4 07 2015
Matthew, me, Erlin - Flores, Guatemala

Matthew, me, Erlin – Flores, Guatemala

While in Guatemala a few days ago, I was reading through two required summer reading books for the faculty at my school.  Both were on innovation in education, and both gave me some really good ideas on curriculum changes I want to make this year and even a new course I want to submit for approval for 2016.

As our rental bus in Flores, Guatemala (not a car, BUS) made its way from our hotel to the neighborhood where our Compassion International child lives, I was reading about the resources afforded to one school in the US to create innovative experiences—in their various forms—to the educational experience for middle schoolers.

We pulled into the Compassion project in Flores, Guatemala, and I was surprised at the lack of “things.”  Now, this was our sixth visit to Compassion kids we sponsor.  We’ve been to projects in Peru, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, two in India, and this one in Guatemala.  This was the sparsest one yet.  The classrooms only had three walls and were pretty much bare.  Another classroom that looked more like a cage had a huge padlock on it.  The prized possessions under lock and key were student desks.  These desks were so rundown they would have been tossed in a dumpster immediately if they had tried to make their way into the private Christian, uber-upper class school I teach at.

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala

empty classroom (the project was closed for the day)

empty classroom (the project was closed for the day)

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala - padlocked desks

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala – padlocked desks

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala - the pastor lives on the second floor, and the classrooms are the three open areas underneath (only three walls, no doors)

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala – the pastor lives on the second floor, and the classrooms are the three open areas underneath (only three walls, no doors)

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala - where the desks are padlocked when not in session

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala – where the desks are padlocked when not in session

The contrast between haves and have-nots was profound.

“Innovate!  Request more resources!  Do more!  Educate outside the classroom!  Provide authentic experiences!”  scream the books I was reading and indeed my own experience as a teacher in a first-world country to families with a ridiculous amount of discretionary income.

The walls of this Compassion center in Flores humbly tell another story about education:  “We’re thankful to have a place where we can keep our desks from being stolen.  We’re thankful to have running water where we can teach our students about basic hygiene, even though it’s not safe to drink.  We’re thankful for the few posters that remain on the walls.  We’re thankful . . .”

Maybe I wouldn’t have been struck as intensely by this contrast had I not for the past few days been reading these two particular books, but that was the serendipitous timing of these two events.

School in Guatemala was out for a week-long break to celebrate Teacher’s Day (YES!  Other places around the world actually celebrate and esteem their educators!)  The Compassion center was also closed the day we visited so we traveled to Erlin’s house to meet her and her family.

Again, the disparity was evident between my world and hers.  Her home was on a quiet corner in Santa Elena, just a few kilometers south of Flores.  She greeted us at the door, followed by the rest of the family comprised of her mother, maternal grandmother, older brother, and baby brother.  The paternal grandfather had died one year almost to the day before our visit, and no father was in the picture.

They did have electricity and running water, but other than in Guatemala City, there is no potable water for drinking anywhere else in the country.  All water for human consumption must be purchased.  Erlin’s family had lived in this house for close to 30 years, and it was paid off—a HUGE blessing—since her mother and grandmother made less than $10 a day to feed, house, clothe, and provide for everything else a family needs to survive.

Erlin’s mother was a hairdresser, and her grandmother sold cakes and homemade tortillas.  Both woman had the opportunity to attend vocational schools for their trades—another blessing that would not have been possible without Erlin’s sponsorship through Compassion.  Erlin, or Faby as she is known at school (Fabiola is her middle name), helps her mom by painting nails in their little one room salon attached to the front of the house.

Erlin's mother's salon (Erlin's middle name is Fabiola and her nickname is Faby)

Erlin’s mother’s salon (Erlin’s middle name is Fabiola and her nickname is Faby)

Erlin's mother's salon

Erlin’s mother’s salon

Erlin's family house

Erlin’s family house

Erlin’s older brother was 15 and was sponsored by a family from Korea, but his sponsors had never written to him.  He wasn’t even sure of their names.  Erlin’s 9-month-old baby brother will have the opportunity to be sponsored in a few years.  An older male cousin also lives with the family, and their immediate neighbors are relatives.

Their home consisted of two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen/dining area, and an outdoor area for laundry, processing the corn for tortillas, and a crude toilet and shower.  It was the largest home of the Compassion kids we’ve sponsored, but it was also encouraging to see how our financial contributions to this family was helping to lift them out of poverty into a more sustainable life—one in which every member could thrive instead of just survive.

Erlin's older brother, mother, Erlin, me, Matthew

Erlin’s older brother, mother, Erlin, me, Matthew

one bedroom in Erlin's house (yes, that's a half-wall with the living room on the other side)

one bedroom in Erlin’s house (yes, that’s a half-wall with the living room on the other side)

bedroom two where Erlin, her mother, her grandmother and baby brother sleep (there is another bed behind me)

bedroom two where Erlin, her mother, her grandmother and baby brother sleep (there is another bed behind me)

Erlin and her grandmother

Erlin and her grandmother

Erlin's family kitchen

Erlin’s family kitchen

laundry area

laundry area

laundry/storage area

laundry/storage area

toilet and shower rooms

toilet and shower rooms

Erlin and her 1-year-old cat (who almost died from eating a nest of baby pigeons)

Erlin and her 1-year-old cat (who almost died from eating a nest of baby pigeons)

We spent the morning at her home talking about everything, and then Erlin got to pick the restaurant for lunch.  Of all the choices available to her:  Pizza Hut.  To us, it’s too common a place to visit in the States.  If we wanted pizza, we’d try any number of gourmet eateries in which to partake.  For Erlin, Pizza Hut was a luxury, so off to Pizza Hut we went.  The entire family joined us at our request, and we talked some more about everything.

lunch at Pizza Hut

lunch at Pizza Hut

outside Pizza Hut - there are five people, 2 adults and 3 children, on the motorcycle

outside Pizza Hut – there are five people, 2 adults and 3 children, on the motorcycle

The Pizza Hut was part of a small strip mall, so we walked around after eating, and then we had a couple hours to kill before the bus would pick us up.  Thankfully there was a nice little playground at the mall, so we adults sat there and continued to talk about everything while Erlin and her brothers played.  Back at her house, we said our goodbyes and prayed with one another before heading back to our hotel.

at the playground - Erlin's baby brother and mother

at the playground – Erlin’s baby brother and mother

Erlin and her baby brother

Erlin and her baby brother

Erlin and her two brothers

Erlin and her two brothers

Erlin's two brothers

Erlin’s two brothers

Erlin's grandmother and baby brother - she held a towel under his arms so he could learn to walk without holding on to anything. (I commented to Matthew that someone in the US could invent a similar contraption and sell it for a ridiculous amount of money if it had the right branding.)

Erlin’s grandmother and baby brother – she held a towel under his arms so he could learn to walk without holding on to anything. (I commented to Matthew that someone in the US could invent a similar contraption and sell it for a ridiculous amount of money if it had the right branding.)

Visits like this are always surreal to me.  We plan months in advance:  submitting the paperwork, going through the background checks, arranging the travel logistics.  When the day finally comes, I’m almost always at a loss for words, and my emotions have to work overtime to process everything.

The work of Compassion is incredible, and we have been privileged to experience it first-hand six times now around the world.  If you are looking for a worthy charity to contribute to, one that really does make a positive impact on children, their families, and their entire community, this is the place.  If you don’t sponsor a child, please consider doing so today.  For those who already sponsor a child, please write to him/her.  You have no idea how much a letter means to these kids, and you can even do so online at the Compassion website.  These are treasures to be sure.  For those who sponsor and have the financial resources to do so, please consider visiting your child.  The impact will last for generations.


Speaking to India’s Future Leaders

5 07 2013

Previous posts on our trip to India:
An Introduction to India
Meeting Sai
Local Celebrities

Friday, June 14
Our room in Bangalore has hot water, a shower with hot water, a clean Western toilet with toilet paper, a TV with an English channel, and laundry service! Exciting stuff, these things. I still wish trash cans were more popular.

a real bathroom!!! with a toilet and toilet paper, and a shower with hot water

a real bathroom!!! with a toilet and toilet paper, and a shower with hot water

Bangalore hotel - simple, but it did the job

Bangalore hotel – simple, but it did the job

Bangalore is much more cosmopolitan than Chennai. The roads are paved and many have sidewalks. It is at a higher altitude and the weather is much cooler, in the 80s, and is apparently always overcast. We passed a McDonalds on our way to the LDP camp, but they do not serve hamburgers. Alan told Matthew he reminded him of Toby on “The Office” and asked if he was related to him.

Toby or Matthew?

Toby or Matthew?

Alan has been educating us on Tamil, Tamil Nadu’s language. It’s one of the oldest in the world, and has a vocabulary three times that of English. One of the most accurate bible translations in the world from the original Greek and Hebrew is in Tamil. In India, all students learn three languages: English, Hindi (spoken across all states), and the state language such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, etc.

tamil alphabet

tamil alphabet

The LDP camp we attended is a mandatory camp for all Compassion International LDP students twice a year. The theme of this camp was Dueteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.” Each day they focused on one of those aspects for the sessions and discussions. For example, on the “mind” day, there were talks on loneliness and suicide; one state has students who do very well academically, but has a high rate of suicide.

Compassion's theme for the week in the right banner - the day's specific theme was "church"

Compassion’s theme for the week in the right banner – the day’s specific theme was “church”

LDP students must be at the top of their classes academically and they must boldly proclaim they are followers of Christ. Their is an application process in which they write a statement of faith followed by two interviews, the first conducted by an outside firm and the second conducted by Compassion staff. The 200 student we were going to speak to are bright and ready to change the world. They are not just future leaders in industry, but they are the Church’s future Christian leaders.

It’s always a little surreal when first meeting a sponsored student, but Irene was ready for us. She herself had arrived at the camp just the night before due to exams she had to take so she missed out on the first few days. We sat and chatted for a while, the cursory superficial things, and walked around a bit. We broke through to more personal topics pretty quickly, though Irene was painfully quiet and shy.

with Irene - we've been sponsoring her for only two years, and will continue for two more years until she graduates from college

with Irene – we’ve been sponsoring her for only two years, and will continue for two more years until she graduates from college

We learned Irene is a third-generation Christian which is very rare in India. She grew up in a very conservative family who did not allow TV or movies, but she was happy and well cared for. As Christians, her family was shunned for many years in their small community of 5,000 about 250km outside of Chennai. Her mother invited the neighborhood children to Sunday school classes at their home, and their neighbors slowly warmed to them. Today, Irene told us, there are now two Christian families in her home town.

We talked about arranged marriages as that is what will happen for her. She wants to marry a man who is first and foremost a faithful Christian and secondly who plays the guitar. We talked about our families and jobs. Whenever we meet our Compassion kids, one of the first questions is often, “Where are Caleb and Jason?” We need to start warning them that the boys won’t be with us. We answer: 1) It would be very expensive and difficult for us to bring them. The thought of dealing with them for 20 hours on a plane makes me cringe. Plus, they would hate the food, except for the rice. Caleb and Jason wouldn’t mind a diet of just rice three times a day, but this mama would.

We talked about finding a job you will love, and that money isn’t the most important thing–as is evident by the fact that we are both teachers in private schools making tens of thousands less each year than our public school teacher friends. Each person needs to know what his God-given talents are and then seek to call them out and develop them. When we are doing what God has called us to, we will find joy.

What made me smile most, though, was Irene’s prayer request for this camp. She prayed that she would meet a foreigner. At the time she didn’t know we were coming; she only found that out a few days ahead of time. Little did she know that we were her “foreigners.” God answers our prayers in amazing ways!

We then sat in on a couple of talks about the Church before lunch; church was the theme of the day. The speaker gave an excellent analogy of the work Compassion does with the local church. Compassion is the bridesmaid, helping to prepare the Bride of Christ for her Groom. LDP students are expected to not just become qualified in a vocation, but to become leaders in their local churches.

Before we broke for lunch, we were introduced and they mentioned that Matthew had a Ph.D. in astro-physics and if anyone was interested in talking about faith and science, Matthew would be happy to discuss it (imagine that.) Several students joined us, and the first question was . . . wait for it . . . about the Big Bang Theory. Cue my turn to chat with the students next to me about something else, like dentistry. I love my husband, but my brain is only capable of participating (as in listening but not saying anything) to one in-depth discussion/debate about science and religion once a year. This was number two in less than a week. Big Bang Overload for me. Lunch was excellent–meaning tasty and non-spicy and we had control over how much we ate. No more “love torture” meals, though we do miss Suneetha’s delicious homecooking.

lunch with LDP students - we got our own Western (non-spicy) version of what everyone else was eating

lunch with LDP students – we got our own Western (non-spicy) version of what everyone else was eating

After lunch, the fun began and blew us away. The program began with worship songs, one in English and the other in Tamil. They involved motions and jumping up and down, always favorites of ours, especially for Matthew. We were yet again given flowers and then asked to speak and sing.

worship - in English and Tamil

worship – in English and Tamil

Matthew and me speaking to the LDP students

Matthew and me speaking to the LDP students

Matthew shared about hope, and I was asked to share about giving. From what Alan told us, Americans are considered very generous in their financial support of the poor in India, but Indians, even among the Christians, are quite stingy with their money. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” -Luke 12:48. We take that mandate very seriously. I also shared Proverb 11:25. “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” We have seen this ring true so often. The more we bless others, the more we are blessed. To assume you can’t give generously is to put God in a box.

We the sang “Amazing Grace” (again) and ended with a short Q&A session. We were asked:
-Describe America’s youth.
-Why Compassion?
-What did we think of India?
-About our India travels.

singing "Amazing Grace" (again)

singing “Amazing Grace” (again)

closing prayer before we said our good byes

closing prayer before we said our good byes

Next, a student performed an amazing traditional Andra Pradesh dance in traditional garb. After that we dismissed for afternoon tea, and the paparazzi-like photo op began. The last time we posed for that many photos was at our wedding. My face hurt from smiling so much. A few female students pulled me aside to ask how we met, and how do you know when you have found your helpmate. The next question caught me off guard. “We heard that they are implanting chips into humans in America. Is this true?” Ummmm . . . No. These young women were very worried about this. Apparently what happens in America will happen in India with a few year’s delay.

native dance

native dance

we took more pictures with more people than at our own wedding - my face hurt from smiling

we took more pictures with more people than at our own wedding – my face hurt from smiling

We finally made it to our tea and enjoyed our first authentic Indian samosa. It was delicious, but does EVERYTHING have to be so darn spicy? We looked at some photos we had of Caleb and Jason on my iPad as well as some photos of Caleb as a baby and toddler. There were even a few pictures of my ultrasound with Caleb. Irene had never seen anything like it, and had a hard time understanding how the “scan” could tell you the sex of the baby before it was born. (As delicately as I could, I pointed out the “boy parts” on the ultrasound.)

Before we left, the son of the owner of the camp, the Glorious Promised Land, gave us a tour of the property. It is located in a beautiful area south of Bangalore called Nandi Hills. They have orchards fort heir own fruit, a vineyard, farm animals, dorms, a soccer field, and they are putting in a pool and gym. While this is primarily a camp/retreat center for churches and schools, couples can rent a lovely private bungalow for $50 a night.

His Glorious Promised Land church/retreat center, south of Bangalore

His Glorious Promised Land church/retreat center, south of Bangalore

camp lecture hall/worship center

camp lecture hall/worship center

camp vineyard

camp vineyard

camp sculpture

camp sculpture

camp playground

camp playground

camp administrator's housing

camp administrator’s housing

solar panels at the camp heat the bathroom water

solar panels at the camp heat the bathroom water

camp dining hall

camp dining hall

camp dorms

camp dorms

camp dorms

camp dorms

camp dorms

camp dorms

Irene showing me the girls' dorm

Irene showing me the girls’ dorm

view from the camp

view from the camp

en route to the LDP camp south of Bangalore - His Glorious Promised Land - in Nandi Hills

en route to the LDP camp south of Bangalore – His Glorious Promised Land – in Nandi Hills

It was time to say goodbye. Irene asked us to pray for her spiritual growth as well as for her younger brother, Daniel, who was backsliding in his faith. We prayed together and got in the car. There were no tears this time. Our time was rich and blessed beyond anything. We could have imagined.

We will sponsor Irene for two more years. It is against Compassion’s policies to allow sponsors and students to correspond directly while the student is in the program. I understand this and respect it. Irene really wants to Skype with us, but we will have to wait a little longer. In the meantime, she will remain in our prayers and us in hers. Only through the love of Christ, we will never be that far apart.

On the return trip and at dinner we chatted with Alan about various topics: the state of American morals, is Obama a Christian, India’s attempts at population control, how Indian couples are expected to have a child or at least be pregnant within a year of marriage or there is a negative social stigma placed on the couple as well as the difference between American and Indian children and their knowledge of world events. It was a unanimous decision that Indian children would win that prize.

We also talked about how difficult it is to find Compassion partners/churches in which to host projects. Vinay and Alan spoke at length about Vinay’s starting a project near Naidupet, something he’s very interested in. Alan will help him make contacts with the Chennai office, and then it could take two years to make it happen, if it happens. God willing, we’d like to be the project’s first sponsors.

Our train leaves at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow, and I’m actually really tired. I wanted to go to bed early, but our laundry wasn’t finished till 11:00 p.m. So much for packing and getting a decent night’s sleep. But, we have clean laundry!

Random thoughts for the day:
-There are little PSAs during shows and movies on TV, particularly American ones. For example, during scenes with someone smoking, a little blip will run across the screen explaining how smoking kills. Ditto with alcohol.
-We saw a motorcycle with five people on it (two adults and three children) – a new record!

Saturday, June 15
We had to get up at 4:45 to catch our 6:00 a.m. train back to Chennai. On the ride, Alan asked us if he could interview us for an article in Compassion India’s in-country magazine. We said of course as long as he sent us a copy.

We made it to our hotel which is quite exquisite. We had a delicious and expensive Mediterranean tapas lunch; the nicer the hotel, the more expensive the food. Unfortunately, this area of Chennai isn’t conducive to just walking around outside so we found the movie channel and watched several movies. We originally planned on going to the gym and then for a swim, but we were just too tired (tired = lazy.) We were both asleep by 8:30.

Chennai hotel

Chennai hotel

Chennai hotel

Chennai hotel

view from our Chennai hotel

view from our Chennai hotel

looking down

looking down

looking up

looking up

freaky ad for the hotel's spa inside the elevator

freaky ad for the hotel’s spa inside the elevator

Random thoughts for the day:
-Who knew I liked hummus? Maybe because it wasn’t the cheap stuff people always buy in American grocery stores.
-Always take the free shower caps from hotels. They are great for wrapping things like shoes or stinky clothes in for packing.
-Chennai, from what we have seen, is definitely the armpit of India.

Meeting Sai

29 06 2013

For the first installment of our India Adventures, read An Introduction to India.

Tuesday, June 11
How do you describe a relationship you’ve had with someone for 14 years, but only on paper? We’ve seen Sai grow up. We were there when he decided to follow Christ. We were there when his father, a fisherman in the Bay of Bengal, died in a freak boating accident. But only on paper. The countless words on the paper became a real person today, and my life will forever be changed.

meeting Sai, a student we've sponsored through Compassion International for 14 years

meeting Sai, a student we’ve sponsored through Compassion International for 14 years

meeting Sai, a student we've sponsored through Compassion International for 14 years

more flower garlands and some other gifts

The drive from Ongole to Bapatla was about 45 minutes on the worst roads Vinay has ever driven on. Granted, he’s only been driving for a month, but still. They were bad. We went to the Compassion project first where Sai and the staff were waiting with flower garlands and gifts. Those first few minutes are always awkward for me. I’m usually pretty emotional so I can’t say much for fear of bursting into tears. I just smiled a lot and let Matthew do the talking.

Compassion project Sai attends

Compassion project Sai attends

staff members at the Compassion project

staff members at the Compassion project

We spent about a 1/2 hour at the project talking with the director, Vikram. We have been the second sponsor visit since the project began in 2000. They serve anywhere from 195 (current enrollment) to 300 students each year. I know full well how expensive it is to travel internationally as well as the difficulty in planning and getting time away from work, but it still really saddens me that in 13 years only two couples have visited their sponsored children here. (The other couple was from Wisconsin. There is something special about Cheeseheads.)

Vinay asked us about how much we eat out in America yesterday at lunch. We were eating in a restaurant, a luxury for him. We told him we only eat out about once a month. We said we prefer to save our money so that we can travel. And not just travel, but travel with a purpose: to help, to serve, to bless. Forgoing other luxuries, for that truly is what they are . . . luxuries, is worth the experience of of a lifetime in a land without email, Internet, flush toilets, air conditioning, or electricity. There is absolutely no possible way to compare a year’s worth of eating out each week to being able to impact a life with a 5-hour visit on the other side of the world.

Vikram told us that the local community is still fairly hostile to Christians. He told us that everyone in town, regardless of their religion, must pay fees to the government for the Hindu festivals. If Christians refuse to pay, they will be discriminated against, so even Christians must pay this “Hindu Tax.”


Hindu temple near Sai’s home

another Hindu temple near Sai's home

another Hindu temple near Sai’s home

Normally, communities where Compassion projects are located see a noticeable improvement in economic and social relations, but this community is different. They attribute it to the fact that the local economy is served by fishermen, and as such, they really never want for food or a job. They have a “we don’t need you” attitude.

fishermen on the Bay of Bengal (Indian Ocean) - less than a mile from Sai's house and where his father worked

fishermen on the Bay of Bengal (Indian Ocean) – less than a mile from Sai’s house and where his father worked

Despite these hindrances, the students are thriving. Educationally, they have several top level students heading to college. Athletically, their students win a significant numer of awards and medals in various competitions from dance to karate. Socially, they have recently begun a coffee house one night each week that has been very successful.

coffee house sign

coffee house sign

This project has also implemented a new way to manage the children they serve. Rather than having different staff members responsible for different classes and programs, one staff member now stays with the same 30 student for their duration, overseeing all aspects of program. This, too, has been quite successful and is now being implemented in projects all around the world. Unfortunately, we later learned from Alan that this project was being phased out due administrative issues.

The project director and staff heeped praise after praise on Sai. He won the “Top Student” award this year. He’s won several medals in chess and karate. He is a leader at the project and within the Christian community where he lives. He refuses to deny his faith in the face of persecution and ridicule. Though he is not my birth son, I still felt a great motherly pride for him.

After our time at the project, we walked over to Sai’s home, one block away. His entire family, immediate and extended, were waiting for us. Sai has three sisters, two brothers, his mom, and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, and one living grandmother. As with the other places we’ve visited on this trip, we were properly gawked at, being the only white people some of them had ever seen.

Sai's home is just across this field from the Compassion project

Sai’s home is just across this field from the Compassion project

Sai's home

Sai’s home

Sai's home - many people sleep outside during the summer due to the heat

Sai’s home – many people sleep outside during the summer due to the heat

Sai's family

Sai’s family

I like to ask our Compassion host about when they tell our children that we’re visiting. In our first three visits, our children were told the day before. With this visit, they were given more notice, so they were ready. I still get teary-eyed when I think about Sai first learning we were coming to visit him. He, too, got emotional a few times, asking, “Is this a dream?”

We were served fruit and drinks (thank goodness it was healthy stuff this time) and were introduced to each member of his family. I must say, I’m not a fan of mango, but the mango Sai served us was amazing. Mango I’ve had in the States tastes nothing like this stuff.

gifts for Sai - a T-shirt from FRA's Spiritual Emphasis week, a USA flag and map (with Nashville highlighted), school supplies, and a box of Jelly Bellies

gifts for Sai – a T-shirt from FRA’s Spiritual Emphasis week, a USA flag and map (with Nashville highlighted), school supplies, and a box of Jelly Bellies

a feast of fruit - and the best tasting mango I've ever had

a feast of fruit – and the best tasting mango I’ve ever had

Sai's deceased father

Sai’s deceased father

After this, we headed back to Ongole for lunch with him at our hotel, and his younger sister joined us. This is where the conversation went from awkward formalities to authentic. We talked about his schooling–he will take his exit exams in August, and if he does well, he can get a good job teaching math in a government school.

eating together at our hotel's lunch buffet

eating together at our hotel’s lunch buffet

He was very curious about me, asking how I balance work with family and what the classes that I teach are like. He asked me to sing a song for him so he could record it on his phone. It didn’t matter that we were in the middle of a busy restaurant at rush hour lunch. I obliged but made Matthew sing “Amazing Grace” with me. Somehow Sai, Matthew, and Vinay got to discussing the Big Bang Theory and how does it mesh with scripture. I admit I tuned out for a while there.

As it became clear the time to part was near, our talk turned to thanks and blessings. Sai made us promise to continue sponsoring children after he graduated in August. We promised we would. What he said next brought me to tears. “You are my mother and father to me.” As I mentioned earlier, his father died quite few years ago, and his mother and the rest of his family are Hindu. She wasn’t hostile to Christianity, and she actually encouraged him to attend church each week. However, that still left a spiritual void among his family. From half-way around the world, we have been filling that void for him for the past 14 years.

He wiped a tear from my eye, and said, “Auntie, don’t cry. We will meet again. If not here, then in heaven.” He gave Matthew a long hug, we prayed, and said goodbye. For a male Indian to show such physical affection is uncommon in his culture, but we were very, very grateful for it. I wanted to give him a hug, too, but that definitely would have been inappropriate. I did get to hug his sister and the female project staff member with us.

We may live half-a-world apart, but our prayers will forever keep us bound together. He begged us not to forget him. How could we?

As I reflect back on our visit with Sai, I have two final pleas.
1) If you don’t sponsor a child, consider it. I promise you your $38 each month is being well spent and is changing lives, families, and entire communities for the better.
2) If you do sponsor a child, SEND LETTERS and photos of your family. Tell them stories of your life. Share your favorite Bible verses. These little bits of encouragement, even a few times a year, have an incredible impact on these children. Also, research has shown that children who receive at least two letters each year do noticeably better in school and are more socially well adjusted. You can even correspond via email so there is no excuse.

If you would like to sponsor a child, visit Compassion International, and remember,

“A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” –Proverbs 11:25

India Itinerary

5 06 2013

When Matthew and I married, we made it a goal to travel internationally once each year, and for 15 years, we’ve been blessed to be able to do this. We’ve been all over Europe, Central and South America, China, New Zealand, and Australia. And now on our 15th anniversary, we embark on possibly our most adventurous trip to date . . . India!

We’ve been planning this trip for several years, saving money and our frequent flyer miles. Thanks to those miles, we got business class seats for free. (Delayed gratification has many benefits!)

When we tell people we’re heading to India, the first question is usually, “Is it a mission trip?” Well, yes. And no. The first half is mission-ish, the second half is purely site seeing, but I certainly pray we will be a blessing to people we come into contact with throughout.



June 5: Begin our flights to Chennai

June 6: Layover in Abu Dhabi, probably the coolest place we’ve ever had a layover

June 7: Arrive in Chennai, travel from Chennai to Naidupet and visit with Vinay and Suneetha K. Vinay is a local pastor we have been supporting for several years. We first met him in 2008 when he came to the States for a world-wide Christian convention. He is going to be our guide for the first half our trip.

June 8: Naidupet, visit with Vinay and Suneetha and tour their area

June 9: Worship with Vinay and Suneetha at the church Vinay pastors

June 10: Travel from Naidupet to Ongole for visit with Singothu in Bapatla (sponsored Compassion child)

June 11: Compassion Visit with Singothu in Bapatla

One of our goals is to visit all the children we sponsor through Compassion International. We’ve visited three so far (Peru, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua) and will be visiting two more on this trip. That leaves us four more in the coming years.

We can’t really call Singothu a child since he’s near 20. We’ve been sponsoring him for 13 years, and he’s getting ready to graduate from the program.

June 12: Travel by train from Ongole back to Naidupet

June 13: Travel by car from Naidupet to Chennai; Train from Chennai to Bangalore

June 14: Compassion Visit with Irene D. (sponsored child) in Bangalore; Speak with staff and students at the Compassion International Leadership Development Program

Irene is in the Leadership Development Program (LDP), meaning she has graduated from the regular sponsorship program and is now attending university. This is a completely different program from the regular Compassion sponsorship program. Monthly sponsorship is $300 since we are basically paying for Irene to attend college. She attends Anna University in Chennai which is where we were expecting to visit with her, but she is at a special LDP camp that week which she cannot leave. We weren’t originally anticipating visiting Bangalore, but now we are. Since we’re heading to this camp to visit Irene, the Compassion staff has asked us to speak to the rest of the students and staff while we’re there. I’m really excited about this opportunity to speak to future Christian leaders in India. What we’re going to say, I have no idea.

June 15: Train from Bangalore to Chennai

June 16: Fly from Chennai to New Delhi.

There is a Catholic cathedral about 1 mile from our hotel in Chennai, St. George’s Cathedral. I hope we can attend mass there before leaving Chennai.

June 17: New Delhi; we have a day on our own before our guided tour starts tomorrow

June 18: Fly from Delhi to Varanasi (Varanasi is the heart of the Hindu culture—should be interesting.)

June 19: Travel from Varanasi to Khajuraho (Khajuraho is known for its erotic stone carvings in caves and on cliffs—should also be interesting.)

June 20: Travel from Khajuraho to Jhansi

June 21: Train ride to Agra and visit Taj Mahal’s Moonlight Garden at sunset

June 22: Tour Taj Mahal at sunrise; Travel to Jaipur, the “Pink City”

June 23: Tour Jaipur

June 24: Travel from Jaipur to Delhi; Tour Delhi

June 25: Tour Delhi

June 26: Fly home, layover in Amman

We covet your prayers for safe travels, good health, and that we would be a blessing to everyone we meet.

This Is Why You’re Not Getting a Christmas Card From Us This Year (or maybe ever again)

6 12 2012

No More Christmas Cards explains how we came to our decision to NOT send Christmas cards this year.

So, the winner of what would have been our Christmas money was Safe Haven Family Shelter, by almost a 3-1 vote.  I was introduced to Safe Haven almost two years ago, and since then, both Caleb and Jason have joined me on various occasions to help provide dinner for the residents.

Besides the money issue, the other reason you are not getting a Christmas card from us is because this is it!  SURPRISE dear readers!  We’re going all-digital this year.

Many of you keep up with us via Facebook anyway, so you already know our year in review.  For those who don’t, here you go:

The Huddleston 2012 Year in Review

Matthew continues to teach physics and launch high altitude balloons at Trevecca Nazarene University.  He loves his job, and even took on the challenge of hosting a national high altitude balloon conference at TNU in June.

He finished his first (and possibly, probably, hopefully last) full marathon in April.  His goal was an ambitious 4:00, but he made it around 4:25.  This is incredibly impressive considering he only “trained” once each week . . . most of the time.

He has also completed several mud runs, the latest rage in running races around the country.  Now that he’s in a new age bracket, he will probably start placing and winning some nice prizes.

On a heavier note, Matthew’s dad, Mark, was diagnosed with colon cancer in October.  He had surgery just a few days after.  The doctors thought they got all of the cancer, but subsequent tests showed a spot on a lymph node.  He is currently undergoing chemo therapy once every two weeks for six months.  His doctors remain very optimistic, but we’d still appreciate your prayers for complete healing and for strength and endurance for Mark and Martha during this time.

Kelly (me) continues to teach technology and journalism/graphic design at Franklin Road Academy.  I also love my job.  I did NOT do a ½ (or full) marathon this year, and I feel great!  Triathlons are my new thing (My First Triathlon).  Having successfully finished three of them, I can no longer qualify for placings in the Beginner category.  However, being really a really weak swimmer, mediocre bicyclist, and slow runner, I wouldn’t qualify for placings in any category anyway.  Maybe when I’m 80 and still doing triathlons will I win something.

Gourmet cupcakes are my newest indulgence so if you are ever looking for a gift . . .  (I also love chocolate and a good extra sharp cheddar cheese.)  However, I really need to be eating more fruit and vegetables, so a membership in some sort of fruit-of-the-month club would be a better gift.

Matthew and Kelly’s (our) international trip this year took us to Nicaragua in July.  We met another one of the kids we sponsor through Compassion International.  Always an eye-opening, life-changing event, you can read about it here:  Open My Eyes.  You can also read about the amazing amount of fun hell we had as we hiked a volcano on Ometepe Island.

Next year’s trip is another once-in-a-lifetime trip:  india!  For three weeks we will traverse a good chunk of the country in June.  The first 10 days or so will be spent in Chennai and traveling up the Indian Ocean coast of south eastern India, mainly to visit two more kids they sponsor through Compassion International (link) as well as spend some time with a friend who pastors a church in a small village there.  During the second half of the trip, we will get to play tourist:  visit the Taj Mahal, ride elephants and camels in the dessert, visit Agra, Jaipur, New Delhi, and take a boat tour along the Ganges River in Varanasi, the heart of the Hindu culture.  Expect great blog posts to come from this adventure.

Other big news for 2012 included placing membership in a new church, Priest Lake Christian Fellowship.  Our former home church group, the Gathering, fizzled out as families found new churches around the Nashville area, so we started looking, too.  Being less than a mile from our home was a great benefit, but the people were the main draw.  We have never been to a more humble church where the Holy Spirit is so alive and thriving among its members.  It’s inspiring and challenging and moving each week.

Caleb is in fourth grade at Franklin Road Academy and continues to love school and excel in his academics.  To brag on this child for a moment, he has yet to receive a B in any term grade since he started PK.  He’s got his Daddy’s brains and aptitude for math and building things.  Caleb continues to love all things Star Wars, but his Pokemon obsession (thank goodness!) has come to an end.  If you know of anyone interested in buying a 700+ card Pokemon collection, please let us know.

Caleb’s newest obsession is legos.  The kid lives and breathes legos, which we are fine with.  He actually builds some really cool things, like a working flashlight—complete with an on/off lever and working bulb.

Caleb is also learning to play the recorder and trumpet, and we (as in Kelly) are trying desperately (and futilely) to get him to sing “This Song is Just Six Words Long” by Weird Al Yankovic in the Fourth Grade Variety Show in January.  Weird Al is another recent obsession of Caleb’s, and being the cool parents we are, for his birthday we bought him tickets to see Weird Al in concert in April when he comes to Nashville.

Caleb is a Webelo scout this year, and is a popcorn selling machine!  He sold over $1500 to win first place again in his cub scout pack.  He won an archery set, 8% of his total sales in cash, a $50 Walmart gift card, an LED head lamp, a patch, Predators’ tickets, and a trophy.  (Don’t get me started on winning trophies for something like selling popcorn.  Let’s just say, I’m not a fan of the practice.)

Caleb’s most exciting adventure this year, though, was his ER trip that led to a hospital stay for a couple of days at the end of August for pneumonia.  Despite this bump in the road, we are still tremendously blessed.  His asthma and allergies have plagued him something fierce this fall, much worse than normal.  We have an appointment with an asthma/allergy specialist next week so we are praying for something to help manage this better.

Jason started preK at FRA this year, and is loving it.  Being the second child, we did not work with him on things like the alphabet, drawing, writing, or reading much (hardly at all) before he started school.  Thankfully, the kid has a mind like a sponge and is taking off in the writing and reading department.  He also loves to draw.

Jason, too, is obsessed with Star Wars and legos.  At three he could recite entire scenes from Star Wars.  I’m not sure if I should be proud or embarrassed by this.  Did I mention he was three at the time?  The kid can build lego creations with the best of them . . . well, maybe not a working flashlight yet, but he can build really cool spaceships, race cars, jails, mouse traps, and monsters.

Jason and Caleb took their first official swimming lessons this summer.  Lesson 1 involved Jason crying and screaming for the full 45 minute session.  He had snot running out of both nostrils to his belly button when I picked him up.  He only cried for about 15 minutes of lesson 2, and by lesson 3 he was actually excited to go.  Now, of course, the kid is terrified to put his head in the water, which reminds Kelly of herself as a child forced to take swimming lessons.

Packer, our dog, continues to love to eat anything that falls on the floor including baby spit-up (true story) as well as grass to later make herself throw-up said baby spit-up.  She loves to sleep during the day and wake us up around 4:00 a.m. to pee and play.

Finley Bubbles the VIII, our beta fish, didn’t last the year.  At this time, we are uncertain if we will buy Finley Bubbles the IX.

Hopes and prayers for 2013:

  • Good health for everyone
  • A safe and amazing trip to India
  • Jobs we love
  • Caleb and Jason would continue to grow and mature in their faith, following Christ
  • Matthew and Kelly possibly beginning a new Marriage Builders home church group
  • Kelly hopes to begin working on her MBA at Trevecca in the fall

As we reflect back and look forward, may we always remember WHY we celebrate.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son,
who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
-John 1:14

Love and prayers to all,
the Huddleston Family

PS.  If any of you find yourselves in Nashville and need a place to stay, we’ve got plenty of room and love house guests.

No More Christmas Cards

18 11 2012

After looking at our Christmas card list that has now expanded to over 200 families, it’s getting a little expensive to mail them out.

  • $100 for 200 family portrait cards printed (minimum)
  • $50 for 200 newsletters printed (paper & ink if we did it at home or the same if we had Kinkos print)
  • $100 for postage
  • My time and effort into making all of this happen for something that will at best be recycled in a few weeks and at worst end up in a landfill = PRICELESS

We are going to do something different this year.  As a family, we have decided to forgo the sending of traditional Christmas cards and instead are going to donate the $250 it would have cost to mail these to one of our favorite charities listed below.

I’m also going to post this on Facebook and send it out through email to friends and family.

Whichever organization gets the most votes by December 1 will get the money.  PLEASE VOTE in the comment section.  Where should we donate?

Open My Eyes

17 07 2012

I woke up last Wednesday morning and asked God to open my eyes to see whatever it was I needed to see.  In just a few hours, my husband and I were to visit child #3 of 8 whom we sponsor through Compassion International.  Based on our first two visits—Santiago in Lima, Peru in 2009; and Liset in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 2010 (read about that visit:  A Day in the Life of Compassion)—we knew this could be a life changing experience.  (photos at the end)

 During my normal morning routine, I began to wonder. . .

  • Did Ashling (age 5) have the luxury of her own bed?
  • Did that bed have a pillow top mattress with Egyptian linens and too many pillows to count like the one in our hotel room?
  • Did she have a window that opened to a gorgeous setting of palm trees, beautiful and lush tropical landscaping, and a pool?
  • Did she have air conditioning?
  • Did she have a shower?
  • Did she have hot water?
  • Did she even have running water in her home?
  • Was the water she had access to even safe to drink without being treated first?
  • Did she have shampoo, conditioner, and body wash readily available?
  • Did she have as many changes of clothes in her entire wardrobe as I had in my suitcase for one week’s worth of travel?
  • Had she ever seen as much food in one place as was available at our breakfast buffet?
  • Did she have the luxury of pushing aside food items because 1) she didn’t like them and 2) simply because she could?
  • Did her little belly ever get truly full after a meal?
  • Was she ever able to go back for seconds?
  • Did she have the luxury of beginning her day in silence, reading her Bible and having her own solitary quiet time?

So many more questions ran through my mind as I prepped for the day.  God certainly opened my eyes and made me consider all those normal daily activities I take for granted.  I don’t remember the last time I thought about whether or not someone had running water in their home or how many pieces of clothing were in her closet.

No detail this morning escaped examination and wonder as I thought about what Ashling was doing.  That lady cleaning the floors, she might have been Ashling’s aunt.  That guy picking up trash in the street, he could have been her father.  So many things, so many people I normally overlook suddenly mattered. 

I was at once convicted and humbled and grateful and overwhelmed.  God was certainly opening my eyes.

Sabina, one of Compassion’s 35 translators in Managua, Nicaragua arrived and we were en route to Ashling’s neighborhood Grenada Managua.  It was a much shorter drive than I anticipated from our hotel.  Poverty and excess (our hotel falling in the excess category) were only a few feet from each other.

Ashling’s neighborhood was literally one turn off of a main thoroughfare, but upon leaving that nice smooth, paved street for the mostly packed dirt road leading to her community let us know we in a very different place.  The trash flowed on the streets more freely.  Malnourished dogs slept in the middle of the street or dug through the garbage for a scrap.  Young boys and old men driving horse-drawn carts were as numerous as the cheap taxis.  Women carrying baskets of fruit and bags of cashews perfectly balanced on their heads walked the streets, hoping to sell their goods, earning at least enough to feed their family at dinner.  Bars and iron gates covered every door and window.  A motorcycle with a family of four—all four!—rode past us. 

Once we stepped out of the taxi, we became the main attraction for a short while as we waited outside the Compassion Project.  Once the project’s secretary, Raquel, arrived, we were ushered into the office.  We were shown Ashling’s “file” which contained information about every letter written or received, her academic progress, family information, medical data, etc.  The saddest note was realizing Ashling had formerly been sponsored by another family.  We didn’t know she lost her sponsorship when we began sponsoring her earlier this year.  Thankfully though, she was only without a sponsor for a few months.  Some children go for years before being chosen.  (Please consider sponsoring a child who has been waiting for over six months or ask for one who has been waiting the longest.  Too often sponsors go for the cutest face.)

We chatted with Raquel about the project while waiting for Ashling and her mother to arrive.  We learned:

  • There were approximately 150 Compassion projects in Nicaragua, and Compassion had been in the country for only 10 years.
  • There were 150 students at Ashling’s project, “God in Action.”
  • The project focuses on four main areas of education and growth:  spiritual, physical, academic, and hygiene.
  • In the past two years, there had only been four sponsor visits—our visit being number four.  This saddened me.  Supporting Compassion and sponsoring a child is an amazing commitment and blessing to these children and their families, but I have been convicted that God calls me to much more than just writing a check each month.  That is one of the reasons Matthew and I are on a mission to personally visit each of our sponsored children.  Simply writing a check is too easy.  I need to get out of my comfort zone in my attempts to bless others.
  • The project does have running, potable water.
  • There were 12 people on staff at this project—six teachers, four office staff, one cook, and one maintenance person.
  • The project provides the school uniform and supplies for all students as well as necessary medical checkups and treatments.
  • All students get a hot meal during their daily time at the project.

When Ashling and her mother, Maria, finally arrived, I don’t think I could speak for several minutes.  I completely overcome by this incredibly beautiful five-year-old girl standing in front of me with the sweetest, shyest, smile.  Ashling was radiant!  Clearly, this day, she was a princess and the star of the show—something way out of her comfort zone.  She was in a new dress they bought just for this occasion, and she shyly, yet proudly, showed us the “high heel” shoes she bought with the birthday money we had sent.

Ashling presented us with a photo of her in a frame she made as well as a necklace of blown glass.  We also gave Ashling a gift bag consisting of a notebook, note pads, pencils, crayons, pens, balloons, toothpaste, a tooth brush, hand sanitizer, a US map (so we could show her where we live) and a world map (so we could show her where we are in relation to one another).  As a last minute addition before we left Nashville, I added a doll from my doll collection from when I was a little girl.  The look on Ashling’s face when she pulled out the doll was priceless.  Her eyes got wide, she was speechless, and she hugged and sang to it for the entirety of our visit.  At first she named it Maria, after her mother, but she later changed it to Kelly.

We spoke together for a while and toured the rest of the project building which mainly consisted of the church and one large room partitioned off with shelves in order to make three smaller areas for the classes.  In speaking with Ashling and her mother, we learned:

  • Ashling is an only child.
  • Her mother is studying to become a baker and wants to open her own bakery someday.
  • Her father is a barber.
  • They live about a 15 minute walk away from the project.
  • Ashling’s birthday was just a few weeks prior to our visit.  For birthdays, the project takes all the kids who have a birthday in that month to a local restaurant (think McDonalds or KFC) where they get a meal, games, and a piñata.
  • Ashling’s family does have running water at home.
  • Maria has a sister who is mentally handicapped.  Maria commented that her sister will be very happy with all the paper and pencils we brought for the family because her sister loves to draw.
  • Ashling loves to paint and sing.  With a little begging, we got her to sing us a song.
  • Ashling loves to play teacher with her dolls and friends.  She also enjoys putting makeup on her dolls and friends, and it doesn’t matter if her friend is a girl or a boy.
  • Ashling is very bright, but she is also quite “delicate” as Raquel told us.  She gets sick often, usually around the changing of the seasons, and she misses a lot of school.  Thankfully, the project helps provide any medicine she needs.

Our time together was short, and we couldn’t visit her home as we had hoped.  Regardless, those few hours together will stay with me for a very, very long time.

I left feeling overwhelmed.  Overwhelmed with gratitude that we are able to sponsor Ashling and actually meet her.  Overwhelmed with a knot in my gut as I compared my life to hers. 

I asked God to open my eyes, and He did.

I take for granted so many things.  I don’t think twice about indoor plumbing, air conditioning, readily available and safe drinking water, or the fact that my children can get a free education.

My home is probably 4-5 times the size of Ashling’s home.  We have one car, one van, and one motorcycle.  Our children attend one of the finest private schools in middle Tennessee.  We have disposable income that allows us to shop at Pottery Barn and travel internationally.  My running shoes probably cost more than Ashling’s family makes in a year.  God has abundantly blessed my family, and we do give generously of our resources, yet I feel unsettled inside.

If you are reading this, I consider you blessed, too.  Not blessed because you are reading my blog, though I hope it is a blessing, but rather blessed in that you have access to a computer and the Internet.  You are blessed with abundant time if you’ve made it this far with me, and blessed that you’ve had an education because you are literate and are able to read this.  I also imagine you are sitting in a comfortable chair, probably in an air conditioned room—more blessings.  I could on—a full refrigerator and pantry, a chest full of toys for your kids, a linen closet full of more towels and bars of soap than people in your house.  Even credit card debt or a car loan, curses that they are, demonstrate the easy access you have to everything and anything your heart desires, even though you can’t afford it but feel entitled to it.

If you are feeling convicted, join the club.  I’ve just described my life, minus the debt.  This is why I am unsettled.  I feel I need to be doing something differently with my resources.  While I don’t know exactly what it is yet I am to be doing, I know God will continue to open my eyes.

(Click on a photo to see a full size version and run through the slide show.)