This afternoon we toured through Compassion International’s Dominican office. There we saw the men and women who create the programs, who choose which children will be selected for sponsorship, who translate letters from sponsors to children and children to sponsors, and who manage the finances that make possible all that they do. At one point one of our group asked about adhering to the rules Compassion lays out, and especially the rule that only a certain number of children per family can receive sponsorship. Here the man who was charged with selecting children paused and, while acknowledging the value of the rule, said, “not all is paper.” And how right he is. We sometimes reduce complex matters and difficult situations to trite words and phrases. Sometimes things that seem so clear and so simple on paper are far more difficult and intricate when viewed up close and personal. Not all is paper. Here’s a lesson I’ve learned already in my short time in Dominican.

Our first full day in the Dominican Republic began early. Shortly after 8 o’clock we were on the bus and heading to one of Compassion’s local Child Survival Programs. As you may know, Compassion works with children of all ages and offers different programs depending on how old the children are. The Child Survival Program is targeted at infants—from before they are born until they are three years of age. Compassion helps the children by helping their mothers. Today we saw the program in action as we sat in on a workshop teaching mothers about proper nutrition for their children. They worked on the very basics—the importance of breastfeeding in the first three months, how many meals a child should eat in a day and even how to deal with a child who simply does not like to eat.

This program was held in a neighborhood that in many ways defies description. The streets were dirt and, when rains pass through, mud. The buildings were ramshackle—tin roofs rusted through with holes, board walls full of gaping cracks, rough concrete floors and, in many cases, windows that were bars rather than glass. But everywhere there were children. Laughing, running, screaming, silly children.

The program takes place in a church with the pastor as a lead facilitator. As the morning Survival Program concluded, we went to the upstairs of this church, a small room that sits upon the flat roof , and met some of the mothers and their children. Nick met Sue and Lue, two beautiful little twin girls, and played with them as if they were the little sisters he has left at home. And then we went to the homes of two of these women.

Isabella’s husband was at work. He is a woodworker and, judging by the cabinetry in their home, a very talented one. Though it was in a strange location, far down a muddy path in the midst of a grove of banana trees, the home was quite sturdy. There were holes in the walls and tiny, bedraggled cats wandering through it, but the home was, well, homey. Rosalia’s home was far smaller. She shares the home, certainly not much larger than my living room, with her husband, Adolfo, and their four children (three of whom are boys and all of whom, at least as far as I could tell through our translator, are also known as Adolfo). Dad is a mechanic but, at least at the moment, an unemployed one. Rosalia attends college twice a week and is studying education. Asked what we could pray for she asked that God would provide her husband with a job and her children with opportunity. She wants them to be great men and women of God, but ones who have the privilege of an education. This, she knows, offers them the best chance of escaping the neighborhood they live in today.

We ate lunch at the church and, with the help of translators, asked the pastor about his relationship with Compassion. One member of our group asked him for some stories and he had no end of them. There are as many stories there as there are children. You could read Compassion’s web site or read the pamphlets and see that it is an organization that helps this many children in that many nations. It could so easily be reduced to numbers and statistics—words, lines and figures on pieces of paper. But Compassion does so much more than that. Today I saw so much more than statistics. There in this poor little neighborhood I saw and heard hundreds of stories. Just as the man said, not all is paper.