I have been sponsoring Muluken Midesko (a United Christian Children’s Fund participant) for over eleven years now. We exchange letters, and on his birthday and Christmas, I always send an additional 100.00 to enhance his quality of life. Instead of going into a general fund as the monthly sponsorship does to pay for food and education for the children of the community, this money goes to the family personally making it far more intimate gift.
I think of Muluken often, wondering how different his life is from mine, hoping my small donations do indeed make a difference in his world. Our exchanges, limited as they are, have been fascinating as he asks questions about my world and I try to understand his.
It is obvious that the world’s problems are much bigger than any one person can solve, but I think it is vital every person does something to make a dent in the ongoing suffering. It never sits well with me that some people shrug and say, “What can little, old me do about it. The situation over there is awful, but I don’t have much money.”
Meanwhile, they head out the door to their health club with a walkman and a bottle of water, wearing a pair of new Nike shoes (that for all we know, the Muluken’s of the world labored to make at age 4). The truth is, if we were to see these unfortunate individuals sitting outside our front door, we’d be outraged. We’d feel compassion and we’d take action. But distance allows us to disassociate from grief. Stories of war ravaged children and starving families seem so far away, and, so storybook horrid, that it doesn’t seem real enough to address in a tangible way. But these atrocities are real, and with the communication vehicles we have today (periodicals, TV, internet, newspapers) the evidence of the world’s disadvantaged is undeniable.
I am offended by people who have a “we have to take care of our own first,” mentality. Anyone walking on two legs is “one of our own” in my book. I hate all the excuses people make to avoid making even a small sacrifice in the name of humanity. And I don’t think much of people who only care for themselves and their immediate loved ones either. It is, quite plainly, self-serving. For all that one can argue a person is a very caring individual because they take care of friends and family and give a dollar to the Santa ringing the bell in front of Sears every December, I just don’t buy it. We get back something (emotionally) when we nurture “our own”. True compassion demands faith, putting forth effort for those that can’t give you anything back. Not love. Not appreciation. Not even a verbal thank-you.
I am on a tangent. Oops. Sorry. The point is, I like to think that one person half a world away is experiencing a better life because I cared. I can’t think of the 20 million people I can’t help, for that will drive me crazy. I just focus on the one individual I do help. The fact is, sponsoring a child isn’t a big sacrifice. At 40 dollars a month, it involves forgoing one dinner out for people in our socio-economic group. It is actually such a small thing that I am, at times, ashamed I don’t do more. I mean, I purchase the occasional goat or cow for Heifer International too, but still, I live a pretty cushy life and could do more if I were less selfish. My little monthly donation doesn’t absolve my guilt in letting other children in the world starve either.
You can bet if our children were starving and we knew that far away others were flippantly spending enough on candy and cookies in one month, as it would take to sustain our near-death children for over a year, we wouldn’t be understanding about it. (Obviously, I think about this stuff a lot. I have this habit of putting myself in another’s shoes, even people who have no shoes, and it tortures me. It is a part of my nature that is difficult to live with.)
Anyway, this week I got a letter stating I would no longer be sponsoring Muluken. He has “left the system.” His family has moved to another area where better opportunities are available. This notice left me feeling very disturbed. For one thing, I don’t altogether believe this explanation of his falling off the face of the earth so suddenly. Why don’t they tell me where he has gone, or notify me in advance so I can say good-bye? We have been fond acquaintances for many years, after all.
I am guessing that Muluken turned eighteen and they are excusing him from the program as an adult, or maybe he’s gone off to get involved politically and become one of the individuals creating havoc in this sad country. Perhaps it is worse. Perhaps he died of disease or an accident. I really don’t know if the organization would be honest about these kinds of things, for their only concern is soliciting and maintaining funding. If people like me, comfortable, clueless Americans who appease their guilt by sending a little check once a month, get emotional or disturbed by the reality of what happens with these people, they may decide sponsoring a child is too emotionally disturbing. Some people are in it for the letters and the pictures of the child, after all. And if you feel badly because your little sponsored child hasn’t written a big, fat, letter of appreciation, you might bail.
The lack of closure regarding Muluken’s fate is really disturbing to me. I can’t stop thinking about him, and I wonder if he has questions about me. Perhaps he thinks I just stopped sending money. He has pictures of me. Letters. I have to be more than a check to him, and yet, if I was “more” why have I disappeared? If he is eighteen, he may be out of the system, and yet, I could have been given a chance to help him throughout his life. But perhaps that is beyond the mission statement of the organization. It is the United Christian Children’s fund, after all. And if I were to help Muluken, the adult, it would mean a child somewhere was not getting a chance to be fed and educated and taught life skills with my small donation. Perhaps, my work with Muluken is done. Perhaps he is old enough and prepared enough to get a job and have a family of his own. He doesn’t need me anymore. Others do.
The annoying fact is, I don’t know what they told him. Not that I’m implying there is anything malicious about this organization. Only that I wonder if the system is set up to protect the best interest of the collective whole, at the cost of individual intimacy. While I understand the logic in this, it leaves me so unsettled.
Out of the blue, I was sent a picture of a new, very young, solemn Ethiopian boy to replace Muluken, with a letter urging me to “save” him by continuing my support. A small notice in the letter said Muluken is “no longer my sponsored child”. Unbelievably, I declined. Oh, I didn’t decline helping, of course, only declined the particular child they assigned me without first asking my preference. Guild ridden over the fact that fate may have wanted me to support this particular stranger, I requested a female instead. The truth is, I believe the girls have it far worse than the boys in third world countries, and so, this time around, I’d like to make a personal difference in the life of a woman. I guess you could say, I relate better to the idea of a woman dealing with social expectations and the role of motherhood etc. with limited resources. I will receive the picture and history of my new sponsored girl-child next week.
In the meantime, I will sip my coffee and stare out over the mountain wondering where Muluken is and what state of health he is in. I will ponder whether or not he kept my pictures or tossed them the day he got them and be curious about whether he has fond thoughts of me, or resentment, or perhaps feels nothing at all. Not that it makes a difference, really. But it would be interesting to know.
I will begin sending money to a new child this month. I was told on the phone (when I made the change request and the computer spit out a new name for me) that the new child’s birthday is in October. I asked them to immediately take a withdrawal so I wouldn’t miss acknowledging it, and since there is a two-month lag between when a donation is made and when it is received, she will receive this personal “extra” with her Christmas money. It will be a windfall to this family, I’m sure. Since she is young (about 4), we won’t be writing for a few years. But I will send her pictures nevertheless and begin a correspondence just so she knows someone a half a world away is thinking about her. In most cases, it is the mother who you are talking to anyway, and that happens to be the person I worry about most -the mothers who suffer the painful reality of raising a child without enough resources to do the job. We will be connected by the loosest of threads, at least until such time as the organization decides we are “finished” and they cut our string.
Sponsoring a child probably makes a lot of people feel good about themselves. But I swear, it stirs up all kinds of conflicting emotions in me. Yet, I couldn’t stop over that. I am committed by nature of my personal morals.
I’m not going out to dinner tonight, because that is the price of helping one person live better. It is how I will maintain an appetite through all the rest of my meals this month. I could do more, but I could do less. I think what’s most important is that I avoid thinking about the “less” and try to feel good about the “more”. And I must remember that if I can save only one person in a million, it isn’t so important which one. They all deserve help equally. I must trust that the “one” fate thrusts in my path was put there for a reason. We are meant to be friends, even if it is only for a temporary period of time.
The fact is, friends come and go as life pushes us in different directions. But I know that the impact of a friendship
can last long after the active period. Relationships, despite how they fare in the long term, alter your world forever.