A very long time ago, I did one of those “help support a child in a foreign country with your monthly donations” things. I went through the Pearl Buck Foundation because at that time there were quite a number of illegitimate births being caused by American soldiers on R and R leave in the countries surrounding Viet Nam, and I was of the age that that was “my” war. Having Amerasian features in a country that had been racially isolated for a very long time was a ticket to being at the bottom of the social heap, and being the mother of such a child brought its own stigma as well. I was sent picture and information about a six year old girl whose father was a Black American and whose mother was Thai. I sent in my monthly contributions and wrote letters and received letters until this young lady was in her early 20's and left the program for adult life and work in the big city. I then was sent a photo of a young boy with a similar background. I continued the support for a few years and then received the notification that the criteria for being in the program had been revised and he had been dropped. This made me quite angry. My sense was that the program had been revised to do a better job of gracing the pocketbooks of the people running it.
Anyway, I fumed for a while. There was an annual presentation at our church from the Christian Foundation for Children and Ageing which is an agency in the USA that tries to pair up American donors with children in already existing programs around the world. They come in with folders with the children's pictures and information about them and you get to shop through the pictures and take one if you intend to pledge to support the program that serves the child. This gave me the willies as it looked like one could “buy” children, or at least buy the right to be in a long distant relationship with them. I have a real issue with making choices based on physical appearance, but I was sorely tempted to get involved in another sponsorship.
Eventually I e-mailed the agency and asked to sponsor someone. I requested someone from Haiti and was sent information about a fourteen year old boy who had been a restavak and had been put out on the street and then taken into a program in Les Cayes for street children. The organization he was being helped by eventually pulled out from CFCA as the letter writing and finding people who could translate from Kreyol to English just got to be more trouble than it was worth. They have been using the Web for fund raising in the US. There is a blog with new pictures every few days, a video on My Space and a couple of different web pages.
I know there is a great deal of debate about whether such agencies do more harm than good, but it looks to me as if at least some good is being done, and that the effort is sincere and not about self enrichment or exploitation. If anyone is interested in taking a look, here is the citation for the blog.
I don't know if this qualifies as "pimps in santa claus suits," but I hope not.
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I'm going to take issue with the fictional relationship charge. Wealthy people in the United States need all the education and help they can get to be able to glimpse through the fog of self gratification to grasp that there are real human beings just like them on the other side of that wall of privilege. If it can be done through learning about a specific child in a specific country, then that is a step in the right direction. As far as benefit to the child, it is probably no more painful than having to write thank you notes to the faraway great aunt in Chicago that the child cannot really remember ever seeing. Learning to care about another cannot ever hurt. Is it a spontaneous relationship? No, of course not. No more than a pen pal is a spontaneous relationship. But I don't think it is totally false or fictional. I think both sides benefit, but the giver of the money benefits the most.