One of the most revealing parts of working for CARITAS For Children is witnessing how children are selected for sponsorship through our Catholic charity. It is encouraging because children who are in deep need have hope of receiving assistance from a sponsor after completing this process. There is a part of me, however, that feels a bit helpless seeing the tremendous, even overwhelming, need in this region of Africa. I can’t help wondering why I was born into such different circumstances…
The first part of the child selection process is the initial interview. Families come from the village to meet with our Coordinator in Uganda, Mr. Joseph Kkonde. Guardians bring their children up to the top of the hill in Nkokonjeru, near where I am staying, to ask for a chance to have their children sponsored. These families come to Joseph, often unannounced, to request assistance with school fees. They know that Joseph has a connection to those who would open their hearts to sponsor a child. For that is one of our main goals: to serve the poorest of the poor, especially children who would not be able to attend school without sponsorship.
After these initial interviews, Joseph makes an unannounced visit to these families’ homes in order to confirm that they are in true need of our assistance. Last week, I joined Joseph in these follow-up visits. During these visits, two children in particular, Ruthie and Patrick, made a deep impression on me.
Below is a picture of a smiley little girl named Ruthie. I found Ruthie sitting on the ground, playing with her little kitten. She immediately looked up at me, smiling with her pretty, sparkly eyes. I sat down and started talking to her in my broken Luganda, which made her laugh and imitate my broken pronunciation. Her perplexed smile said, “Why is this man speaking my language in such a funny way?”
While I spoke with Ruthie, Joseph asked her guardian questions. We learned that Ruthie’s mother had left her when she was very young. Moreover, her father had recently drowned in Lake Victoria, leaving her aunt alone to raise her. Ruthie’s aunt, struggling to make money to send her own children to school, told us that without assistance Ruthie would not be able to go to school. From my broken conversation and interactions with Ruthie, it was impossible not to fall in love with the little girl. I realized that, in addition to being sweet, she was also bright. But after looking at her blameless face, I found myself asking, “How could Ruthie deserve a life filled with so much hardship? Where is the justice? Why does she not deserve an education?”
From her impoverished living situation, it was clear that this little girl did not have much. But the striking truth in all of this, however, is that Ruthie possessed a contagious joy: playing, laughing, telling jokes, and running around with her little cousins. How to find joy within the daily struggle: that is a lesson that the example six-year-old Ruthie can teach all of us.
The second child that we visited was a five-year-old boy named Patrick. This little boy was particularly shy; he didn’t take to my broken Luganda in the same way that Ruthie did. When I looked him in the eyes, I saw a difference; there was a deep sadness and loneliness that I could not get past.
After Patrick’s grandmother told us that his mother had abandoned him “after trying to kill him” as a baby, and that his father recently abandoned him to move to Kampala, I began to understand where his sadness came from. I remember holding Patrick’s hand and wanting so much to make him feel loved, but not knowing how. I can’t imagine how such constant abandonment would affect me. Wishing Patrick strength and holding his hand tight, I felt helpless, wanting to provide this beautiful child with something.
But looking deeply into his eyes again, behind the sadness, I also realized that Patrick possessed a strength that no five-year-old should need to possess. Despite anything that I could or could not give him, Patrick, as a method of survival through his turmoil and tragedy, was growing up to be undoubtedly strong. How to be strong through hardship: again, a lesson that so many of us can learn from five-year-old Patrick's example.
Meeting these two small children was so humbling. Ruthie’s joy and Patrick’s strength confirmed a deep truth for me: truly the smallest and most vulnerable of God’s children are those who are often the most resilient in life...and can teach us so, so much.