Note: This is a guest post from Children International, a top rated charity that provides assistance to children and families struggling in terrible poverty.
In 1985, a young girl in India, Maria Kanji, was enrolled in our program. Her sponsor was Christine Futia. Maria faced numerous hardships as she grew into a woman, and Chris, as she prefers to be called, has had her own challenges.
Recently, Chris decided to return to India to meet with some of the children she has sponsored over the years.
An Indian Sojourn
It all started when Chris was 16 and left the U.S. for a rural village in India, where she lived as an exchange student for a year. “I arrived with the monsoon,” she recalls. “I went to school in the middle of a muddy cow pasture. Cows actually wandered into our classrooms sometimes.” Her homesickness was overwhelming. “I felt like Dorothy in Oz, but I couldn’t find my slippers.”
Once home, Chris says she tucked the experience away in a corner of her memory. It eventually seemed so far removed from her life back in the States that it just didn’t make much sense. “There seemed to be no overlap between my ‘ordinary life’ and my sojourn in India,” Chris explains.
Her life unfolded. Chris went to college and later married. She and her husband decided to adopt children. That’s when a light sparked within her, she says, and her time in India suddenly made sense. Chris’ experience as an exchange student provided her with insight into – and an appreciation for – Indian culture. “It had prepared me to be an adoptive parent for children in India,” she states.
Chris says she felt compelled to sponsor a child before she and her husband welcomed their first adopted child into their home. It seemed important to her that they support an impoverished child living in India.
That sponsored child was Maria.
Reaching Beyond the Slum
On the morning of Chris’s visit, Maria – now a 30-year-old woman – was accompanied by her husband and two children. While waiting anxiously, she shuffled back and forth in the shadows cast from a seven-story colonial building.
When a car pulled up, Maria’s eyes turned a shade lighter, from guarded anticipation to exuberant joy. When Chris exited the car, the two embraced like old friends, separated by space but not time. Their hug was heartfelt – their affection for one another obvious and genuine. Chris tearfully whispered, “My dear child,” before letting Maria go.
The two have remained in contact for most of the past 25 years, exchanging letters and photos. This is their fifth face-to-face visit.“Whenever Auntie Chris has written or visited,” Maria says, “she has left a part of her warmth behind for us to hold on to when things have been difficult. I developed confidence in myself and learned to take responsibility for my actions because of her belief in me.”
Their strong bond – and the long-term influence of sponsorship – is bridging to the next generation. “Education is Maria’s number one priority for her children,” says Chris. “She pushes her girls in school and spends a lot of time doing homework with them.” Chris adds that Maria’s sponsorship helped her reach beyond the basti (slum) where she lived with her parents. “Because of her sponsorship,” Chris says, “Maria’s girls will be educated women who will have easier lives with less hardship.”
Dealing with Life’s Curveballs
Maria wasn’t the only sponsored child that Chris visited on her trip. She also met with one of her previous sponsored children, Partha Naskar, who graduated from the program in 2005.
Chris’ breath seemed stolen for a few moments before she leapt to give him a hug. “Oh, Partha, my college graduate!” she exclaimed. Partha, now 25, handed her a bouquet of pink roses he picked from his own garden earlier in the morning. His voice cracking, Partha replied, “Auntie, no college graduate.”
Chris and Partha had lost touch shortly after the young man’s graduation from the sponsorship program, so this was rather startling news. The two had much to say; more than four years had passed since they last communicated. Partha explained that his father had been electrocuted in an accident while Partha was visiting home during his first semester of college. He tried in vain to revive his father. The responsibility to provide for the family – including Partha’s mother and two mentally-challenged family members – fell on Partha’s 19-year-old shoulders.
He not only worked his father’s fields, he also worked two part-time jobs.
Partha told Chris that he felt he had let her down since she had helped him get started in college by providing for his book fees and other expenses. “I’m so, so sorry about your father,” Chris replied. “But I am so proud of you.” He had done the right thing, she told him, by providing for his family.
The Power of Sponsorship
There is no question that Maria and Partha are different people – leading different lives than they otherwise would have – because of Chris’ commitment and compassion. Their lives have not unfolded as expected, but Chris’ sponsorship, and the friendship that developed, has improved and enriched them. Their bond is so powerful that Partha refers to Chris as “my other mother.” He tells us, “I am today in this position – a self-reliant person – because of her steady presence in my life.” He added that when his father passed away, “Auntie and I were not in touch, but I kept thinking of her and behaved the way I knew she would want me to behave in a crisis.”
A weight he’d carried for years was lifted when Chris told him she was not disappointed, but proud of him. It renewed his determination to one day return to university.
Maria feels much the same way about Chris’ influence. “Somewhere along the way,” says Maria, “Chris stopped being my sponsor and became my mother. Her presence in my life has enriched it manifold. Such is the power of sponsorship.”
Photos and reporting assistance by Nivedita Moitra in Kolkata, India.