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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