When letters come to life

Jan and Bert met sponsored child Niththiya after years getting to know her through letters

By Jan Hardy and Bert Elson, Sri Lanka child sponsors

Where to start?

Bert and I began our association with World Vision back in 1982 when our first child was born. Back in those days there was a Federal Government benefit, paid to all new mothers, called Child Endowment. I hadn’t known about this and therefore hadn’t counted on it. We were very aware of how fortunate we were to live in Australia, so it seemed to us quite fitting that this Child Endowment be redirected, via World Vision, to help children in some less fortunate place. Over the following 20 years we sponsored three children in Brazil, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, being connected with new children as projects eventually wound up in one area and moved to another.

In 2004 we were sent a profile of Niththiya and I sat down to write my introductory letter. I’d never heard of where she lived and wasn’t even sure how to correctly address our sponsor child. She had two names, but which one was her first name? I asked. A response came back almost immediately – “You can call me whatever you wish, but my name is Niththiya!”

Her letters were always interesting and lively and referenced things we’d previously written about. There was this wonderful spark of communication between us! (I have kept all her letters and pictures and was very touched, when we eventually met, that Niththiya likewise had kept all of ours.) We were mightily impressed that this young woman from a farming village had continued her education right through school and was currently completing tertiary studies in civil engineering. How inspirational is that?

I’m not exactly sure when it was we decided to visit Sri Lanka. It was partly in the knowledge that sooner or later our time would run out, that inevitably Niththiya would complete her studies and/or the World Vision project in that area would close, and we would lose that connection with someone who had become virtually a part of our extended family. We recognised that the chance to meet Niththiya and her family would be a wonderful experience. Once the idea took root, it was hard to step away from. We ran it past World Vision, did the paperwork and booked the tickets.

Top left: Jan and Bert listen to Niththiya as she welcomes them. Top right: Jan and Bert loved meeting the World Vision staff in Sri Lanka. Bottom: Jan and Bert said their visit to meet Niththiya was 'magic – heart-warming at a personal level.'

Once in the north of Sri Lanka, we were driven a short distance to meet the World Vision project staff, who were friendly and welcoming and gave us a genuinely interesting overview of their work in the area. Then we were off again, stopping en-route to see a recently-installed milk collection site, before arriving at Niththiya’s village. Half the settlement in this region lies on a coastal island connected by a causeway, the other half on the mainland hinterland. The local industries are fishing and agriculture, and both are seasonal. Niththiya’s village is on the mainland, so they are predominantly sustained by agriculture.

On arrival in the village our reception was incredibly warm. We were enormously touched. It was fantastic to finally meet up with Niththiya, her parents and two of her sisters. But it was also lovely to be embraced by the whole village. We had dancing, singing and a very special meal. Few in the village spoke English, but quite a few understood at least some. World Vision staff interpreted for us where necessary, but communication was rarely a problem. When it was time to go – and that was a wrench, this being a one-off opportunity – we returned to the World Vision office for a debrief.

We really appreciated the fellowship of the World Vision team and the efforts they made to ensure we had a very memorable day and also learned a lot from it.

Would I encourage other sponsors to visit their sponsor children? Yes. For us it was magic – heart-warming at a personal level. In addition, I felt it was a definite positive that we could involve people in our local community who donated items for us to take with us. I think this helps raise the profile of World Vision. I suspect that, like us, many World Vision sponsors don’t talk about it much, but an occasion like this brings it to people’s notice, and we’ve been asked about it quite a lot since our return. Win-win.