Saturday, May 31, 2008

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

The gentle morning breeze whispered that this would be an exceptional day, not only in the tour itinerary, but forever in the lives of the sponsors and sponsored children alike.

During the bus ride to Tendas do Cumbuco Resort, some sponsors whose sponsored children live in northeastern Brazil were giddy with anticipation. Others appeared somewhat pensive. This was the day they’d all been waiting for -- they would finally meet their sponsored children.

We arrived at the beach resort, after a short stop at a crafts market to buy souvenirs. The children were lined up in front of the entrance. As soon as we were off of the bus, they started singing a song to greet us as. Then each child presented welcome gifts to their sponsor and the rest of us -- handmade heart pillows with our names on them.

The sheltered pavilion was right off of the beach set in a lush garden adjacent to vacation accommodations and two pools. We relaxed, chatted and the children played. We found it so touching to watch sponsors and children get acquainted over the next few hours. They would have much of the day to enjoy time together… swimming in the pool or wading in the surf and walking on the hot sand.

It was fascinating to watch each meeting progress from timid introductions, to more fluid conversations and the sharing of gifts. In no time, they were on their way toward developing warm personal relationships far beyond the friendship that comes from writing letters.

After lunch, we all played a balloon game. In teams of three, adults and children paired with each other in a relay race of sorts. The goal was to transport a balloon to the finish line without using our hands. Each duo was positioned back-to-back and the balloon was placed between them.

At the starting line, we quickly shuffled our feet from side to side toward the finish line, adjusting our movements for the height differences. Then the balloon was given to the next pair and they repeated the effort with the same goal. Many giggles and one aggravated sports injury later, one team won and the game ended.

Early afternoon approached and it was time to part. Sponsors and children bid sad, but grateful farewells to each other. And we boarded the bus to return to the hotel.

We had a wonderful Farewell dinner with the CCF Brazil staff, translators and tour guide at Restaurante Boi Preto followed by presentations, words of gratitude and many tears. For tomorrow we would be leaving for the city of Salvador.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

From Fortaleza to Itapiuna and Back

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

We met bright and early, at 7:45 a.m. feeling refreshed and more like ourselves.

After breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we boarded the bus for the more than two-hour ride to the Itapiuna community, in the western portion of the state of Ceará. There we would visit a second project, Projeto Centro de Apoilo á Criança.

Our tour guide, Gleisa Ferreira ― also affectionately called “Gleisa from Fortaleza” ― welcomed us to our second day. She introduced a CCF Fortaleza staff member who offered a stirring prayer of thanksgiving to begin the day… something they often do.

Gleisa continued, explaining the history, geography and demography of Brazil ― Ceará in particular. Ceará, located in the northeastern corner of Brazil has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Fortaleza, its capital, is known for many of them.

This vast country is divided into five regions. Our 12-day Study Tour will cover four of Brazil’s 26 states. We’ll visit two in the Northeast: Ceará and Bahia; and two in the Southeast: Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.

We drove from Fortaleza to historic Redenção City, where we stopped briefly to take photographs. Redenção, which means redemption or freedom, was the first city in Brazil to abolish slavery. It freed its African slaves in 1883, five years before the rest of the country.

Arriving at the program around 10:15 a.m., we were welcomed by children with the most wide-eyed little faces, each smiling bashfully.

The CCF Fortaleza staff escorted us to an area to refresh ourselves with a mid-morning snack of fruits, juices and a variety of sweet breads. (We seemed to eat every two hours, but I didn’t hear anybody complaining.) Then we again separated into three groups and went on a tour of the community center.

Our group’s first stop was a pediatric health care office. The practitioner explained how she cares for young children by regularly assessing their nutrition, growth, and development. Children are weighed each month until age 5.

Then we moved on to the prenatal care room. There, the health care providers help expectant mothers prepare for the arrival of their new babies. CCF provides maternity education and prenatal care to the mothers in the community. And breastfeeding is strongly encouraged.

Toward the end of the tour, we went outside to take a look at the lush medicinal herb garden. They plant and tend this garden to harvest plants to sell at the community market for the treatment of a variety of illnesses and ailments.

We were beckoned back inside because a group of young children was about to perform. We lined the walls of one room as we stood to watch. Creatively dressed as flowers, cows, bunnies and butterflies, the children in their painted faces danced around, proudly waving the Brazilian flag.

We broke for lunch, choosing from an appetizing spread of chicken, dried beef, fresh fruits, salads, rice and beans, corn, and juices. Guaraná, a popular soda made from the guaraná berries of the Amazon, was also provided.

After lunch, several elementary children presented a skit. Then teens performed a fast-paced, traditional salsa-styled couple’s dance, called forró.

When it was over, we all applauded heartily. Then suddenly the teens started toward us― hands extended, faces grinning. My soon-to-be dance partner wouldn’t take no for an answer. And before I knew it, I was on my feet, working hard to follow him, to catch my breath, and to maintain my dignity. This much-needed workout turned out to be a lot of fun.

Time was slipping away, so we thanked everyone and said our goodbyes.

To get to the next town, we rode a truck typically used to transport people, pigs and produce. We warily perched upon the narrow benches and held on for the gusty ride. About 10 minutes down the road, we met the bus for our trip back to the hotel.

We arrived a little before 7 p.m. After dinner, some of us shopped for local bargains across the street from the hotel, just off the beach on the boardwalk.

At night the boardwalk becomes the Night Crafts Market. Street vendors’ booths crammed the sidewalks, displaying their jewelry, leather goods, clothing, art, and other merchandise. There are also food vendors, mimes and musicians.

Exhausted from our shopping, we returned to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Chegamos! (We’ve Arrived!)

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

After a long, full night of travel, the Study Tour members stepped off of the Airbus at 7:45 this morning. Groggy and blurry-eyed, but full of quiet anticipation, we had arrived at Pinto Martins International Airport in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil.

Just outside the airport we were welcomed by the pleasant, broad smiles of the CCF Brazil staff and our tour guide.

We boarded a van and rode to what would be our home for the next few days -- the beautiful Seara Hotel which is situated just across the street from the beach. The beach was lined by an inviting boardwalk brimming with walkers and bikers out for their morning fitness routines.

We checked in at about 8:30 a.m., unpacked, freshened up and convened two hours later for a quick orientation and an opportunity for official introductions. (Who needs a nap anyway?)

A little later, we moved on to lunch at Coco Bambu Restaurant, considered to be one of the best churrascaria restaurants in northeast Brazil. These traditional barbecue restaurants serve succulent fire-roasted meats cooked over charcoal. And the waiters deliver them to you in rapid fire succession, unless you have your special card turned over to the red side to indicate that you do not want any more. The delicious food was only surpassed by the outstanding service, pleasant camaraderie and rustic atmosphere.

After lunch we were on our way to the Jurema community and to Projeto Guadalajara. The project lies in the urban Caucaia Municipality, 15 miles outside Fortaleza.

The humble homes are made of brick and pressed clay with a tile floor. They generally consist of only three very small rooms with little or no furniture. The bedrooms contain hammocks for sleeping because they are much less expensive to purchase and maintain than beds are. No need for mattresses and linens. Even infants sleep in the hammocks.

The CCF Fortaleza staff escorted us to the facility where the children greeted us warmly. We separated into three groups with different staff and guides to accompany us on a tour of the facility. Sérgio, our guide, and our translator, David escorted my group.

We witnessed the evidence of CCF’s important work as we visited classrooms, dentist, doctor and nutritionist offices. Teachers in the classrooms talked about the studies and activities the children complete each day. In the arts and crafts classroom, the children presented each of us with gifts of pictures they had drawn or painted. In the computer lab, teenagers proudly demonstrated their use of computers and the Internet.

We stopped by medical offices where staff members explained the kinds of services provided: dental care, preventive health care and nutritional education and assessments they provide to the children, mothers and the community at large. Sérgio also took us by the Cantinho da Correspondência to see where the children receive help in writing letters to their sponsors.

As a touching finale to our day, the children presented us with a wonderful musical performance. The teenagers dressed in smart-looking matching green outfits and played their instruments. The young children proudly sang a sweet little song with all their hearts. And a girls’ group danced in their colorful costumes. We watched attentively like proud parents at a school function: snapping photos, applauding and cheering.

The "We Are the World" song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, was the final selection performed by the older children… in English. That’s when the tears really started flowing. At least they did for me. I really appreciated the weeks and weeks of rehearsal they had endured to perform such an appropriate song ― in English ― just for us.

Before leaving, we enjoyed a snack of fresh fruit and juices including freshly prepared guava juice. Then we extended our heartfelt words of thanks and said our good byes. Obrigado! Boa tarde. Tchau.

We enjoyed a little time relaxing before dinner at the Baltazar Restaurant at the Dragão do Mar Cultural Center where we dined outside on Brazilian pizza. We were serenaded by a live vocalist and watched a group of local art students create illustrations of models. Then we capped dinner off with a dish of velvety ice cream sold at a corner ice cream shop nearby.

Our first full day in Brazil was incredibly meaningful. It was a wonderful introduction to the beauty of Fortaleza. But more importantly we had an opportunity to see the children and witness CCF at work in a program area.

Tonight’s sleep will be unusually welcome.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Finally on Our Way to Brazil!

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

At last after months of preparation ― the passport and visa applications, the immunizations, research, list making, and the shopping for supplies and gifts -- these efforts will be put to the test and our questions answered such as:
“Did I pack enough or too much?”
“What if my luggage is too heavy for the airline restrictions?”
“Did I bring the right voltage adaptors or converters?”
“Will my sponsored child like her gifts?”
“What will my meeting with my sponsored child be like?”

This morning 17 CCF sponsors, donors, and staff grappled with these questions as each traveled from 13 different cities and nine states to Miami International Airport -- a few had even arrived a day early.

As instructed, we gathered at the TAM Airlines counter around 4:00 p.m. for the 7:15 p.m. overnight flight to Brazil. Everyone brought their own expectations for the Study Tour. And what a whirlwind tour it would be! We were going to visit five cities in four different states in Brazil, board planes for two domestic flights and stay in five different hotels.

Sprinkled throughout the growing, snaking line, members of the group leisurely made each other’s acquaintance over the next hour or so. Behind the smiles and handshakes each seemed to secretly compare the others’ luggage quantity to their own.

After a long wait, TAM employees started appearing at the counter. Could we be on our way, finally? Well, not quite. As any seasoned traveler knows, you should expect the unexpected.
What would one unexpected adventure be this time? Try a computer glitch with the luggage tagging system. The airline staff attempted to creatively get bags tagged and accounted for while a short-sleeved, plaid-clad computer guy peered over his glasses at the screen to investigate.

With the issue apparently resolved, the staff started reaching for our passports and ticket information. And then the line began moving. One by one, we went up to the counter and checked in. We were finally on our way!

The flight would make one stop in the jungle city of Manaus and another in the city of Belem ― to pick up and drop off passengers before finally arriving in Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceará in Brazil.

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