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Coming to America

I know that it’s Memorial Day and I should probably post a blog along that theme.  But since I just recently posted a blog on my Grandfather (who was also a WWII veteran), I’ve decided to post on a different topic…one that we’ve talked about before, but not for a while: Compassion International.  You’ve heard me talk about Compassion International’s Leadership Development Program students before.  They are an amazing group of students.  This past week, I got to spend time with five of them.

First up was two days and two nights last weekend of sightseeing in Nashville with Stella from Kenya.  I met Stella on my first trip to Kenya 3 years ago and have gotten to see her several times since….including getting to go with her to Seattle to meet her sponsor the first time she was in the states.  We both loved the Delta Riverboat cruise at Opryland and Stella proclaimed Broadway to be “very American” due to all the hats and cowboy boots.  But beyond all the fun times, I loved getting to be around Stella’s encouraging spirit.  Her absolute faith in the Lord is inspiring and her positive attitude is infectious.

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Enjoying our time at the Opryland Hotel.

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Stella wanted a photo with a sign that said “Nashville: Music City USA.” The Joe’s Crab Shack mural was sadly the only one we could find.

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My sweet friend Stella. Posing for a quick portrait outside the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. I figured after dragging her to Broadway and Opryland, she needed a break from “touristy” spots so we checked out the South American pottery and felt cultured.

This past Tuesday morning, I dropped Stella off in Huntsville with her host family and continued on to Talledega, Alabama for Student Life Camp training week.  When I was India this past March, I absolutely fell in love with the LDP students we met.  One of the students, Vicky, is still in India finishing up his University exams, but the other four students are here and getting adjusted to life in America.  We had lots of good conversation about the oddities of American culture (why DO we take ice in every drink, even if it’s cold outside…or inside?) and what they would encounter this summer.  Hearing them practice telling their stories and the impact Compassion International has had on them and their families was amazing.  It’s incredible that these students who grew up in such extreme poverty (one boy mentioned his father’s wages were around 85 cents per day in US currency), in some cases in single-parent households or the children of addicts, are now able to stand up and tell their stories…..stories that end in changed hearts and lives and great success.  Today the students shared these stories with their teams on behalf of the many many children in the world that are still living in poverty, without hope or dreams.

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Neha (left) and Sudeshna (right) pose with me after having just given me my first lesson in how to wear a Sari.

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Finally getting to wear the Sari I purchased on my trip to Kolkata in March. The girls told me I was “looking very Indian,” but apparently three-quarter length sleeves on the blouse for is a little “frumpy” for girls my age. I’ll be taking the blouse-fabric to an Indian tailor this week to get something made that is a little more “fresh.” Don’t want to be out of style on the many occasions I will undoubtably have to rock my Sari!

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Uttam is all ready for Staff Recreation in his yellow team gear. I cheered from the sidelines.

So, this Memorial Day as we remember the many who fought for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, let us not forget the many others living poverty around the world who don’t have those same opportunities and freedoms.  I’m thankful for these students and the amazing stories that they share on behalf of the voiceless children still oppressed by hopelessness.

If you would like to sponsor a child through Compassion International, either click on this link here, or on the banner that appears on the sidebar of our blog.  Or, if you would like to become part of the story of one of Compassion’s amazing Leadership Development Students, you can click here to become an LDP sponsor.

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If it’s Friday, this must be Virginia……Part 1

I always start off strong blogging on trips and then jet lag sets in and I end up not being as faithful to post as I’d set out to be.  This trip to India was no exception.  A few solid posts, then…..crickets.   Right now I’m sitting in my hotel room in Fredricksburg, Virginia. “Virginia?” you say.  “I thought you were in India.  Or Amsterdam.  Or back in Nashville.”  Yes.  I’ve traveled a few miles since last I posted. Let me catch you up to speed via a photo-tour of the past few days.  Speaking of photos and traveling and Mary-Hall, you may have noticed the new “Insta Pics!” sidebar feature on the blog.  That came about when I texted MH from India and asked her to figure out how to make that happen….and she did.   In like 30 minutes.  Because she’s the awesome-est.

Our third and final project visit was to a CSP project.  The Child Survival Program is an amazing arm of Compassion that works with mothers and babies from pregnancy to 3 years old.  These moms gave us a sweet reception and we loved spending time with them, learning about the amazing things they are accomplishing, serving them lunch, buying their needlework, and holding their babies.  We also had a sweet visit with one of the mothers in her home.

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Mothers and toddlers in the CSP program shower us with flowers outside the project!

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Young mother and her son with the sewing machine she uses at the Compassion project to make clothes and other sewn goods to sell to make a living.

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I’m not sure which one of us was more content. The momma had to practically pry her 5 month old daughter away from me. sweetest moment of the trip.

We also had an awesome time visiting a church for a Sunday morning worship service.  So fun to see the LDP students teach songs to the congregation, translate the pastor’s sermon from Hindi to English, and share some of their own stories.

Children from the local church singing songs in Sunday service.  So cute!

Children from the local church singing songs in Sunday service. So cute!

We were thrilled to get some sightseeing time in as well.  India is such a beautiful country and we wanted to experience the culture as well as spend time with Compassion.  A highlight was a trip to the local market where I purchased a beautiful saree (I’ll post photos once I learn how to wear it!!!) some curry spices and Darjeeling tea.  We also took a boat ride on the Ganges river with the LDP students.  So fascinating to see all the Hindu temples that line the river and people bathing (clothed) on the steps that lead into the water.  We also got to visit the Victoria Memorial….essentially a palace built in honor of Queen Victoria (outside of which we also accidentally crashed a super awkward Bollywood music video shoot) and took a horse and carriage ride around a lovely park.  And all the girls got Henna tatoos.

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my beautiful saree. such amazing fabric

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Neha, me and Sudeshna. My two favorite Indians cruising the Ganges!

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These two could be models. For reals. Not sure about the one in the center. haha.

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Keith and I on our carriage ride around the park! Love getting to travel the world with this amazing man.

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our carriage ponies.

And that’s officially all I have energy for tonight….but there’s more to the journey, so I’m making this post a two-parter.  And then I swear I’ll let Mary-Hall have a turn at blogging again.  🙂

a little song, a little dance, a little……goat.

Our second day in India started off with a visit to the Compassion East India office. I love visits to country offices to meet the staff there: the folks who are on the ground in-country overseeing the work this amazing organization is doing. It’s also exciting to see how all the letters are processed to and from the children and their sponsors, etc. After touring the office and participating in the weekly devotional time with the staff, we set off on our first project visit of the trip. It was a sweet day as one of our travel companions got to meet her sponsor child (read about when I first met my sponsor child, Rukia, here) and Keith and I got to go visit the home of a teenage boy who participates in the project. It always inspires me to hear the stories of these children and the circumstances they face and how they overcome them.

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Mural on the wall outside the East India Compassion office. I loved this scene from it!

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Sammat, me and Hatboi. These country office staffers have made our trip possible!

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These four ladies have a busy job! They make sure all the letters from the sponsors get to their sponsor children….and vice versa! They process about 14,000 letters a month!

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My friend Blaire meeting her sponsor child for the first time!

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honored to have visited with this Compassion sponsor child and his grandparents in their home.

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Compassion students in their school classrooms.

Thursday we headed North to a “rural urban” project only 15 miles south of the Bangladesh border. Many people in the community were refugees from Bangladesh. The trip to the project took about 2 and a half hours in a little convoy of mini-SUVs. Driving in India isn’t quite like driving in the US. In fact, I think you should watch this short clip that my friend Ryan shot before you finish reading my blog….just so you can understand what our trip to and from the project was like. One of the guys in my vehicle started feeling pretty queasy about 10 minutes into the trip, and sure enough, about an our later, threw up his entire breakfast in my plastic zipper toiletry bag. Apparently even the Indian Compassion staff that were traveling with us in other vehicles were popping Dramamine like tic-tacs, so we were all comforted in knowing that even the locals thought the driving was terrible.

The project visit itself was amazing. We were greeted at the road by a drummer and the project’s scout troop and then ushered inside the church to watch a program where children sang and danced and then two of the Compassion LDP students shared their testimonies. The children all wanted to shake our hands and showered us with gifts: vases made of popsicle sticks and glitter, roses, oregami flowers and drawings were plentiful. We in turn decided to teach them songs. “Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes” was a huge hit so we decided to try our hand at “Father Abraham” when we found out that the kids didn’t know the story of Abraham in the Bible. Naturally we filled them in on that narrative and then belted out the Sunday School tune until we were all horse and dizzy.

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Esther (right) shares her story in English while Sudeshna (left) translates into Bengali. Both are Compassion LDP students.

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Me with some of the kids from the project. I’m holding my popsicle stick vase and roses.

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The teachers from the project sing a worship tune in Bengali before we leave.

We split off into three groups after the project visit to visit homes of some of the Compassion students. This little girl lived with her mother. Her father died 7 years ago and her 17 year old sister had gotten married a few months ago because her mother couldn’t afford to provide her with school or basic needs any longer. She said that it was too late for the older daughter now, but that she hoped her younger daughter might be able to finish school and become a teacher (she wanted to teach English) and not have to marry young. She hopes her younger daughter can break the poverty cycle.

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Me with the mother and daughter whose house I visited on my home visit.

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This goat belonged to the mother and daughter pictured above. The tiny goat had only been born the day before.

Wow. So I’m kind of exhausted thinking back over all that’s happened and I’m going to draw to a close here so I can get some sleep. But I’ll give you another report on today and tomorrow soon with lots more photos, of course. Continue to think about us as we start the last half of our trip. And stay tuned…..

P.S. If you are interested in reading more about our trip from the perspective of some of our travel companions, check out the following blogs of Blaire Wickham and Ryan Childress. So far, they have blogged about the first day of the trip and meeting their sponsor child (Blaire) as well as a project visit (Ryan). Check em out!

The Mother House

The journey to India is long…a total of 34 hours of airport security checkpoints, standing at gates and baggage claims and immigration lines, flights and naps stolen along the way.  But it’s not just the miles covered and the hours spent.  The soul journey is long too.  I’ve been here less than 24 hours and already I know my heart is different.  I’ve heard that India gets in your blood.  To be quite honest, it was never on my “list” of places I’d have chosen if I had an open-ended airline ticket.  But when the opportunity to accompany Keith on a Compassion International trip arose, I was excited to get to come along to see this land that has always seemed so far away that maybe it didn’t even exist except in stories and theory.

A taxi cab outside the Kolkata airport.  Such a quaint and beautiful city.

A taxi cab outside the Kolkata airport. Such a quaint and beautiful city.

After breakfast, a long nap, and lunch, our group started the trip with a trip to the “Mother House” of the Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa, now “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.”  I think I would have been contented to spend the whole day there…perhaps my whole trip.  Despite being in the center of a crowded city with honking horns and too many people, a cloud of peace truly shrouds the whole structure.  You enter and off a small courtyard are a series of doors: one to a small museum, one to a stairway to her room where she lived and received visitors, one to the chapel and one to a room where her tomb is.  When we arrived, the novices were all gathered around Mother’s tomb singing hymns.  I then wandered upstairs and spent a good deal of time praying in the chapel alongside several of the nuns whose calloused fingers easily slid from one bead to the next on their rosaries.  After a short tour of the museum and peeking in Mother’s bedroom, I went back to the tomb room in time to catch the last half of a homily by Fr. John, an Indian priest.

On Friday we will be serving alongside the sisters in various capacities at homes and orphanages they have scattered across the city.  Sister Mercy Maria briefed us on the work we will be doing.  Her kind manner made me feel like I knew her and I loved hearing her share her story about answering the call to become a nun.  “I resisted for a while,” she said after telling us she had joined at the age of 38, later than many of the sisters who joined as young as 17.  “But in the end it was a simple as being in a relationship with someone and them asking me to do something and I said ‘yes’.”  “Jesus simply asked me to follow him and I finally accepted.  It was my call.”

I left the home inspired by the simplicity in which the sisters live, their devotion to prayer and service,  the intensity with which they love, and the humility that abides in their spirits.  I’ve been reading up on Mother Teresa the past few weeks in preparation for this trip and I’ll leave you with a passage that has caused me to pause and think about my own relationship with the Lord and how I approach my spiritual life.

“Does your mind and your heart go to Jesus as soon as you get up in the morning? This is prayer, that you turn your mind and heart to God. In your times of difficulties, in sorrows, in sufferings, in temptations, and in all things, where did your mind and heart turn first of all? How did you pray? Did you take the trouble to turn to Jesus and pray, or did you seek consolations?

Has your faith grown? If you do not pray, your faith will leave you.

Ask the Holy Spirit to pray in you. Learn to pray, love to pray, and pray often. Feel the need to pray and to want to pray.

If you have learned how to pray, then I am not afraid for you. If you know how to pray, then you will love prayer—–and if you love to pray, then you will pray. Knowledge will lead to love and love to service.”

Novices pray and sing next to the tomb of Mother Teresa.  I wish I could have captured their music as well as their image.

Novices pray and sing next to the tomb of Mother Teresa. I wish I could have captured their music as well as their image.

The latest journey

So I’m sitting at a gate at BNA, the good ole Nashville International Airport. I was here yesterday too. And the day before that. Last night I saw my dear friend Amy at baggage claim. We hadn’t seen each other in about two weeks. And my friend Keely had gotten out the door only moments before Amy and my boss Kelly and I rolled up to claim our luggage. This whole scenario made me realize how crazy life really is.

Today was spring forward day which only compounded the exhaustion already lurking in my bones. I got home from Ohio last night and immediately went to work finishing up details from that trip and getting ready for today’s trip. Fortunately, I’m a little OCD so I’d already made some preparations.

Today, Keith and I are headed to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) India with Student Life Camps and Compassion International. I’m thankful, overwhelmed, excited and a million other emotions I can quite put into words right now.

We appreciate your prayers and thoughts for safe travel. I’m sure to post along the way (pretty certain that a few tasting-new-foods adventures await me) and give a full report when I get home.

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Of Thankfulness… and a toilet.

Somewhere, in Ethiopia, is a new toilet.  I don’t know what it looks like, or where exactly it is, but I know it’s there…and I’m grateful beyond words for it’s existence. Some of you may be feeling a bit awkward right now…wondering if I’m being serious, and what in the world I could possibly be talking about.  So I’ll back up a bit.

As most of you know, Mary-Hall and I are both incredibly passionate about the work of Compassion International, a Christian charity that “releases children from poverty in Jesus’ name” by providing cognitive and spiritual education, health care, and other essentials such as food, clothing and school fees and supplies (as evaluated by region and individual need).  Mary-Hall and her husband sponsor a little girl named Alba (you can read more about that here…and get a fun craft idea!) and Keith and I sponsor several kids, Rukia and Tony in Kenya, and Wondosen in Ethiopia.

Wondosen, our sponsor child, with food and candles celebrates a church holiday.

Wondosen, our sponsor child,  celebrates a church holiday with food and candles.

Wondosen and his family!  The back of this photo reads "My grandmother.  My friend.  All are my relatives."

Wondosen and his family! The back of this photo reads “My grandmother. My friend. All are my relatives.”

Wondosen is our newest sponsor child, and the only one that we’ve never met.  We’ve had so much fun getting to know this little guy through our letters back and forth for the past two years and we love that his birthday happens to fall on the same day as our wedding anniversary!  Wondosen lives with his grandmother who is raising several other grandchildren.  His parents are both alive, but not together, and do not live near Wondosen and his grandmother.  While sponsorship only costs $38.00 a month, Keith and I like to give a “family gift” of some extra money when we can.  Although sponsors can designate a specific item they want their gift money to purchase, we usually just designate it for “greatest need.”  (For example, we would hate to buy our child a soccer ball if their family really needed food that month.) When a sponsor sends a family gift, the project worker handles the money and sits down with the family to discuss their needs and how the money can be best spent.  Which brings me to the toilet.

A few months ago, we sent a family gift to Wondosen and his family.  In the past, we’ve had families use family gift money to purchase:

a) supplies for the family business (beads for a hairstyling salon, laundry soap for a laundry business)

b) a cooking stove for the family home

c) school tuition for our sponsor child and their siblings

d) clothing for the entire family

e) food for the entire family

However, we’ve never bought a toilet…..until now. We received a letter in the mail from Wondosen this past Monday thanking us for the gift we sent and letting us know how it was spent. (he’s a little young to write long letters so his project worker sits down with him and helps write the letter…and a translator at the Compassion Headquarters in Ethiopia translates to English).  I’ve posted photos below of the letter in it’s original text, and then the translation for you to read for yourself.

The original text, written by Wondosen's project worker.

The original text, written by Wondosen’s project worker.

The translated text, from a Compassion Ethiopia staff member.

The translated text, from a Compassion Ethiopia staff member.

Just in case you find even the translation unclear…it says,

“Dearly beloved and missed sponsors, How’re you?  Wondosen is well, Praise God!  Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!  He’s recieved your recent letter and your gift with which his grandma built a small toilet that she rents and deposits the income in the bank account opened in Wondosen’s name and the bank book is in his name too.  She saves every month.  His grandma thanks you very much!”

This thrills me more than anything.  Obviously being able to help a family in any way is exciting.  But to help a family who then takes your gift and makes it something sustainable that will continue to support their family…that is truly rewarding.  I am so grateful that Wondosen’s grandmother is a businesss-savvy lady!  That she is investing in the future of her grandson.  I pray her business will flourish and that Wondosen will learn from her example and be able to be wise as he grows into a man of the Lord.  We are so thankful for this sweet family and pray blessings on them.

***I know that at Christmas especially there are so many opportunities to give back to those who are materially less fortunate than we are.  My husband and I decided that this year, instead of gifts for each other, we would buy gifts for a family through a local organization that supports those in our own community who are in need.  I know many of you support other worthy causes during the holiday season and year round.  However, if you are looking for a way to give back, I would encourage you to do so by sponsoring a child (or even making a one-time contribution) through Compassion International.  You can sponsor a child by clicking on the banner on our website, or by following the link HERE.  And as always, if you choose to sponsor a child through our blog, please let us know!  We love hearing YOUR stories.***

Paper Dolls

Our sponsored child’s birthday is coming up on Saturday, the same day as Ransom’s.  So, last month I was working on a birthday letter online and poking around the Compassion website.  I ran across some great information that I thought I should highlight here, in case any other Compassion sponsors are reading this.

If you’ve never heard of Compassion, its a ministry that Bethany and I both strongly support.  Their tagline is “Releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name” and that pretty much sums it up. My husband and I sponsor a young girl – Alba in El Salvador.  Bethany & Keith sponsor several kids from all over the world.  You can read our previous Compassion posts here.

So, here are some links to the information that I found so helpful: Letter Writing FAQ! Also, this blog post.

I knew there had to be some delay between our letter writing and Alba receiving them, because the letters have to make several stops, be translated, etc.  However, according to the blog post it can take up to 3 months.  Of course, now I was feeling like a slacker for only writing Alba about her birthday six weeks in advance.  *Mental note to send a Christmas card SOON.*  BUT, then today I got a response from Alba that mentioned our last letter… so, I guess the delay between here and El Salvador is not as long as some countries.  Hooray!

All that aside, I was inspired by this List of Small Gifts that you can include with your letters. We’ve done stickers and photographs before but “Paper Dolls” just jumped off the page at me. (Side note: check this!! A Pinterest board of more ideas.. super cute. My fav may be the DIY scratch-offs.)  Blame it on my misplaced interest in all things miniature.

I found some doll templates here. I printed these on leftover birthday invitation card stock and rounded up four random sheets of scrapbook paper.

Now, Alba seems like a very sensible young girl, and she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. (At least she did.. These things change you know.) So here are her first shipment of paper dolls, complete with a lab-coat sporting Dr outfit.

It occurred to me that her doctors may or may not wear white coats.  I decided not to worry about it.  That outfit could just as easily be a white blazer with a weird necklace.. either way.  And now its occurring to me that lab coats have long sleeves.. Oh well.

Happy 9th Birthday Alba!!

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