few of the girls had previously been forced to forgo schooling in order to work in the city streets of Ramallah.
“This lack of an educational foundation made school a challenge for them, and took a toll on their self-esteem. They struggled both academically and emotionally. However, art class seemed to be the one time during the school day that my students could explore their creative side, which in return helped boost their self-confidence. In art class they were able to finally find a way to feel proud of themselves and their work. This meant a lot to them, but also to me. I soon found myself opening the classroom door to a room full of cheering students, who couldn’t wait to get their hands covered in paint, and dive into my bag full of fun art supplies.”
Jayne fondly remembers a particular boy in the village who profited on a deep, spiritual level from this show of care: a strong, foreboding kid named Ali.
“He was five years old when he was placed in my art class,” she relates. “I was really shocked the first time I saw him because he acted way too tough for someone his age. Everyone knew him as a trouble maker and he spent a lot of time in the principal’s office because he would get in trouble with the teachers at school for misbehaving all the time. He often times would act up and say inappropriate things to students and teachers.”
She then goes on to contrast this behavior with the side he would show upon being helped by the programs provided by SOS: “When he was in my art class, however, he was much calmer and always engaged in the art projects we were working on.”
It turned out that the issues he was manifesting were deep-seeded. “I could see that behind the outbursts was a child who was struggling,” Jayne continues. “I later found out that he had been completely abandoned as a child. This set him apart from many of the other children in the village, who had extended family members – grandparents, aunts or uncles – that they could visit during the holidays. Ali had absolutely no one. This lack of parental care greatly affected him, but his SOS Mother, and my colleagues at the school and SOS Village were determined to give him the love, care, and support he needed to thrive.”
Their efforts were not in vain. Soon, they were able to see a change in Ali. “Years later, I returned to Bethlehem to paint a mural with my former students there, and I was excited to see Ali was a part of the group,” Ms. Jayne says. “I was so impressed by how mature and helpful he was. I could see how he had transformed from the young tough boy who was known as a ‘trouble maker,’ into a boy who felt like he had a purpose in life. Instead of being an unruly child, he was now stepping up to help the younger children with their projects.”
Ms. Jayne is clear that this change was made possible by the vital work of SOS Children’s Villages. “All aspects of his life also changed as a result of the care given to him by SOS, and the stable loving home that he found in the village. His performance in school improved, as well as his attitude. He was a joy to be around and so helpful. It was incredible to see his transformation.”
This is one of innumerable stories that charities such as SOS have been able to unfold. The continued work of these charities, with community involvement, will see that such an impact is possible for years to come.
By Bessam Idani
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