Wednesday, June 20, 2007

William Fleming, HIV/AIDS Program Specialist

We arrived to the sound of drums and singing, a traditional greeting song for visitors. I visited the Kinabwe community project in Kenya to learn how we support children and how we link our sponsorship activities with grant supported programs. We sat with the Parents Executive Committee and discussed the activities supported by CCF for their community including; early childhood development, support for quality education, health promotion, improved livelihoods, and HIV prevention and care.

We moved on to visit two families with sponsored children. In the first, we met with 17-year-old Godfrey, caring for his 10-year-old brother Henry, their parents had died two years earlier. Henry is a sponsored child.

They had received two heifers and poultry which they keep on their small farm. In addition they grow coffee for sale with coffee plants they received through sponsorship. Despite being shy, Henry seems to be receiving good care and love from his brother. As evidence, he was third in his class (4th grade) and proudly showed us his high grades on his class notebooks. He also helps prepare food and keeping the house clean.

The care and attention Godfrey showed underlined the heavy responsibility on the young mans shoulders. While discussing his daily routine and the activities he participated in, he noted that with school, farming and care for Henry, he cannot participate in recreational activities with his peers. Both Godfrey and Henry expressed their gratitude for the sponsorship support, and also mentioned the support they get from the community. For example, the neighbors give extra food when they can. It is clear from Godfrey's description of their daily life that he worried about supporting the family and helping Henry succeed.

The second family we visit is a clean compound with several fruit trees growing in the yard. Two children are cared for by their grandparents who farm and sell coffee harvested for the coffee trees, CCF's economic support activities helped them to grow and market. The family shows us around and explains that he is able to support basic needs like school fees and good nutrition with the assistance that the CCF supported community project has provided.

We moved on to visit a school that CCF sponsors have helped in several ways over the last decade, including class room construction, houses for teachers, and teaching materials. Recent efforts have been made to establish fields of maize and vegetables as a means to teach agricultural skills to students and supplement the school lunches. The maize was stood high in the fields surrounding the school grounds. In discussions with the students, they are clearly sharp and engaged. They ask several questions about the US and were very ready to answer our questions about their class work and interests.

We finished with a visit to a vocational training program supported by CCF with funding from Irish AID. We visited with 12 young men who are learning to be welders with support from a local artisan. These youth, previously out of school and out of work, expressed their hope for the future and the change in their outlook that this program has created. When asked about their participation in HIV prevention activities, after first being a bit shy, they spoke of their knowledge about how HIV is spread and prevented. As young men in their late teens, they recognized that the decisions they make now can have important consequences for their future, we encouraged abstinence and safe sex practices. They acknowledged that they are facing challenges but are optimistic about what they are learning and how they will be able to assist their families as they increase their skills.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

William Fleming, HIV/AIDS Program Specialist

Note from William: I am the CCF HIV/AIDS Program Specialist, responsible for supporting our projects, supporting HIV prevention, and affected families. I came to Uganda to learn more about the Australian Partnerships for African Countries (APAC) project and to identify opportunities for developing new programs using effective approaches developed by the APAC project.

Mr. AIDS crawled out across the grass to explain how he was finding his way into homes across Uganda. Snarling from the ground in a wig and scary mask, Mr. AIDS warned the audience against organizations seeking to help them understand and defeat HIV - including CCF and the APAC project. As he crawled away, the peer educators performed a moving song in English and local language explaining how HIV is spread and what can be done to prevent infection.

"Be wise for a better future…" this was the theme of the poem the young man from the Mafubira Youth Resource Center shared with us. During a recent visit to the center, several young people shared poems, songs and skits they use to raise awareness and support behavior change to prevent HIV infection. We had come to learn about the youth center, which was started with technical and financial support from CCF-Uganda with funding from AusAID through ChildFund Australia.

The center is a rectangle room with walls covered with posters addressing topics such as HIV prevention, family planning, and self esteem for young people. There is also a computer for teaching computer skills, a television and VCR showing educational videos, and shelves with books, newspapers and games. Two basketball poles stand in the corner waiting to be installed. Though too small for the number of youth present, the room is welcoming and educational all in one.

I was part of a team including CCF staff from several countries seeking to learn lessons that we could use to strengthen our work to support children affected by AIDS around the world. The APAC project, implemented in Uganda, Kenya and Zambia seeks to improve the care and support provided to vulnerable children. There is a special focus on improving psychosocial support through training parents and key caregivers, such as teachers and helping them to be better able to care for vulnerable children and youth, including those affected by HIV/AIDS. Through a team of peer educators, CCF and Mafubira Youth Center are also involving youth directly in support for vulnerable children.

APAC project successes include a network of youth organizations that span the sub-county, increased behavior change among youth, improved school attendance, and vocational training that helps youth to develop small businesses. Furthermore, the center is expanding income generation that will help it sustain its activities. But perhaps the most remarkable change is the change youth see in themselves. They are emerging as confident, capable leaders, able to speak to adults and community leaders about the needs of children and youth in their communities. Seeing youth grow into their potential and serving their communities is perhaps the most promising and important development of all.

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Cidade Maravilhosa and the Foz!

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

It is still very dark as we leave our hotel in Belo Horizonte at 4:30 a.m. for our flight to Rio de Janiero. We are nearly at the end of this Study Tour, but the energy level of our CCF sponsors remains high and positive. How could you not be positive when you know you are going to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world and then fly down to the Brazilian/Argentine border to see a spectacular waterfall that makes Niagara Falls look puny? Our excellent guide in Belo Horizonte had arranged a group check-in at the airport and we were soon going to taking off into the sunrise with high expectations for today’s adventure in the cidade maravilhosa!

Just an hour of flight time and several people in the group have already excitedly spotted the Christ the Redeemer statue as our plane banks to the north for landing at Rio’s international airport. Landing in Rio on a clear morning almost takes your breath away… the mountains, the bays, the beaches, and the sweet Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf) just waiting to greet us! There is excitement among the CCF sponsors as we claim our luggage and meet Marcelo-- tour guide par excellance! Marcelo grew up poor in the slums of Rio with a single mom who taught him the value of education--he is now working on his PhD and speaks four languages fluently. Marcelo has a wonderful knowledge of Rio, its’ history, local culture, and politics. He has also been the tour guide for every CCF group since the beginning of Study Tours to Brazil about five years ago.

Boarding our large and comfortable bus, Marcelo remarks that there is a lot of luggage and smiles knowingly that the sponsors have been shopping at every stop over the past 10 days. Although CCF does not have an office or projects in Rio, the city serves as an example of urban explosion and all the problems that go with a city experiencing steady growth, high unemployment, and lack of adequate housing. We leave the airport and Marcelo is very candid in explaining the good, the bad, and the ugly of living—and visiting Rio de Janeiro. Most of the news reports in the United States when we hear about Rio’s crime are exaggerated and taken out of the context of life in a big city. Just ask Brazilians about visiting New York City or Miami, they are terrified of what they read and sincerely fear going to those cities.

From the airport, we pass one of the largest slums (favelas) in Rio and notorious for drugs, robberies, and murders. We are soon passing the old colonial part of downtown Rio de Janeiro with its’ beautiful Portuguese-style churches, the opera house and other stunning municipal buildings. Marcelo remarks that we will be having lunch tomorrow at one of the oldest traditional ‘tea rooms’ in Rio called Colombo. After passing the middle-class apartments and condo communities of Flamenco and Botafogo, we pass through a long tunnel taking us to gorgeous Copacabana Beach. The oohs and aahs from the sponsors when they see the beach is typical for anyone on their first visit to this famous beach. Our hotel on Avenida Atlantica is ready for our arrival as well as a large group of street vendors selling everything from jewelry to license plates, they are not pushy, but a lot of fun which is so typical of the Cariocas, which is what Rio residents are called.

Sponsors are asked to proceed immediately to the rooftop pool area where they are given a registration card to complete, served complimentary ‘caipirinhas’, and welcomed to the hotel by members of the management team. Immediately, the sponsors look over the low wall of the rooftop area to get a breathtaking view of the entirety of Copacabana Beach, the Sugarloaf, and a good view of the Christ the Redeemer statue perched on a mountain behind the hotel. It is as if the sponsors have been physically immobilized by some secret mist for they don’t move and continually murmur words of wonderment at what they are viewing. One sponsor jokingly says, “I plan to stay right here on the rooftop for the next three days! You guys can do whatever you want!”

After a quick trip to our rooms, we meet down in the lobby to leave for a beach pizza party, what a relief from all that meat and fish at the traditional churrascaria restaurants on this trip. I have reserved tables for our group at a nearby sidewalk cafĂ© facing the ocean that serves delicious pizza Brazilian-style. The views of the ocean and palm trees seem to hypnotize our sponsors as they ‘chill out’ and realize they are really in Rio de Janeiro and eating lunch at Copacabana Beach. Soon the street vendors spot our group and the show is on! I try to manage the street sellers but our sponsors are eager to buy their wares, it is an open-air Macy’s basement sale! Many of the street vendors are eager to share their stories and I do my best to translate what they want our sponsor group to know. They are a poor, but industrious group of sales people with a great sense of humor, their marketing of their products is done with humor, class, and a splendid show of entertainment for their customers. Aiiii, how Carioca and Brazilian is this display, and the sponsors love it.

The afternoon soon arrives and we are off to Sugarloaf Mountain for some awe-inspiring views of the city, rivers, bays, mountains, and then back to the hotel to prepare for our short trip to an excellent restaurant in the Leme section of Copacabana. Marius Restaurant is a happening circus, a bonanza of mirth and laughter, a wonderful place to relax on your first night in Rio. We recognize all of our sponsors for their sponsorship of needy children, but give special recognition and a small gift to four sponsors who have been sponsoring children throughout the world for over 25 years! We also recognize sponsors who sponsor more than one child, including one gentleman from Minnesota who sponsors 17 children! CCF is blessed to have such a loyal base of sponsors who are truly part of our international family! We finish dessert and then back to the hotel-- well, not everyone. There is a great little street market on a section of Copacabana Beach which a group of us must explore. It is a 16 block walk back to the hotel late that night, but no one seems to mind given the beautiful moon over the ocean, the cool breezes through the beachfront palms, and the atmosphere of joviality that integrates the rhythm of this cidade maravilhosa. Boa noite or sweet dreams dear sponsors…..and welcome to Rio de Janeiro!

It is our second day in Rio, and everyone is already for breakfast and eager to leave for our visit to the Christ the Redeemer statue or Corcovado. It stands on a very high peak in the middle of the largest urban rain forest in the world called Tijuca. We have arranged for our CCF sponsors to go on a safari adventure this morning, so there are six open-air Jeep type vehicles waiting for our group. They will transport us through the city until we reach the cog-wheel railway station in the northern part of the Botafogo neighborhood. It is indeed strange to ride around Rio in these safari vehicles and watch the reaction of Cariocas on their way to work when they see us --how strange this group must appear to the residents of this city, but the Cariocas smile and some wave a cheerful good morning to us. So Brazilian!

We arrive at the little train station and immediately see groups of other tourists standing in line for the next trip up the mountain… there are Italians, French, Germans, Brazilians, and some folks from the USA all waiting to climb up the mountain side through Tijuca National Forest until we reach the majestic Christ statue at the top. As we wait, some of our CCF sponsors are off to buy souvenirs and take photos of the surroundings. Soon, we board our little train and start up the mountainside through the forest where little signs note the types of trees and plants we are passing. There are two stops as we go up the mountain to let locals on and off the train, at the first stop, a quintet of samba school players get on the train to play and sing for the tourists. It is a scene out of a Fellini movie as we steeply climb the mountain on a little cog-wheel train while joyful samba music is playing and several people are dancing in the aisle of our bonde car.

As we approach the top of the mountain, there is a sudden break in the thick forest and a giant gush of oohs and aahs is heard from the passengers as they catch a glimpse of the beautiful scene several thousand feet below -- Ipanema, Copacabana, and Lagoa. There is not a cloud in the sky on this beautiful day. From the last stop, we either walk up over 700 steps or take an elevator to the base of the statue. From the top of the mountain, the view is unbelievable; it is no wonder people do not want to leave this almost sacred place of beauty. As one sponsor remarked, “this is almost a spiritual experience for me.” No one could deny the peacefulness and exhilaration of seeing Rio de Janeiro from the base of the Christ statue.

We descend the mountain by bonde train until the first stop and then hopped back into our safari vehicles for an exciting ride down the winding road that goes down the mountain through Tijuca Forest to a section of the city called Santa Teresa --which has become an artist colony and place to live for the noveau rich in Rio. We have the afternoon free until dinner at a great little restaurant called ‘Mio’ in Ipanema. CCF sponsor Steve from California is crowned King of Cheesebread and given a Rio fake license plate that reads ‘Sr. Pao de Queijo’. Back to the night market at Copacabana Beach tonight before returning to the hotel for some last minute packing of luggage for the flight to Foz de Iguassu in the morning.

We are flying south to the border of Brazil and Argentina this morning to spend a few days at one of the largest waterfalls in the world, the Foz de Iguasu or Big Water in the native language of indigenous people who still live in the area. It has been almost 30 years since I last visited the Foz and I remember Iguasu being this small town with no paved streets and you had to pay a fisherman to row you across the river to the Argentine side of the waterfalls. No more! The Foz de Iguasu region is a giant international tourism destination with modern facilities on both sides of the border and a booming eco-tourism business. Our group is staying at the historic Cataratas Hotel which faces a portion of the falls on the Brazilian side. During the next two days, we hike around the falls, walk gingerly along catwalks over a portion of the falls, and take a really fun boat trip to the base of one of the falls, yes, we all were drenched but laughing the entire time. It is really good to see Brazil and Argentina develop a healthy industry of eco-tourism that protects the sub-tropical forests, assures the integrity of the falls, and gives employment to so many local people.

You always know when a study tour is almost completed (besides being tired and sometimes a little cranky.) The sponsors showed an emotional display of complete satisfaction with what they have experienced on the study tour and a little sadness that it is all ending within 24 hours, we have to say our goodbyes and return to our home communities. The bonds of friendship formed during a study tour is indicative of a group that has come to Brazil for a common mission, to learn more about Christian Children’s Fund, to visit CCF projects and sponsored children, and to learn more of the history, culture, music and arts of this vast country called Brazil.

As we wait for our flight connection in Sao Paulo, Brazil, international airport, to get to Miami, I see sponsors talking quietly to one another, laughing at some of their digital photos, and making plans to return to Brazil on a future study tour. They will return to the States more bonded with the mission of CCF and eager to recruit new sponsors in their community. Many of them will raise funds from their churches, business associates or civic groups to fund needed projects in Brazil or perhaps a project they visited during this Study Tour. I look forward to receiving copies of their favorite photos from this trip and perhaps visiting with them this year as I travel throughout the United States. Emails, phone calls, and letters will be exchanged for many years to come. Most of all, we have shared a common experience throughout this trip to Brazil that none of us will forget. We have gained so much knowledge of Brazil and its people.

I will miss this group of unique individuals! CCF is fortunate to have them as sponsors and loyal supporters helping needy children throughout the world. I hope to see them again in the near future on other study tour trips! We will continue our CCF Study Tours this year with a trip to Ecuador in July (sorry sold out!) and a fantastic study tour to India in late October. Next year, we will be going to Zambia, Bolivia, Brazil, and maybe even Thailand. There will be more countries announced later this summer!

Thank you to the sponsors and fellow travelers on this Brazil Study Tour. I will never forget you! gary d.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

It is a cool morning today as we prepare to leave the hotel and visit a CCF project located in one of the urban neighborhoods of Belo Horizonte. CCF has been active for many years in both rural and urban areas of this region providing training and leadership in community development, and most importantly, empowering local residents to take charge and make changes in their communities and neighborhoods. As we battle the downtown rush hour traffic this morning in Belo, our minivans wind up and down the hilly neighborhoods of the city until we are almost at the edge of the city. Here is where you find mud adobe and small block houses built haphazardly on hillsides where landslides are common during the rainy season. There are no streets in these favelas (slums) and many of the houses lack electricity and water. These are people who have come to the city seeking work, hoping to give their children a better chance in life, or just to find a glimmer of hope that things will get better. They feel powerless and without direction, but they have the same dreams and ambitions for their children as we do for ours in the United States.

Creeping to the top of one hill, our vans stop in front of several large structures that now serve as a school, training center, and central meeting place for the community. Some of the teachers and nuns are waiting outside to greet our arrival and we are soon ushered into the main building where you could hear the excited laughter and chatter of children in various classrooms. We are quickly seated in an open courtyard area and the neighborhood priest walks slowly to the center of our group to officially welcome us to Projecto Provendencia. He appears to be in his late 70’s, somewhat stooped and wearing common trousers, plaid shirt, and a simple sweater. Dalton, from the CCF-Brazil staff, begins to translate his words to our group. I noticed that he was speaking Portuguese with an Italian accent and later learned that he had immigrated to Brazil with his parents many years ago. He had devoted his life to the parents and children of this poor neighborhood and his accomplishments can only be termed saintly in mission and determination.

As the Priest speaks, he draws parallels of our visit to scripture he reads from the Bible. He says our visit ‘from a land so far away, so full of riches, so full of goodness,’ is so humbling to him… and he begins to cry, choking on his words as he tries not to loose his train of thought. I glance around the room and look at the faces of the CCF sponsors, many of them wiping away tears from their faces as they grasped the sincerity and warmth of the welcoming message from this elderly priest. Dalton maintains his composure as he accurately translates each word, each nuance, and each heartfelt sentiment being expressed by the Father at Projecto Provendencia. His remarks end and we are quickly organized into three groups (this time, I am put in the chirpy blue group!) and guided to the various classrooms of the children. We see their studies, their projects, their youthful exuberance, and sense their ambitions and dreams for a better future.

After the tour, we are brought into a large assembly hall where the children entertain us with songs, music, and dancing. Their enthusiasm is infectious and soon I notice that many of our CCF sponsors are singing and clapping to the music. The sound is joyous as the children give their best performance for this group of visitors and it is hard not to notice that all of the teachers, nuns, and our humble priest are beaming with pride at the excellence of their students. The performance ends with all of the younger children giving hugs to each sponsor, a gigantic international love and display of Brazilian affection for visitors.

Soon, the teachers and students leave the room, and we are there alone with the priest, some members of the CCF-Brazil staff and other community residents. The priest rises from his chair to bid farewell to our group. His words are reverent and emotional as he tells us of the struggles the community has faced in providing for their children. He outlines their challenges as well as their successes throughout the past years, and it is obviously that this is truly a humble man of God.

Of course, no day would be complete in Brazil, without someone, this time THE PRIEST! --mentioning that we must have a snack before leaving. We enter a small room off the large assembly hall where there is a bountiful array of goodies including cakes, candies, breads, juices and coffee. I must admit, it was all delicious! I have developed an almost addiction to the Brazilian snack called pao de queijo (cheese balls/bread) Okay, after two slices of cake, some sticky candy, and over 8 cheese balls. The priest thought we had eaten too little and insisted that we eat more before we leave. Do we really look THAT hungry?

It was back to the hotel in the afternoon and a few hours of rest before our farewell dinner with the national office CCF-Brazilian staff. Oh, did I mention that before the staff took us back to the hotel, they insisted we go to a place called Baby Beef Restaurant for a light lunch to hold us over until dinner. Several sponsors took a pass at this lunch while the majority of us maintained protocol and zoomed through the selections of salads, pasta, meats, and desserts. I make a mental note to go out later this afternoon and buy a larger belt. Back at the hotel, I prepare for the evening’s events and farewell ceremony. We have brought small gifts for our Brazilian staff colleagues and they must be wrapped and gift-bagged before 7 p.m.! All I want to do is lay down on that inviting bed in my room and sleep for a few hours. No such luck since I must check email from the office, start repacking my luggage for the early morning departure tomorrow from Belo, and call our tour guide in Rio de Janeiro to assure him that we do NOT need any snacks while in Rio!

The Farewell Dinner that evening was wonderful with our CCF-Brazilian staff and sponsors sharing memories and heartfelt feelings of their visit to Belo Horizonte, the value of Study Tour to Brazil, and how we would all like to return to this wonderful state one day in the future. After an excellent musical presentation by local children from one of the CCF projects and an emotional video of a gentleman speaking about his life as a poor youngster who had been helped by CCF, and many kind testimonials by CCF sponsors and Brazilian staff, we reluctantly call it a night.

We were soon off to bed after the last speech and hugs all around the room. Tomorrow, the group moves on to the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro with some great memories of our stay in the state of Minas Gerais. Before heading up to my room, I visually survey our CCF Study Tour group of sponsors and it strikes me how rich a family of travelers CCF has produced. From 19 year old Michael, who will be a second year student at UNC this Fall, to several people who are retired and have sponsored children through CCF for over 25 years. We are from small towns and very large cities, US and foreign born, a multitude of occupational backgrounds, friends, family, and companions united by one mission to help children in need and visit CCF projects. It is a remarkably diverse, yet blended fabric of altruistic individuals who are making a difference in the lives of children who they may never meet and yet there is this strong bond that unites us all.

I think of our early founders of CCF as they struggled to help children in China both pre and post-WWII. Surely, they must have experienced moments of doubt if this organization could ever survive with such a simple mission and yet a life-saving goal for children in need throughout the world. I think our founders would be pleased to see what Christian Children’s Fund has become and the unity it has brought to both sponsors and sponsored children, a sponsor trying to give a child a chance in life which is how it was in the beginning and that is how it continues today. Simple and yet so very effective!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

We are all up early today for another great family reunion between sponsors and sponsored children at a park near the city of Belo Horizonte. Because Brazil is such a large country, we hold two separate Sponsored Children Days during a Study Tour. All of the children and families we will meet today come from the mountainous state of Minas Gerais. Some of the children have traveled over 8 hours with a parent and CCF-Brazilian volunteer to meet their sponsor.

Minas Gerais has both urban and rural CCF-programs that promote early childhood education, health and sanitation, water conservation, progressive farming techniques, and micro-credit projects. The northern part of this state is very remote and underdeveloped in relation to the rest of the state. Minas Gerais saw a large influx of German and Italian immigrants from1880 to 1920... thus, you will see children with non-Portuguese features and names that sound European. There are still areas in Brazil where German and Italian are second languages spoken in families and among community residents. The poverty found in northern Minas Gerais is intense and CCF, fortunately, is making a positive impact to help these communities become self-reliant.

I arrived at the hotel dining room at 7 a.m. this morning trying to beat the crowd but discovered that most of our CCF sponsors had already eaten breakfast --hey, sponsors, did you not hear me last night when I said we will not leave until 8:30?! How do these people get by on so little sleep? It must be the incentive of more ham and cheese sandwiches also served at Brazilian breakfasts! Actually, everyone was quite excited that we were going to celebrate another Child Sponsor Day and the anxiety is high in this room. Our CCF-Brazil staff arrives and introduces each sponsor to their translator-for-a-day. The translators are a great group of younger and more mature individuals who immediately put the sponsors at ease and welcome them. The chatter in the hotel's lobby reaches a new pitch when I announce that we must get on our bus to leave for Vale Verde --that large, lush park with the moonshine, exotic birds, giant scary swan boats, and a thin, cable zip line across a small lake. I have visions of some sponsors being attacked by irate macaws or wrenching their backs as they hang from a cable over the lake. I immediately check to see if I have the toll-free number of International Airline Medicac Services which is safely tucked in my camera case... as the insurance companies say, “we need pictures of the incident!”

After a 45 minute ride from our hotel, we arrive at one of the most beautiful parks I have ever visited. Soon, we are off the bus to meet the sponsored children and families waiting for us in a shaded area in the park. The children are soon matched with their sponsors, hugs and kisses for everyone, and then we are seated at tables and invited to sample a snack that they have prepared for us at the park. The word snack, now brings gastronomic terror to my soul, and, sure enough, the snack consists of four tables laden with food and drink of all types. Ye gads, we just ate an hour ago! Do we really look THAT hungry? Of course, the sponsors and kids head for the food tables and soon there is an extravaganza of eating, opening gifts and taking the mandatory 1,000 photos of every one's sponsored child.

We are divided into three groups (red, green and blue) for a guided tour of the park. One of the guides notices that I do not have a wristband and demands that I join the green group, how did she make the determination that I should be a green and not a blue? Not to worry... I am soon banded like some lost foreign bird and join my flock as we see the aviary, the lake, the snakes, the baby bird nursery, and a 20 minute tour of a working cachaca distillery with an adjacent room of over 200 cachaca bottles with picturesque details of the development of this potent drink in Brazil. I have to admit it was fascinating experience since they promised a free sample at the end of the tour... but we never got any!

Then, with my fellow green people, we were led off to a beautiful outdoor restaurant and served a feast of redemption... everyone was laughing, having a great time and playing games with the children. More photos, more gift-giving, more unstoppable laughing by everyone... and then the staff of the restaurant hauls out the biggest chocolate birthday cake I have ever seen in my life! It took three people to carry it complete with flaming candles and the singing of "Parabems" or Happy Birthday... today, CCF sponsor Carol was celebrating her birthday and I think we did surprise her just a bit. As soon as the song ended and Carol blew out the 125 candles, our Brazilian wait staff hastily took the cake away much to every one's dismay. But, noooo, they came back with freshly cut pieces of chocolate birthday cake for everyone. Another sponsor, Phil of Texas, had brought bundles of glass beads (way to many trips to New Orleans for you, Phil!) which he passed out to the children, the parents, the staff......and then the wait staff was soon requesting beads to wear. It was Carnaval, the Mardi Gras, and a Birthday party, and everyone was laughing and enjoying the moment. I am sure it had nothing to do with the cachaca-flavored ice cream served to all of us. Tastes like vanilla... well, slightly!

We then went for a ride on the scary big Swans, zipped along the cable across the lake, and... you guessed it, the Brazilians brought us a little snack which consisted of six tables of food set among the forest along the lake. I did not try the zip line since I am sure the cable would break under my increasing weight and I am sure those gross metal swans would have squawked if I had attempted to board them. Time flew by and it was time to say goodbye to the children and families. Shakespeare was partially right... parting is such sweet sorrow... well no, it is just downright painful after such a great day with our sponsored children and families at Vale Verde Park.

Our bus was fairly quiet as we returned to the city of Belo with sponsors perhaps savoring the memories of the day with the children. I imagine the children were doing the same as they made their way home to small villages throughout the state of Minas Gerais. These are unforgettable moments no matter what your age or nationality. They’re images that will be frozen in time for all of us as we grow older... but not apart. CCF sponsorship is a binding, magical force which lives in adults and children and is never broken by language, nationality, religion, or income level. We will always stay connected through this relationship forged by CCF and our national staff members throughout the world.

We arrive at the hotel around 6 p.m. and the Brazil staff announces that dinner tonight will be at a restaurant called Porcao or Fat Pig... how very appropriate! Do we look THAT hungry?

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Gary’s Note: Okay, Brazil-Blog-Readers... you haven't heard from me in almost a week and I arrived back in the United States late yesterday afternoon. You have already heard about my loosing battle with the shifty luggage and the resulting lower back torture, but I want to continue this blog by highlighting some of the things we did and saw after leaving Fortaleza.

Fortaleza to Belo Horizonte:

We had survived the constant heat and humidity 24/7 in the Amazon and the coastal city of Fortaleza before boarding our flight to the mountainous city of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais. Of course, to get to almost anywhere in Brazil these days, you have to pass through their capital city called Brasilia. One of the CCF sponsors on the trip dubbed Brasilia "the Atlanta of Brazil"-- you don't go any place or anywhere unless you pass through the city of Brasilia. Actually, Brasilia was just a huge area of dust and shrubs out in the middle of Brazil almost 60 years ago. In the 1950's, the Brazilian President decided to move the capital of Brazil from Rio de Janeiro to this remote outpost in what Brazilians considered the jungle. The outcry from Brazilians was tremendous and the President was called names we can not print in this blog. Fortunately, that Brazilian President was a futurist; thinker and planner when he decreed that the bureaucrats must leave the comforts of Copacabana Beach and trek on out to the interior of Brazil and establish the right to life, liberty and happiness in the interior!

Brasilia is now a beautiful, bustling city of several million people and an Atlanta-type airport; many terminals, overcrowded, understaffed, and forget trying to find a decent place to eat in this airport. We had a short turnaround in Brasilia before boarding our flight to beautiful and COOL Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon). Our CCF sponsor group again demonstrated their fortitude and determination despite my best efforts to thoroughly exhaust them from early wake-up calls to late nights of various activities. Have I also mentioned that I convinced TAM Airlines to feed them only hot ham and cheese sandwiches on huge rolls on every in-country flight? There was one exception when we were served a sandwich given the name of 'mystery meat mixture' by one of the CCF sponsors. Hey, I still like TAM Airlines since they always serve candy, drinks are free, and the flight attendants always respectfully smile at my struggling attempts to speak Portuguese.

Because of air traffic delays over the skies of booming Brasilia, our flight was delayed and we did not arrive in Belo Horizonte until after 8 p.m. Our hearty CCF group of sponsors gathered their luggage after we landed before walking outside into the terminal where they were enthusiastically greeted by our national CCF staff, children singing and dancing, joyful music coming from a children's band, and a BIG welcome sign. If anyone was tired at that moment, their exhaustion immediately faded as smiles, clapping and dancing took hold of the sponsors responding to these wonderful first moments in Belo Horizonte. It was a stunning display of warmth and hospitality as other Brazilian onlookers at the airport joined in on this celebration of the 'norteamericanos' who had suddenly landed in the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines). It wasn’t until later our group realized that Brazilians were wearing coats, sweaters, and warm hats to protect them from the 'cold' 58 degree night. Ah, finally, we can be cold again and not sweat during every waking moment of our daily activities!

After a 25 minute drive into town from the airport, we check into a beautiful downtown hotel which had prepared a 'late-night snack' for us, honestly, there is no such thing as a snack in Brazil, our tables were filled with little sandwiches, cookies, candies, fruit, etc. which was a welcomed alternative to the delicious hot ham and cheese sandwich we had just eaten on our flight down to Belo from Brasilia. After a short briefing by me and the National CCF staff in Brazil, the sponsors were off to their rooms where they found more special treats awaiting them courtesy of our Brazilian staff... I am beginning to think that Brazilians think we do not eat enough and they are determined to fatten us up before we return to the States.

At this point, I should mention a nebulous and charming character from Belo Horizonte who first appeared at the airport when we landed at 1 a.m. in the Amazon almost a week ago and has not left our side for one minute. His name is Dalton (hey, there are people in Brazil named Jefferson, Elvis and Madonna too!), but many of us began to call him Bobbi from a cartoon character or O Cara which means 'The Man!' in Portuguese. Bobbi O Cara is actually the comedic Jim Carrey of Brazil and a wonderful young man who works very hard for CCF-Brazil. He is Brazilian, speaks fluent English, and has an engaging personality and wonderful sense of humor. Even our tough-as-nails sponsor in this group from Texas (Cowboy Don) admitted to liking Dalton. Dalton was there to make sure that things went right, to answer our questions about CCF in Brazil, and to entertain us with wonderful impressions and astute observations. Let's just say he did a wonderful job, everybody loved him, and we hope he continues to work for CCF-Brazil for many years to come! Dalton has been immortalized in a painting Scott, CCF staff, purchased from a street artist in Fortaleza, but that's another story.

Tomorrow, we meet more sponsored children and families in a park called Vale Verde or 'Green Valley'. It is a lush forested area of native trees, plants, and a large collection of tropical birds. It also has huge mechanical swans on a lake for children to ride, a dashing zip-line that crosses the lake, a nice restaurant and a legal cachaca (moonshine) still for producing sugarcane liquor. Only in Brazil would you find a children's park with moonshine ...but there is more in this story that I will post tomorrow.

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Monday, June 4, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Our third day in Fortaleza on the northeast coast of Brazil was beautiful; we went to a little ocean-side resort about an hour north of the city so our CCF sponsors could meet their sponsored children. I know it may sound corny and sentimental, but the day the sponsors meet their sponsored children for the first time is truly magical! It truly is a family reunion of people who have never met and yet consider themselves to be part of each others family. Some of our sponsors have been sponsoring children from various countries for over 25 years!

Upon our arrival at this beach side location, CCF sponsors hurry from the bus with arms full of gifts and goodies for their sponsored children and families. We make our way down a small sandy path lined with long-needle pine trees to a shelter area built on the beach that is facing the ocean. I try to look at all the different faces of our sponsors and read their thoughts and feelings.

Finally, we reach the shelter and the children (with their mom or dad) are lined up outside the building with large paper hearts displaying the name of the sponsor they are meeting that day. As we approach, the children loose all patience and start moving toward the CCF sponsors with large smiles on their faces. An array of hugs, kisses, smiles, laughter, and joyful commotion commences as these families finally meet for the first time. Although I have experienced these meeting many times in the last five years with sponsors, it never ceases to amaze me the almost mystical quality of these encounters. There are tears of joy not only shed by some sponsors, but also by the Brazilian CCF staff, the parents of these children and other Brazilians observing this scene. The CCF relationship between an individual sponsor and a child somewhere in the world is one of the most powerful bonds I have ever observed in my life. It truly demonstrates the commonality of us that bonds us into one big family.

Soon, sponsors and sponsored children are seated at tables with translators provided by the CCF regional office in Fortaleza. Photos from the US sponsors of their families, dogs, neighborhoods, and hometown monuments are soon being passed around the tables as sponsors and translators provide a symphony of Portuguese and English melodies. There is more laughter and hugs as the groups relax and realize that the magical moment of meeting one another has truly arrived!

Sponsors have brought small gifts for the children and families, and these presents are opened eagerly by the children and excitedly inspected by family, candy, binoculars, puzzles, toy cars, is Toys R
US on steroids!

I must insert a personal note since I was meeting my sponsored child from Ceara for the first time on this trip. He lives with his elderly grandparents in a small fishing village about an hour north of Fortaleza. Francisco, according to his grandmother, had awakened at 4 a.m. that morning ready to leave for our meeting, but was not scheduled to depart until almost 8 a.m. to go to the meeting place. He was accompanied by his elderly grandmother and a volunteer representative from his small village. Shy at first, he soon began to ask me questions about my life, my family, and where I lived. I had brought him a backpack of presents which he slowly and carefully opened each one as if it would disappear if he handled it too roughly. After all the presents were opened and he seemed very pleased with the gifts, my Portuguese translator asked him which present he liked the best and he replied with a tone of sincerity in his voice...”The best part of everything is getting to meet my sponsor today.” The translator was temporarily overcome with emotion and could not express to me what this youngster had said. I understood immediately and also felt a deep sense of appreciation that CCF had given me the opportunity to sponsor this child. He will always be part of my family despite the thousands of miles of separation, our different languages, and our daily circumstances.

After another bountiful lunch, sponsors went swimming with children, played games, and walked along the ocean; it was the first time that some of these children had ever seen the ocean! My colleagues, Scott, Kathi and I passed out some extra toys to the children we had brought to Brazil and then if was time for us all to say good-bye to the children and families. How do you say good-bye to your child? It isn´t easy! We board our buses back to the hotel in Fortaleza; there is an unusual quietness on our bus as sponsors shared stories about their child with their seat mate. Some sponsors wiped away tears and others sat quietly with their thoughts of the day. There is a general serenity among the group that from this day on, the lives of these sponsors will never be the same.

It is obvious to all of us as we ponder our thoughts today that CCF sponsorship is truly a life-changing event not only for the child, but also for the sponsor.

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

When I wrote last night from Belo Horizonte, I ended by telling you of my stupid luggage trick and departure from the jungles of Manaus. Normally, the trip from Manaus to the beautiful coastal city of Fortaleza only takes three hours by jet, but that did not happen. First, we had to fly south to the Brazilian capital called Brasilia, then lay-over for a few hours, then fly back north to Fortaleza. We left Manaus at 3:30 p.m. and landed in Fortaleza at 1 a.m. the next day. It would be like going from New York to Kansas City, but first having to fly to Seattle to change planes. I am not complaining loudly since TAM Airlines is wonderful with cabin service, courtesy, politeness, and lots of food on all flights. Where else but Brazil does the pilot and head flight attendant stand outside the door of the plane and greet each passenger as you enter, followed by the passing candy throughout the cabin, then a light or heavy meal on EVERY flight. The CCF sponsors have loved flying TAM and the attention they received from the airline crews.

Yes, it was very early in the morning when we arrive in Fortaleza, one of the most beautiful coastal cities in all of Brazil and the headquarters of the Regional CCF office. Our regional staff was waiting for us in the airport terminal and we transported on a comfortable bus to our beachfront hotel. Despite sleep deprivation and hours of flying that day, our CCF sponsors were real road warriors and did not complain, in fact, they were charmed by the welcoming words and commentary from Glaezah, our guide (not exactly how you spell her name, but close enough to the pronunciation!) Glaezah from Fortaleza, had lots of information for our sponsors and had them laughing all the way to our hotel, not an easy thing to do at such an early hour when most of us should have been in bed.

The next morning, we woke up to the beauty of the beach and the warmness and hospitality of the Fortalezans! They are some of the most joyful people in the world and make you feel right at home. We had a light breakfast---well, there is no such thing in Brazil---since each breakfast so far has consisted of gargantuan portions of food including tropical fruits, fresh breads, omelets cooked-to-order, sizzling meats, an array of steamed vegetables, and best of all, lots of cakes, puddings, pies and candies! These Brazilians really know how to start the day, and I start each day with desserts! I am seriously thinking of becoming a Brazilian!

We left the hotel with anticipation of seeing an urban CCF project in the city of Fortaleza. Of course, Gleazah was on the bus already and explained every historic, cultural, and trivial factoid known to man about the city of Fortaleza. Did you know that the Dutch once occupied Fortaleza, that the best cashew nuts in the world come from Fortaleza, that every ice cream shop in the city has at least 30 tropical flavors of ice cream, that the Portuguese threw out the Dutch but were then thrown out by the indigenous peoples, that the US Navy had a small base in Fortaleza during WWII and were visited by the Coca Cola girls, and the traditional dance and music of this region was actually started by the US Navy who held dances each weekend which the locals interpreted to mean forro, a type of music that sounds more Cajun than Brazilian, ah, Glaezah from Fortaleza knows everything!

We arrived in a very poor neighborhood just on the edge of the city where CCF has worked for many years. At the local school, sponsors were welcomed by staff and children who entertained us with traditional dancing and singing. We toured the school which provides not only education for children from poor families, and also medical/dental care, child care, computer training, and other community-based services. Our CCF sponsors were very impressed by how their sponsorship dollars and gifts were providing life-enhancing, if not life-saving services for these youngsters. The teachers, parents committee, and local staff felt so honored to have us visit them, it was very touching to all of us, we saw first-hand how sponsorship has such a dramatic affect on a poor community. The visit ended with sponsors being invited to dance forro with the children, everyone was taken by this beautiful moment and the joy on the faces of our CCF sponsors and the children at this school.

That night, we went to a Brazilian churrascaria for a dinner which can only be described as a meal for royalty. After a buffet full of salads and other specialties, the waiters arrived at our tables with long skewers of beef, lamb and pork, which they insisted everyone try. This gourmet extravaganza was fueled with the caffeine-loaded Brazilian cola called Guarana and the sugar-cane drink called caipirinhas. By the end of this delicious meal, sponsors were in a restful mood and we returned to the hotel, not for rest, but to walk to the Night Market. The Night Market in Fortaleza is right on the beachfront and offers handicrafts and other useful items for sale from around the region. Some of the relatives and friends of CCF sponsors are going to receive some very nice Christmas gifts.

We were back at the hotel by midnight since Glaezah had warned us that we must leave early tomorrow morning to meet some of the sponsored children. There was notable excitement, anxiety, joy, and panic in the eyes of our sponsors, what will tomorrow bring!? Only Glaezah really knows!!!

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Saturday, June 2, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

It is now Saturday night and I am sitting in an Internet cafe in the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Belo Horizonte means "beautiful horizon" in English. This city is located in the mountainous state of Minas Gerais. Unlike the past 7 days of oppressive heat and humidity, Belo is a pleasant 75 degrees... que belo is Belo!

Okay, you are probably wondering what happened to me since my last report from the jungles of the Amazon. I would like to report that I was not eaten by ravenous caimans, or attacked by an anaconda, or even lost in the jungle. I was a victim of the deadly heavy luggage predator! We have 30 CCF sponsors and staff traveling with what seems like 100 pieces of overweight and oversized luggage, mine included! So last Tuesday, I was helping the boat transfer people load luggage onto our Amazon runabout, it isn’t easy carrying luggage from a jungle pier to unstable, rocking boats. I twisted my back big time and could barely walk. Back pain or caiman attack? I’ll take that caiman attack any day!

On our last day in the Amazon, we were on the water all day exploring inlets and tributaries of the mighty Amazon----seeing monkeys, snakes, spiders and iguanas...and an incredible array of butterflies, fish, and flowers. The Amazon is an amazing place and as I sweated and swatted giant mosquitoes, our guide Marco had the audacity to announce that a cold front has settled on to the Amazon. This guy has obviously spent way too much time in the sun! It had to be 102 degrees that day with relentless sun and torrential warm rains. Not exactly your luxury tour, but the sponsors seemed to love every moment.

The CCF sponsors on this study tour are a hardy group no matter their age or physical condition. Few complaints, lots of curiosity, and full of adventure! I am proud of all of them and the jungle challenges they have endured the past week: red howler monkeys barking at night, caimans just outside their little cabins, pink dolphins playing along the riverbanks, and some of the largest scorpions I have ever seen in my life! I think the fortitude and can-do attitude of CCF sponsors creates the strongest determination to help needy children and families throughout the world! They are a very special group of people!

Okay....back to the attack of the killer luggage. I knew immediately when I lugged that huge bag onto the boat, my body had taken a direct hit! I could barely walk and it was hard to sit down, the pain was so intense that I considered sacrificing myself to the school of piranhas that constantly followed our boats; at least, this group of CCF sponsors could get some good photos of me thrashing about in the Amazon for the friends and family back home!

To their and my credit, the sponsors got me on the airplane for our next stop in Fortaleza, Brazil. After 10 hours of flying in a small TAM Airline torture seat we landed safely, ore about this adventure in my next posting. I am running out of internet time so good night and tchau for now.

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