Visit with Sonia and Lesli
Today I visited with Sonia and Lesli in Antigua. We’ve sponsored Sonia for almost a year and a half, and Lesli since October. We started the day at the community center. Sonia, Lesli, their moms and Lesli’s sister Gricelda were waiting in a small room when we arrived. Sonia and Lesli had each made a welcome sign, and they decorated a door in the room for me. The girls opened their gift bags - as usual, the photo albums got the most attention.
Sonia and her mom also gave me a gift bag, which I wasn’t expecting at all! Sonia’s mom works in the coffee industry, and they gave me a shoulder bag made from a coffee sack, a bag of coffee beans, and several napkins. There was also a picture frame with a picture of Sonia in pageant dress and several handwritten notes from her. I’ve said it before, and I imagine I’ll say it again in the future – it’s unbelievably humbling to receive a gift from people who have so little.
From the community center, we got in the van to go shopping. The girls wanted to shop for clothes, and we went to a market where CI has a vendor they work with regularly. Not going to a big box store meant no credit card, though, and I was a bit short on cash to cover the full shopping budget Ward and I had planned to give the girls, so first we needed to stop by the ATM. The combination of today being the last day of the month and tomorrow being a holiday meant there was a bit of a line, which gave us some time to chat.
The girls were very interested in hearing about Chicago. Ward and I are also currently paying tuition for both girls, so I asked how school has been for them so far this year. Sonia is enjoying attending private school. She said that the class sizes are smaller, and the teachers seem to know their subjects better. She is especially enjoying math, accounting and graphic design. Lesli is back in school after several years off and is in a program that allows her to cover two years in one. She said that she’s finding it a bit difficult after not going to school for a while, but she’s trying her best. As far as favorite subjects, she said she likes them all – she’s just happy to have the opportunity to be back in school.
After we eventually made it through the ATM line, we headed to the designated clothing stall. The girls had a thorough look around and tried a few things on. Lesli ended up with a top and a pair of pants, and Sonia chose pants, a top and a jacket. I also invited Gricelda to choose something for herself, and she got a pair of pants. That still left us at about half of the total budget I had allocated for both girls, so we went to look at shoes. Watching Lesli’s face as she was handed pairs of shoes was pretty entertaining – she was most definitely not a fan of the first few pairs! She ended up with sneakers, and Sonia got a pair of boots.
After shopping, we walked to lunch at a nearby restaurant. While we were waiting for a table, I took the opportunity to talk to Gricelda a little bit. I had asked before leaving the US and found out that she is currently sponsored. That said, today I learned that she unfortunately has a very inactive sponsor. She has never received a letter or any additional support. She also does not attend school. I told her that I will write to her through Lesli from now on, and CI can look forward to regular inquiries from me about her sponsorship status while I hope that she becomes available so that we can add her to our family. In the meanwhile, I also found out when her birthday is so that I can be sure to send an extra gift around then so she can get something for herself.
After lunch, it was time to take the girls home and say goodbye. We took Lesli’s family home first. She had been telling me all day that her whole family would be there and that they were all very excited to meet me. I ended up meeting her aunt and lots of nieces, nephews and cousins. Their home is built into the side of a hill. It’s essentially three levels, but is made up of four or five separate structures. They’ve formed a steep staircase in the hill, and the stairs are mostly held in place by scrap metal. It was an impressive little compound, but the best part was when I turned around and saw the view of the mountains – it was spectacular. Lesli was also excited to show me her family’s two rabbits. (They tried to send one home with me, but fortunately Alejandra explained that I wouldn’t be able to get it through customs.)
As we inched closer to the actual moment of goodbyes, Lesli gave me a lot of hugs and told me that she loves me very much, and that Ward and I are like second parents to her. I put a lot of effort into reminding myself that I still had Sonia in the van and probably shouldn’t let myself become a sobbing mess saying goodbye to Lesli… but it was really, really hard to keep it together. It was definitely among the toughest goodbyes I’ve had. I'm already hard at work trying to figure out how to come back for another visit before Lesli turns 19 next April.
After that, it was time to take Sonia and her mom home. They live in a town just outside of Antigua. Their home was all on one level, but also seemed to be up of several small structures. We stayed outside in a small courtyard-like area. When we arrived, Sonia’s grandmother was hanging laundry. She was wearing beautiful traditional clothing. It felt very special to have the opportunity to meet her. I also met a number of family pets, including a rabbit, two cats, a kitten (who they tried to give me, but again, customs to the rescue), two puppies and a pigeon. We talked for a few minutes and took some pictures, and then said our goodbyes and walked back to the van. Sonia and her mom walked back with us, and just before we pulled away, Sonia started to cry.
Visiting changes everything. It’s been true, without fail, since my very first visit in Mexico last August – meeting the girls and their families changes everything. It changes them from pictures on the refrigerator to actual living, breathing people. A sponsor in the social center on the CI website said recently that “You can give as much as you want, but you should never expect love, not friendship, in return. The children might be grateful and behave polite, but they don't need a friend. They have their parents, friends, teachers, and their strong community. When they write they love you, they are only being polite. […] Basically, the best thing is to leave them alone since the only thing they need is access to the programs of which they apply.” I couldn't disagree more, and to him I would say: Visit your sponsored children. See their faces when you walk into the community center and they see you for the first time. Listen to their parents tell you how their children couldn’t sleep the night before because they were so excited to meet you. Watch their faces and listen to their voices when they tell you that you have given them one of the best days of their lives, that they never, ever thought someone would travel so far just to see them, that they can’t believe that a virtual stranger half a world away cares about their well-being and their future. Yes, Ward and I provide as much financial support as we can for various projects and needs for our girls, but just as important—and possibly even more so—is that we do absolutely everything we can to make sure they know that they are special, they are important, and they matter. And I would argue that in their own ways, they do the same for us.