In snapshots from the early 1950s, Rev. Everett Swanson appears typical of Baptist ministers of his era: neat, unassuming, friendly, always attired in the de rigueur conservative suit and tie. He doesn’t particularly look like a world changer. Yet, he was—and it all started when his winter coat was stolen.
It was the height of the Korean War, when Everett felt God calling him to leave a comfortable Chicago pastorate to work as a full-time evangelist. He packed his bags at the first opportunity—a brief trip to Korea, where he would share the Gospel with soldiers. It was the first time Everett ever traveled outside the United States.
One cold day during his visit, Everett went for a walk, the curious stranger in a strange land. While he quietly strolled through a Korean city, he was suddenly aware of a young boy running up to him. In an instant, the child grabbed Everett’s coat and ran off. The pastor gave chase and almost immediately found himself running into a shantytown dominated by crude makeshift shacks. He had never seen poverty like this in his life.
Though he didn’t catch up to the boy, he did spot his coat laying at the entry to one of the ill-constructed hovels. Stooping to retrieve it, he was shocked by what he found beneath the garment: small, frightened orphan children, shivering and horribly thin. He had to do something to help them. So he got some warm soup and a few blankets from a small local store to provide warmth. He was soon surrounded by a growing crowd of starving kids.
The next day he went back. Along the same street of shanties Everett had seen the day before, there was a large garbage truck and men were throwing rags into it. As the preacher got closer, he realized with horror that the rags were the bodies of children who had not made it through the night. Even more horrible, he realized this truck was going through the entire neighborhood, not just this one small area. The reality was overwhelming. Starving and dying children were everywhere.
A few days later on the plane ride back home, Everett struggled with a question a missionary colleague had asked: What are you going to do about the children?
The answer came within days. He told a few Christian friends the story of the needy Korean orphans he had seen. He didn’t ask for money, yet they offered it, believing that Everett could use it to help the children. He took their willingness to give as confirmation that God was leading him to a new work. Though the name was not legally adopted until 1963, Compassion International was born.
For 13 years, until his death in 1965, Everett Swanson devoted himself to helping Korean children. Everett’s wife, Miriam, continued working with Compassion. At the time of her death in 1994, she was director emeritus of the organization.
About 1,400,000 poor children in distant countries will eat better today, have better clothing, benefit from improved educations and get a chance in life because of Compassion International (CI) and its extensive network of partners.
A CI partner is an average person who supports a specific child or children through a regular monthly donation of $38 in the name of Jesus. Each child has only one sponsor, and there can be much more to the project than sending a check. CI promotes development of the relationships between sponsors and children, seeing this as instrumental in a child’s growth and development. Over time, a sponsor’s prayers, letters and support can make a very positive impact on a child’s life. A one-to-one relationship provides children with the message that they matter, that they are valuable and that someone outside of their families cares about them and their future. All this occurs in the name of Jesus.
“Jesus Christ is at the heart of Compassion’s ministry,” according to CI’s website. “This corporate commitment drives the content of our programs, characterizes the kind of people we hire and guides our ethics.”
At the CI website, compassion.com, you will find 3,800 photos of children from around the world. Each appears by name, country and birthday. Here are a few.
Among the 3-year-olds, you will find Isaac from Mexico, Annelis from the Dominican Republic, Geby of Indonesia and Fikadu of Ethiopia. The oldest child in need shown is Jisele, 20, of Rwanda, and the youngest is Magali, of Bolivia, who just turned 3. The children waiting the longest for sponsorship include Moises, 4, of Nicaragua, and Tonmoy, 6, of Bangladesh. If you have a desire to sponsor a child, see “How to Get Involved,” below.
To meet so many pressing needs, CI works with more than 6,000 churches in 26 countries to reach children. The ministry equips church leaders to identify children with the greatest needs at the local level and gets them involved in child development programs supported by CI.
In the ministry’s early days, the work focused on providing food, clothing and shelter for orphanages. Then the child sponsorship model was introduced and CI greatly expanded its efforts to give children a better chance of escaping poverty.
Today CI has programs to help pregnant mothers increase chances their children will be born strong and healthy. Educational programs reach children with
church-based content that teaches them subjects they may not be getting in the classroom, such as hygiene and development of Christian character. The goal is always the same: develop the children spiritually, physically, economically and socially.
In all of its endeavors, CI emphasizes integrity as a core principle. Reflecting this commitment, CI has been awarded the highest rating for financial stewardship and transparency for 12 consecutive years by Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group that rates religious and nonreligious organizations. CI also earns a top rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch, and is a founding member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Handling an ever-lengthening list of needs are more than 900 U.S. employees and 3,300 in other countries. The story of CI staff member Emily Sarmiento, child sponsorship program director, illustrates how getting involved with children affects all the lives involved.
One Sponsor’s Story
Emily Sarmiento became involved with CI long before she was hired by the group five years ago.
“I was in high school when I first heard about Compassion. Myself and two other gals, we got together to sponsor a little boy in Peru,” she says.
The teenagers fulfilled the commitment until they started heading for college—all in different places. One of the girls said she would continue the sponsorship, and it was several years before CI came up in Emily’s life again.
In 2008, after working at other nonprofits, Emily was in discussions with CI about joining its staff. Drawn by the integrity of the organization, she felt it lived up to the name Compassion. Even before she was hired, she and her husband had taken on sponsorship of two children. Since that time, they have added three more children to their CI sponsorship commitment.
While the children have certainly benefited, Emily says she has grown spiritually through involvement.
“Among other things, sponsorship has certainly made an impact on my prayer life,” Emily says. “I consider that these are extended family that I am praying for. These are individuals I know and deeply care about supporting. I want to be another anchor in their world. Part of my commitment is to help inspire them, to be a role model and to help them see how God is moving in their lives.”
Her commitment has gone well beyond a few letters and checks in the mail. So far, she has met two of the five children she sponsors. One day, she hopes to have met them all.
The first opportunity came in 2010 when Emily was in Colombia for talks with local CI staffers and local church leaders. She arranged to meet one of her children, 10-year-old Leidys.
“We met up in a shopping center and she came with her mom and the local project director,” Emily says. “Sometimes when you meet with children for the first time, they can be uncomfortable. But that’s not what happened with us.
“She saw me, came running through the courtyard and threw herself at me. It was an incredibly special meeting for us from the very beginning. In less than one day spent together, I could see how charismatic and bright she is, so full of potential for the future. It was amazing.”
Because Leidys’ mother was there, Emily was able to have a conversation with her about the years ahead for Leidys. Emily wanted to assure the mother that God has a plan for her child and let the mother know that Emily and her husband want to support God’s plans any way they can.
Proven by Study
The effectiveness of CI’s child-sponsorship approach earned accolades this year with the publication of a two-year study headed by Dr. Bruce Wydick, a professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. The peer-reviewed, independent study was published in the April issue of the Journal of Political Economy, which is edited by the economics department at the University of Chicago.
“We were surprised that no one had ever done research to determine if international child sponsorship really works,” Dr. Wydick said. “What we found was that Compassion’s child-centered development approach to sponsorship has many strong, positive impacts on the adult life outcomes of these formerly sponsored children.
Wydick’s team studied more than 10,000 children, including 1,850 formerly CI-sponsored children, in six countries. Among the chief findings:
• CI-sponsored children stay in school 1 to 1.5 years longer than their non-sponsored peers. In Uganda, the number rises to 2.4 years.
• CI-sponsored children are 27 to 40 percent more likely to complete secondary education when compared to nonsponsored children.
• CI-sponsored children are 50 to 80 percent more likely to complete a university education than nonsponsored children.
How to Get Involved
Becoming a Compassion International sponsor takes little effort. Simply go to compassion.com, and click on the “Sponsor a Child” button, or call 800/336-7676 and speak to a representative. Your commitment is $38 a month per child. Within 15 days of signing up, you will receive your child’s photo, personal story and a child sponsorship packet.
By the Numbers
Here are brief highlights from the first six decades of Compassion International.
1952: Rev. Everett Swanson helps orphans in South Korea.
1960: Operation Long Underwear is CI’s first major project. More than 6,000 children are clothed.
1963: Organization becomes Compassion International.
1968: Work expands to India, Indonesia, Haiti and Singapore.
1974: First program set up to address childhood education.
1975: About 25,000 children now sponsored.
1990: Bibles for All Kids program puts the Word into young hands so they can know the Gospel.
1993: About 180,000 children sponsored in 21 countries.
2008: About 1 million children sponsored.
2013: About 1,400,000 children sponsored in 26 countries.