Have you ever looked through the photos of children at Compassion’s site or at a table at a concert and wondered why sometimes five or six girls are wearing the same dress? It’s not a school uniform and is not a particularly nice dress, so why are several of the girls wearing it? Today I found out. With tears of shame, even fifteen years later, Julia (pronounced “HOO-lia) sobbed her story. She had been born in such poverty that when, at age five, Compassion had taken her photograph in the hopes that they would be able to find a sponsor for her, she had no clothes she could wear in that photograph. And so she huddled in a bathroom naked with eight other girls while they waited their turn in the dress. One by one they put it on, faced the camera, and then took it off and returned to their tattered clothes. Today Julia, vivacious and hilarious, broke down as she remembered the shame of poverty. Today Julia, a university student and participant in Compassion’s Leadership Development Program, helped showed me how Compassion defines success.

Compassion’s child development model has three core programs. We saw the first of these on Monday in the Child Survival Program which helps children from before their birth up through their third birthday. We saw the second of these on Tuesday in the Child Sponsorship Program. This is the program Compassion is best known for as it connects one sponsor with one child. Today, Wednesday, we saw the third one of these in the Leadership Development Program. This is the program that accepts graduates from Child Sponsorship who display exceptional leadership potential. These young people receive a university education and leadership training that helps them become leaders within their church and within their communities. And so, in these three days, we’ve seen the broad sweep of what Compassion does and how it works with children from before they are born all the way through their university graduation. It takes children who would otherwise have very little opportunity and sets them up as future leaders. It ends the cycle of poverty by equipping children to be productive members of society.

Our day began with a visit to another one of Compassion’s Santo Domingo projects. Here we were greeted as we have been greeted each day—with a program of music, prayer and Scripture. It seems clear by now that music is an integral part of Dominican Christianity. Most of the songs seem to be simple but to contain great truths; most are accompanied by loud clapping and joyful praise. We accepted an invitation to the project’s office and here we were shown the project’s records—ledgers, records of attendance, and so on—everything they could do to give us confidence that they are faithful stewards of the gifts God has given them. I paged through the ledger for some time, doing currency conversions in my head and expressing amazement that they can do so much with so little. We visited some of the classrooms, slipping in and sitting down among the children (and in my case even being expected to participate in a lesson on the Good Shepherd).

But the day’s main attraction was meeting two of the students of this project who are currently part of the Leadership Development Program—Julia and Mariolvis. Both girls had grown up in the neighborhood and both attended the church associated with the project. Both had been sponsored from a young age. Each of them shared her story, telling of fathers and siblings who had died, of extreme poverty, but of the joys of attending the project and of graduating to the Leadership Development Program. We toured both of their homes—homes that in any context but what we saw yesterday would have been shocking—meeting their mothers and their siblings, admiring their academic accomplishments and expressing joy at their graduation photographs.

Someone asked the questions that always arise: “Did you have a sponsor?” “What were their names?” “Did they send you letters?” In both cases today, the girls were sponsored, knew the names of their sponsors and told of the letters, cards and gifts they had received. Mariolvis, was asked what it meant to her to be part of the Leadership Development Program. With joy she said it meant the world to her, but it was her next words which grabbed me. “The Lord was hiding that gift from me,” she said. It was a gift God held back until the proper time. God has blessed her so richly, calling her out of the hopeless life awaiting her and freeing her from the cycle of poverty. Now Mariolvis is studying marketing at a local university and is actively involved in evangelism there. She thanks God for Compassion, aware of the life-changing impact it has had on her. She thanks God for his hidden gift to her.

And this must be the question Compassion has to answer all the time. What happens when sponsorship ends? What happens when a child gets too old to be sponsored? What does success look like to Compassion? From what I learned today, I’d say that it looks like this.

Mariolvis