The vision to give kids a real future

Published in the Daily Telegraph on Monday 13 January 2014 and Herald Sun on Tuesday 14 January 2014

By Tim Costello, World Vision Australia chief executive

I sponsor a number of children through World Vision, one of whom is a 10-year-old girl in Zimbabwe called Tatendra, whom I have sponsored for half her life now.

Like News Corp columnist Tim Blair, I receive letters and pictures from her once or twice a year that are up on my wall. As I was in Zimbabwe with World Vision in 2010, I had the privilege of visiting her in her community.

My work for World Vision has meant I have been privileged to meet countless sponsor children and see first-hand improvements in their communities, all of which isn't possible to communicate in a letter or a sketched picture.

But this personal visit surprised me as, without warning, I was in tears. It was the emotional convergence of the picture on my fridge with the young girl standing so happy and proud right in front of me, surrounded by her loving parents and siblings. Professionals are not expected to be taken by surprise and show their emotions, but this time I couldn't help it.

I too sometimes wonder about the pictures I get from my sponsor children, which is why following Mr Blair's concern regarding his sponsor child, Obvious, I rang our Zimbabwe staff to see if we could get to the bottom of the matter.

They visited Obvious and his mother and Obvious explained he decided to draw his vision of their future homestead, where they'd be in a brick rather than a grass-thatched house. He drew a tree because of the heat and whirlwinds to provide shade and shelter from the harsh sun and winds.

So what do these letters and drawings from children aim to achieve? Primarily, they provide personal contact with the sponsor. To fund a well or local project is worthy but remains impersonal.

There was a time many years ago when World Vision's sponsorship program meant that the child you sponsored would directly receive your monthly donation. While that model was effective for the individual child, we discovered it didn't change the poverty and situation surrounding them, and instead created dissent from the families who missed out.

As a result, we moved to what's called a "community development model" whereby your child, their family and their community benefit from your sponsorship. Working with community members and leaders, World Vision tailors programs to address varying causes of poverty and build a community's capacity to care for themselves.

Your sponsored child now still receives some benefits such as school materials and practical assistance but the bulk of the money goes to facilities and programs that benefit the whole community such as education, immunisation and agricultural training to name a few. We need to address the root causes of poverty to create lasting and sustainable change. In Obvious's community, 360 families have been provided with drought-resistant seeds for sorghum and cowpea crops, which are more adaptable to the climatic conditions than their staple, maize.

Additionally, in Obvious's community, 3185 children were immunised, 37 wells were built and 44 latrines were constructed to enable 185 households to have access to safe and clean water. We are also particularly proud to be training 299 primary caregivers in this community to support people living with HIV/AIDS and encouraging others to be tested, which is still often resisted.

World Vision tells communities at the outset we will stay in their area for about 15 years and that by the time we leave, the community should be self-sufficient. The aim is to create sustainable communities - a hand-up, not a handout mentality, which would otherwise create dependency.

That is why sponsors often receive a letter inviting them to sponsor a different child as the work in one community has finished. As gut-wrenching as it is to receive this news given the personal attachment to a child over the years, it is a sign of success and good development.

After listening to our sponsors' feedback, we are making changes to the way they receive information and foster the connection with their sponsor child. In the past two years, we have been working on a new initiative to deepen the connection between sponsor and child, and about 60 per cent of World Vision sponsors now receive video greetings, stories, progress updates and photos of their child/children and their community through an online portal. We recognised the difficulties of a letter that requires translation and the small space for a drawing, which does not convey much in terms of the rich transformation that is happening in the child's community.

In Tatendra's village I saw the benefits that my child sponsorship had provided and the joy from so many community members. It is something I will never forget.

I have invited Tim Blair to make the same journey to visit Obvious for himself - an invitation he is keen to take up.

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