Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Much More than Money

The widow opened the cabinet door, placing a colorful stack of letters on the table. Nine of us huddled under the eaves of her apartment, a make-shift space that she shared with her only child, 12 year old son Menua.

The letters were a source of pride for him and his mother, reminding them that even though they have been alone and marginalized since Menua's father's death, they are not forgotten. Menua explained that his sponsors in America encourage him through their letters.

I was humbled.

Having sponsored several children over the past 26 years, I've always thought that my monetary contributions were the most important part of the relationship. Sometimes I would receive 2 or 3 letters from my sponsor children for every one that I wrote. I would get busy and so focused on my own kids, I would forget to write.

But here was a real live boy (who loves math, is super-shy, wears glasses, and sings in the choir) whose life was made less lonely by a husband and wife from somewhere in the U.S. who send him Christmas cards, ask him about his studies, and tell him never to give up.

Another member of our team, Benjamin Corey, sums up these moments far better than I can in his latest post.

Something we've heard again and again from the kids on this trip, and I really needed this reminder, is that sponsorship is truly a relationship.

And speaking of relationships, right before this trip, remember how Tim, Margaret and I decided to sponsor a little girl named Anahit, 15 months old?

I got to meet her this week!

She is simply adorable and reminded me a lot of Margaret at that age. When I gave her a few little gifts, she was a very busy girl, carrying them around the restaurant where the sponsors, children, parents, and translators for lunch. She explored that place, all the while carrying the blue jay beanie baby I gave her, and a bunch of toddler spoons.

 Can you believe those cheeks?

I am more committed than ever to being here for her and our other sponsor kids as their "family from far away."

P.S. What should I write to a 15 month old???? If she's as active as I think she is, maybe my first letters should be encouragement for her mom!

If you want to learn more about child sponsorship, please visit World Vision

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Today is a day of rest for us, bridging the two halves of our trip.

Maybe you need rest, too, from the week you’ve had, from the day you are having, maybe even from hearing about the sad things I’ve shared on my trip to Armenia so far.
The first few days were dedicated to seeing DIRE NEED, and the next few will show us the HOPE. We just met a young professional woman who introduced herself saying, “I’m a success story!” She is a product of World Vision’s well-established program in the Gyumri region which I’ll begin to share about tomorrow.

I’m glad our trip is structured this way: first showing us the needs that will hopefully be met as WV’s new project grows (with all of our help) in Nikol’s and Aida’s region (Amasia), then showing us what years of specific, sustainable support and development have accomplished (in and around Gyumri).
It’s going to be inspiring, so hang in there!

A blog reader commented on my post about Aida, “AMother-Woman,” that, “What Aida really needs is access to birth control.” It’s true that in many cases here women do not have access to family planning education. It would not be surprising if by next year, there is another mouth to feed. So many needs.
I love that World Vision looks at specific issues a community faces, and gives support to the entire community, not just the children. Parental education and support is a big part of this! That makes me hopeful and expectant for Aida, her husband, her children, and the world!

More tomorrow…


As of today, 5 of Aida’s 7 kids are still awaiting sponsors, so if you are interested in sponsoring any one of them, just let me know (awhistondonaldson@gmail.com) and I can help make that connection for you.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Get Off the Bus, Gus!

I could have stayed on the bus.

No one would judge me for it, and there would be plenty of opportunities to connect with other Armenian families later in the day. I knew today’s story didn’t need to be THIS story, of a 12 year old boy in need of a sponsor.
I got off the bus, but you probably knew that already, didn't you?

You knew that even though life is hard, opting IN is what helps me. It’s what keeps me going and tethers me to the world in a healthy way that I could not have taken for granted just a few years ago.
I had read a little bit about Nikol’s family early this morning, and I wanted to learn more, so I walked up the snowy path past the huge haystacks and into Janet, Andranik, and Nikol’s stone house. It was spacious in comparison to the house we would visit next, which was actually a cramped metal boxcar intended for temporary use following Armenia’s earthquake 27 yrs ago, now all these years later serving as a permanent home for a family of five. 

But Nikol’s stone house, while spacious, is falling down around the family, who can not afford to make repairs. In fact, Nikol recently changed where he slept because he is terrified the roof will cave in on him in the night.


I’ve joked a bit about my age on this trip, as I am quite a bit older than the other bloggers. I mean, I can’t believe I worried whether or not I should wear skinny jeans on the trip. These young bloggers are hip. And my use of the word "hip" just now pretty much shows that I’m not.  However, when I meet Nikol’s parents, who are 52 and 56, I would not have been surprised to learn they were in their 70's or older, so harsh have the years been on them.

As it is, they are as old as many grandparents in the region, and it is a cause for regret that they are barely able to feed their family at this stage in life, let alone spend money doting on their adult children and grandchildren.  As part of the old guard who remembers living under Soviet rule and having all of their needs met, Janet and Andranik find their current reality hard to fathom, let alone accept, but they have no choice.
Despite various physical ailments, they, along with Nikol, walk to a neighboring area twice a day to care for someone else’s farm animals. There they are surrounded by manure, but are not allowed to take any home to heat their house. 3 hours of labor in the morning, and 3 in the afternoon, done by the family together, yields a total of $1.40 a day. Enormous debt the family has carried for years (with interest rates up to 36%) looms over them, spreading a feeling of hopelessness and despair. When winter is over, the cows will be taken elsewhere, and that meager job will disappear. 

Yet here is Nikol, with his huge brown eyes and ready smile, who shows us some Judo moves (doing a few on me at my request), plays a few notes for us on a Euphonium, and tells us about the World Vision summer camp he attended last year. He is playful, respectful, curious, and kind. Our guides will tell us later that it is hard for him to make friends because in such a small village, his abject poverty sets him even further apart from his peers.


When Nikol opens his notebooks to show us his drawings, I feel a pang, but in a good way, thinking of my own brown-eyed boy and how each of his interests became our own and how he was (and is) a light to us as Nikol is to his parents.

We find out that Nikol’s school is going to start requiring students to have a computer, and that his teacher already gives out links and websites as part of assignments. To hear the words "links" and "computer" while standing in a room with a collapsing ceiling, a water tap nearby in the yard, and an outhouse down the way, is jarring and incongruous. How much more will these loving parents borrow just to get what they need for Nikol?

When an elderly woman prays that her ailments and stiff joints will ease up enough to allow her to milk another person’s cow in the hopes they will have enough money to PURCHASE MANURE, how ridiculous does talk of computers sound? What about Nikol's father, unable to use one of his arms because of a war injury? Where do computers fit in his reality, which at first glance looks like stepping back in time to a century ago? 

I don't know, for although they are kind enough to invite us into their home, to open up about their fears and struggles, I cannot truly put myself in their place.
“Nikol has a very tender heart,” our guide says, explaining that even at 12 he is a doting uncle who loves to play with his little nieces and nephew. “Yes,” I think, “I bet he does.”

And I know right then, even though a tear has slipped out of my eye.

Even though I can't transport the parents back to their youth, when life looked so very different from this daily struggle for survival.

Even though I can't wipe away the debt.

Even though I can't help Nikol fit in the way every middle schooler wants.

I know that Nikol will be our family's next sponsor child.
And now he is.

There are other children in Nikol's village who are in need of sponsorship, including his one of his nieces and his nephew. Here's information if you are interested.

Friday, February 27, 2015

A Mother-Woman

“I have my children with me and there are healthy,” she beamed.

And in that moment, in the run-down 2 room house on the side of a snow covered mountain, I envied her. I wanted what Aida had, all of her children healthy and with her.
We had asked, after spending some time in the tiny home, with its saggy plywood floor, sooty walls, and three narrow beds for 9 people, what she found joyful or beautiful about her life. It was natural to want to end on a high note for this mother, only 28 years old, who had generously opened her home and life to us. She had answered our questions about the ways her family barely subsists in this tiny Armenian village, where winter can last up to 9 months a year, and jobs are scarce.

With nowhere to go outside in the deep snow, and only one pair of boots for all 7 children, Aida’s family life takes place in these two rooms, each only a little larger than my bathroom at home.

The burden of rent is often too much, and the landlord threatens to kick them out, adding a larger dose of worry to Aida’s plate. The small wood stove used for cooking, washing, and heating water for bathing, is fueled by cow dung, but Aida’s family does not own a cow. Her husband muck stalls for someone else in order to earn a very low wage plus get cow dung for the family.

 Even though World Vision is just beginning to establish a presence in their region, Aida’s family and the others in her village will eventually benefit from all that sponsorship offers: parental training, agricultural training, nutrition programs, child protection, Sunday school, and economic development opportunities for the parents. The good news is that while those programs will take a while to establish, Aida’s family has already been identified as extremely vulnerable and will be given help in the meantime.

In fact, we were able to deliver the news that because of a donation made through a World Vision Gift Catalog, their electricity bill had been paid and the electricity will be turned back on after a week of being off. They will also receive an emergency food kit.

Aida IS grateful to have all of her children healthy and with her. It is what every mother wants. But behind her warm smile as she holds her adorable second youngest, is likely another desire: to make a better future for her children. I'm guessing some days that seems impossible.
No, I am not jealous of Aida. That unwanted flicker passed in an instant as it does on many of my days, but now Aida holds a place in my heart as one mother-woman to another. And I've got to tell you, that after just a few minutes in those little rooms, it became harder and harder to see the lack, even though it most certainly was there. Somehow, the warm intensity of mother-love made the rest start to recede from view. 

Child sponsorship is the backbone of World Vision’s programs. I get to meet my new sponsor child, Anahit, tomorrow!  You can find out more about child sponsorship here.



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

We're Here!

After a long 24 hours or so of travel, which may or may not have included a frenzied run through a Paris airport when our terminal and gate were switched (which may or may not have resulted in an early need for the spare undies in my purse) I'm in Armenia.

I'm hanging out in my comfy hotel bed waiting for the rest of the capital city of Yerevan to wake up.

Today will start with breakfast and devotions, then we will hop in vans to head to another town, about 1.5 hours away, which will be our home base for the week as we visit World Vision development projects and meet with Armenian people in their homes.

I think today will be about learning:

Learning more about the other bloggers I'm here with.

Learning about this beautiful country and its history at two museums, including the Armenian Genocide Museum.

Learning about the customs and language of the Armenians as we pepper our generous guides with questions.

And perhaps, my finally learning how to use Instagram and "THE TWITTER" to get the word out about the trip.  We'll see...

I'm so glad you will be here every step of the way!

P.S. To learn about child sponsorship through World Vision, check this out.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

5 More Days!

In less than a week I'll be in Armenia, as part of a World Vision "Vision Trip."

We received our itinerary yesterday, and I'm both excited and apprehensive about what's ahead. Most of our time will be spent meeting families in their homes and seeing needs first-hand. The trip is in the winter so that we will be able to witness the harsh conditions so many Armenians endure during the coldest months.

I'll be meeting real people with real stories, and sharing those stories with you here and on Facebook.

In my experience, once you see something and know something, you can't go back to a place of unknowing. This is usually good, but rarely easy. For example, in my life, I've gained the unsought knowledge of how fleeting life is. I have seen what our family hoped for be stripped away in seconds, and I simply can't go back to a my prior place of unawareness.

When I travel places where life is much different than my own, I also gain perspective or knowing. It is often humbling and sometimes overwhelming, especially when needs are so great. It's daunting. I'm grateful there are organizations like World Vision who are working in big and small ways to alleviate suffering around the globe. And the beautiful thing is we are invited to share in that.

It is my greatest hope that my heart will be open to the people I meet and that as I share my experience, more children will be sponsored through World Vision.

Jack's 16th (gulp) birthday with be shortly after I return from the trip. For many of you, Jack's story is what drew you to this blog for the first time. Wouldn't it be wonderful if children get sponsored as a result of this blog, right in time for his birthday?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Keeping the Spark Alive

I managed to convince Tim to binge watch 4 episodes of Homeland with me over the course of Valentine's weekend, which was a win for sure. Not that there's anything romantic about Homeland, but I'm currently obsessed with and I want to get as far into it as possible before I leave for Armenia.

Another weekend treat was that Tim got an extra short haircut, which left him looking about 25 years old. I knew he was young looking when we met, but I never thought it would be much of a problem. Remember the time we were going to an R-rated movie (as married, pregnant, minivan driving homeowners) and he got carded? Sheesh. It's no secret that I've always looked a bit older than Tim, but I've held out hope that we would eventually fade at relatively the same pace.


With all of Tim's marathon running and juicing over the past several years, I've had a few alarming experiences where I've looked over at him and seen someone who looks a lot more like Adam Levine than the Danny DeVito-esque middle-aged husband I expected.

He just keeps getting hotter.

Not that most women would complain, it's just that I appear to be aging more like Bea Arthur than Cindy Crawford, and Tim's dashing looks and Benjamin Button-like aging process are making it hard for me to coast into my middle-aged glory days like I thought I would.

At least his lack of finesse in the romance department takes some of the pressure off. Last night we were watching something on TV with Margaret (not Homeland) when he slipped a little piece of paper into my hand with a smile. It was one of those little squares from our Valentine's Gratitude Box. I assumed it would be romantic and at least PG-13. I turned aside so Margaret wouldn't see what it said, but I could have saved myself the trouble. Instead of a love note, it was a folded up Chipotle receipt. I burst out laughing as Tim frantically patted down his pockets trying to locate the note he had intended to hand me.

I die. As my brother used to say to me when I did something especially goofy:

Smooth Move, Ex-Lax.