Lauren did not expect to see her wedding photo hanging on the wall in a remote village in Kenya.
Colourful stickers held down each corner of the photo, a happy image of her and her husband signing their wedding papers; her in her white dress and a white flower in her hair; and him dressed in a smart shirt and vest.
Following Lauren’s initial surprise of seeing the photos were feelings of love and joy.
“It was very overwhelming and it brought me to tears,” Lauren says.
Lauren was visiting eight-year-old Michael, whom she had been sponsoring through ChildFund Australia.
After two years of correspondence, it was the first time Lauren and Michael had met in-person.
Lauren was far from home in NSW, but the kindness and warmth of Michael and his family – and seeing the photos of her life proudly displayed in their family home – made her feel like she was among loved ones.
“I had always wanted to visit Africa and in particular Kenya,” Lauren says. “Meeting Michael was the driving force and highlight of the trip.
“It was one of the best days of my life.”
Lauren’s sponsor trip in 2012 began with visiting Michael’s school, where she was greeted by dozens of students and teachers who had organised a welcome lunch for her. “There was a buzz in the air,” Lauren says.
Lauren was then given a tour of the schoolgrounds, and a group of students held a tree-planting ceremony, before she sat under a tree with Michael and his friends to draw and talk.
“The visit not only strengthened my bond with Michael and his family, but I also experienced, first-hand, how my sponsorship was positively impacting Michael, his family, the school and the community,” Lauren says. “It was such a special journey.” The most memorable part of the trip, says Lauren, was the smiling faces of the children in Michael’s family and at his school. “I was welcomed and embraced with open arms.”
Eleven years after signing up in 2010 to be a child sponsor, Lauren continues to sponsor Michael, who is now 17 years old.
She has seen Michael’s English progress rapidly over the years through their correspondence. “Initially, when he was much younger, the letters were written by family friends on behalf of his family, although Michael would draw pictures, write some words and sign his name,” Lauren says. “These days Michael writes beautifully telling me about life, family and future goals.
“It is evident to me that he is a grounded, strong, happy and determined young man. I am blessed to have seen him grow and to have been welcomed into his family with open arms.
“His family have shown me such kindness and love over the past 11 years and I feel we have an extremely strong bond.”
Today, Lauren is also sponsoring 15-year-old Sorm from Cambodia. Although the pair have not met in-person, they have formed a meaningful connection through regular correspondence. “Sorm is a beautiful, kind, gentle and intelligent young girl whose smile lights up the world,” Lauren says.
After seeing the positive developments in Michael and Sorm’s lives and communities, Lauren has recommended sponsorship to her friends and family. “Sponsorship not only benefits and changes the life of one child, but their families and communities at large,” she says.
“I was fortunate enough to have a safe and healthy childhood, having grown up in a loving household.
“I wish the same for all children.”
Colleagues at a Sydney council are donating part of their pay to support children in need overseas.
The group of 20 staff members at the City of Canterbury Bankstown in Sydney’s south-west are sponsoring five children in developing countries such as the Philippines, Honduras and Cambodia, through ChildFund Australia.
Council Team Leader of Environmental Protection and Compliance, Paul Choueiri, who helped create the group 18 years ago, says the number of staff supporters has grown significantly since the group was formed in 2003.
There were just three colleagues, including Paul, at the beginning. “It was a personal thing for all of us to give back to people who need it,” Paul says. “We recognised how lucky we were to be in a country like Australia.”
After researching and calling several different charities, the group settled on ChildFund Australia. “The amount of money getting to the children who needed it was a big thing for us,” Paul says. “We decided to go with ChildFund because they were upfront about how much goes towards the child and their community, and how much goes towards administration.”
It made sense to sponsor as a group rather than individually, says Paul. “The more people who sponsor together, the more children you can help,” he says. “As a group, the sky’s the limit. If I were to do this myself, I could probably only sponsor one or two children.”
Paul’s colleague Denise Theore, also one of the original members of the sponsor group at the City of Canterbury Bankstown, says the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the need in developing countries. “With the COVID-19 situation overseas, it’s now more important than ever that we support these children and anyone else we can support,” Denise says. “We’re lucky here. It’s very sad to see what is going on in other areas of the world.”
Giving back to the community and helping people who are less fortunate has always been an important part of both Paul and Denise’s lives.
Paul regularly donates to charity and says he came to understand the importance of gratitude early on in his life.
“I try to help wherever I can,” he says. “My parents came to Australia from a war-torn country in the ’70s. They struggled with the English language and did the work that no one else wanted to do. They did it and pulled through; I learnt about the value of hard work and having an appreciation for a place like Australia and not forgetting that many people overseas are worse off.”
For Denise, helping others runs in in her family. “My father and sisters have sponsored children,” she says. “We’ve always tried to help and support people who are in need. Hopefully my children will continue as sponsors after I’ve gone.”
Paul and Denise co-ordinate the council group, writing letters and cards on behalf of the other members to the children they sponsor, and making sure that any updates they get in return are shared with the group.
A couple of times a year Paul and Denise will send out an email to rally more colleagues to join.
“We have around 1500 staff at the City of Canterbury Bankstown,” Paul says. “Even if every second person contributed a small donation every week, that’s a lot of children we could be helping.
“I hope we can continue to grow and be able to support more children.”
Paul says the positive impact a group of sponsors can have in the world outweighs the effort and time that goes into organising and managing such a group. He is encouraging others to start similar initiatives in their workplace.
“The major benefit of sponsoring as a group is where you can take it,” he says. “You just need one person to start; someone who will take on the extra little jobs: writing letters, scanning, photocopying, and emailing. It’s not a lot, but it’s about someone being bothered.
“If everyone who was better off did something for those people who were worse off, we could change so many lives.”