- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

TYLER, Texas (AP) - The female voice on the other end of the phone was unfamiliar to Roland Gaines. The voice asked for him in broken English. She wanted to know if Gaines had financially sponsored Maribel Ballesteros Sanchez as a child in Colombia.

Gaines replied “Yes,” to which the caller asked if he wanted to talk to her. Gaines again said, “yes,” and the woman on the other end of the line hung up.

Within minutes, Gaines was on the phone with Sanchez in Colombia and talking with the help of a translator on the phone in Florida.

Gaines had known Sanchez since she was 5, but only through letters back and forth between Colombia and Texas.

Sanchez’s phone call came nearly five years after Gaines and his wife’s sponsorship through Compassion International ended when she was 16 years old.

Gaines had not forgotten the little girl with black hair who wrote flowery letters. And Sanchez had not forgotten him, a man she considers her father, nor his wife, Janet, who she considers a good friend.

“When she told us on the phone call that I was the only father she ever knew, my heart just cracked,” Gaines, 55, told the Tyler Morning Telegraph (https://bit.ly/1NNDtMj). “I had no idea during our sponsorship years that that’s how she felt.”

Compassion International is no stranger to building relationships between people in countries separated by thousands of miles.

Founded more than 60 years ago, the nonprofit partners with more than 6,900 Christian churches in 26 countries to work in the lives of more than 1.7 million babies, children and young adults living in poverty.

On average, sponsorships last six to seven years, according to an organization official. Compassion spokeswoman Becca Bishop said once the sponsorship ends, the organization does not facilitate communications between the sponsor and child as it does during the sponsorship.

Sanchez didn’t want to let go after the sponsorship ended. By that time, the Gaines family had been a part of her life for 11 years and she wanted to stay connected.

She found a way to reconnect and the phone call led to where she is today, visiting Tyler to spend time with her second family.

Sanchez, 30, grew up on a farm in rural Colombia. When she was about 5, guerrillas came through her village and attacked it. Her father was killed. Her three siblings and mother were spared and fled to Chigorod, a town in northwest Colombia, more than 40 miles east of the border with Panama.

Sanchez grew up there and remains there today. As a child, she and her family lived in houses with friends or family members.

Her mother had no money to put the children in school, but a pastor’s wife told her about financial assistance the government would provide. Sanchez attended a private, Christian school for a while until the government support stopped.

The school was run by the church Sanchez attended. It partnered with Compassion International, which works through Christian churches “to develop children out of poverty to become responsible, fulfilled Christian adults,” according to its website.

As a sponsored child, Sanchez received school supplies and other items from the nonprofit to help support her education. On birthdays and Christmas, she also received gifts.

But it wasn’t just a matter of what Compassion and her sponsors did materially; it was the support they provided spiritually and emotionally, she said.

Three days a week, Sanchez went to the Compassion Project student center. There she participated in a program similar to an afterschool club and Vacation Bible School combined. At the student center, she received food and support from people who cared about her and the other children.

Her brother and sisters took to the streets after school because the people the family stayed with didn’t want the children around. She went to the Compassion Project student center.

There, she learned about values and good character, how to love God and do good, she said.

The leaders encouraged her and the other children to pursue and develop their talents. If a child liked music, they were encouraged to practice music. If they liked sports, they could practice sports.

Sanchez said it was the only place where she felt she could express herself and use her talents.

Unfortunately, her brothers and sisters didn’t have that. Bishop, the Compassion spokeswoman, said the organization limits sponsorships to no more than three children from one family, but individual countries can limit it even more to help more families.

Gaines said in Sanchez‘ case there was a one child per family sponsorship rule. His explanation was that the nonprofit is not a welfare agency, nor does it want to be seen as one.

“We just try to change the world one child at a time,” Gaines said.

Even with the support of the Gaines family and Compassion International, Sanchez’s life was hard.

A paramilitary group kidnapped one of her sisters. She was eventually killed. Her brother is in prison, and the family is not sure why.

While there were many negative influences around her during her childhood, the Gaines family and her connection with them and the Compassion Project helped keep her on the straight and narrow.

“It saved my life in a lot of respects,” she said through a translator. “Compassion is like your house.”

While Sanchez was experiencing the benefits of child sponsorship in her homeland, the Gaines family was being changed as well.

The more Gaines learned about Compassion and its commitment to children, the more he committed himself to the program. Over the years, he has sponsored about 10 children including the four he currently sponsors, two of them with his co-workers. Gaines works as a server administrator at East Texas Medical Center.

Gaines also is a volunteer event coordinator for Compassion International, a position in which he finds people to work events for the organization.

For Mrs. Gaines, 56, it was Sanchez’s letters that drew her into the sponsorship world and convinced her of its worth.

She said Sanchez used such beautiful language in her letters, writing things like “I greet you in the glorious name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Though Sanchez wrote in Spanish, the Gaineses received her original letters plus an English translation.

“She ended up encouraging us,” Gaines said, “which was amazing because she didn’t have a life that would have encouraged us had we known.”

Typically, Compassion International child sponsorship ends when the child reaches 18 to 22 years old, depending on the country in which they live.

Gaines said Compassion reminds the support family and the child that the sponsorship is about to end so they can write their last letters.

He said you just trust God would continue to work in the child’s life. And that’s what they did with Sanchez.

She finished secondary school around 16 years old and didn’t want to leave the program. She still went to the Compassion Project student center for about a year after she graduated. But eventually she moved on.

She got a job pumping gas then selling food to grocery stores. She saved up money to buy a motorbike for transportation.

During that time in her life she didn’t walk with Jesus, she said, but she always kept Gaines‘ letters and had the memories of his words in her mind.

Sanchez said she had always wanted to contact him. She had his name and where he lived, but no access to a computer.

However, the mother of a friend of hers had moved to Florida. So Sanchez wrote everything that she knew about Gaines down for the woman and asked her to try to find him. She did and it led to the phone call.

When Sanchez spoke to the Gaineses on the phone, she couldn’t believe it. It had been her desire since she was a child to talk to them.

She said some of the other Compassion children when they wrote to and received letters from their sponsor families, the relationship didn’t seem that special. But for her, it was life giving.

The letters motivated her to “seguir adelante,” or press on to do better things.

Gaines‘ letters were filled with beautiful words that brought comfort, she said. It felt like Jesus was speaking to her through him. She said that’s why she learned to love Jesus because of Gaines‘ letters.

After the initial phone conversation, the Gaines family and Sanchez exchanged emails and kept in contact for about a year. By that time the Gaines’ own daughter, Laura, 26, had grown and they felt like they had the time and the money to go to Colombia. So, in 2011, they made their first trip there to visit Sanchez and another sponsor child, Ilsia. Seeing Sanchez in person for the first time was overwhelming, Gaines said.

“It was so emotionally powerful, you couldn’t really handle it,” Gaines said.

Since that first visit, the Gaineses have returned to Colombia each year. Sanchez, who has been in Tyler since July on a tourist visa, is visiting the U.S. for the second time. She will return home to Colombia this month.

Today, she and her husband, James Echeverry, 40, run a shoe business. She is about two years away from getting a psychology degree, Gaines said.

Sanchez said she always considered Gaines her father and as a child told her friends her dad was in the U.S. She said she also has a very close relationship with Mrs. Gaines.

“I feel very blessed,” she said through a translator. “It’s very special.”


Information from: Tyler Morning Telegraph, https://www.tylerpaper.com

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