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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