UCC's Child Sponsorship Program is, unfortunately, a 'kept secret'
It's not that Linda Lawrence can't keep a secret. But she has her limits.
"Six years ago, I was told that the Child Sponsorship Program was billed as the 'best-kept secret' of the UCC," says Lawrence of her early days as program administrator. "I said, 'Well, it's going to remain a secret if we keep promoting it like that!'"
Today, more than 900 children in 13 international sites — five in Southeast Asia, three in Latin America, two each in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific, and one in Africa — benefit from the monthly good will of donors from the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Last year, more than 700 sponsors gave $230,000 to the program, a joint effort of the UCC/Disciples' Global Ministries.
"I'm hoping it will make a difference for all of us," says Lawrence, "not just the UCC or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but for the United States as a whole for all of us to see that we're all God's children. We're making a difference, one child at a time."
The program provides monthly gifts of $25 or $30 to feed, clothe and educate children who have been abandoned or orphaned, or who are refugees. In return, sponsors receive at least two letters a year from their sponsored child.
"Some receive far more than that," Lawrence says. "If the sponsor writes more, the children will write more because they feel a sense of connectedness." The correspondence helps each sponsor become familiar with their child's personality, interests and academic progress. Sponsors often send material gifts in addition to monthly contributions. The more generous the sponsor, the more likely Lawrence will recommend giving to the general cause.
"Twenty-five dollars may be able to give a whole classroom a party," while eliminating shipping and duty costs associated with sending gifts, Lawrence explains. "If sponsors want to send gifts, we ask them to consider things like board games, balls, pencils, crayons, coloring books — something that can be used by more than one child. If they still want to send something more personal, we suggest a T-shirt or something else small."
The children, Lawrence notes, are not permitted to ask sponsors for anything in particular — even though they may be very much in need. Lawrence reflected warmly upon a visit to one of the program's centers in Tibet where an array of stuffed animals was displayed in a large, open space. "Some had been there for years, and were not in the best condition. But they treasure what our sponsors send to them." Often, children have their picture taken with their gift, and send the photo to their sponsor. "They're very proud that the sponsor has taken an extra interest in them."
Church, donor involvement
The Sunday school class of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Fort Collins, Colo., recently extended "extra interest" to students at Rawdat El Zuhur School in an impoverished area of East Jerusalem.
"The kids initiated the project and before it was over, the entire congregation had collaborated in sending a CD with a song about peace, and a beautiful prayer book. Then the children over there sent a book back to Plymouth," Lawrence says.
Lawrence says her dream remains to start with involvement of the younger people. "They are the church's future. It helps the children now when the older generation is involved."
Among the most consistently giving sponsors to the program have been St. Paul UCC in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Salem UCC in Lancaster, Pa., and Flasher UCC in Flasher, N.D.
"St. Paul sponsors eleven children," notes Lawrence, "and they have been doing it for years. Salem UCC sponsors six children, and the 39-member congregation at Flasher UCC sponsors a child.
"The size of the church doesn't matter," notes Lawrence. "It's how creative and how deep the desire is."
Lawrence also is steadfast that the size of her agency (she is the only full-time staffer) is not a drawback. She cautions anyone comparing her program with high-profile agencies such as Children International and the Christian Children's Fund.
"I tell them to read the fine print. The majority of them take 18 to 22 percent of what you send in and use that for administrative costs," she says. "They have marketing departments. None of our sponsorship money goes to the cost of a program, only to a designated child or project."
Through the combined efforts of Global Ministries and its global partners, the Child Sponsorship Program is able to thrive on a smaller scale. "I think, for the most part, it makes for a better connection with the child," adds Lawrence.
Occasionally, sponsors are moved to make a difference without making a long-term commitment. "One of our donors is 90 years old," says Lawrence. "He said, 'I've had a good life. The Lord has been good to me, my wife has passed on, and I want to make a donation because I think what you are doing for this program is good.' And he made a $600 donation. That's something to sing about."
Another heartening aspect of the program is the "giving back" factor. At the center in the Philippines, after children "age out" of the program at age 18, many spend time with the younger children, tutoring and leading field trips.
"Some people will suggest adoption for these kids, but we want them to stay in their own communities," says Lawrence. "We don't have to be there with them to have a critical presence in their lives. We want to say to them, 'We are equal partners. Your religion, your faith, your community are just as important to you as ours is to us.'"
Jeffery Woodard, a freelance journalist and United Church News contributor, is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland.
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