Manuel thought I was a man. He thought this from the time I became his sponsor eight years ago. His mother, Alma Rosa, explained over lunch when we met in Veracruz last week. She told our interpreter Aaron that, in their mind, the name ‘Bronwyn’ is a man’s name. Compassion International, the ministry that connects sponsors with children in poverty, had sent me a letter in the beginning of my sponsorship asking me to not send pictures of my house or car or any picture displaying the luxury of my American life.
I thought back to the pictures I had sent Manuel over the years, many of Jerry and me posing in non-luxury places, like the desert with saguaros all around us. I also sent close-up shots.
I can see how the confusion could have happened. My letters to Manuel go to Colorado Springs first where Compassion translates my letters into Spanish, then it’s forwarded to Manuel’s school in Chiapas, Mexico, near the Guatemala border. The Spanish language has feminine and masculine words, so my gender could have changed in the translation way back in the beginning.
Upon meeting Manuel in person, he didn’t seem disappointed to realize I’m a woman. He hugged me hard and for a long time, we were like two lost souls meeting at last. The first thing he asked? “Where’s your husband?” I wondered why he wanted to know where Jerry was? “At home,” I told him.
“I have a gift for him,” he said, which I thought very sweet− still not understanding at the time he had thought Jerry was his sponsor.
With the confusion at last cleared up, Manuel and I connected right away. Everything changed from our former status as pen pals to a heart-to-heart friendship. I speak a little Spanish and Manuel doesn’t speak English at all. Except he can count to ten in English which he proudly stated for me, happy to show me his proficiency at this skill. I applauded.
Language didn’t provide a barrier. Manuel and I communicated on a level that needs no words.
He smiled a lot, something I had never seen in his school pictures, sent to me annually featuring Manuel in a stand-tall-don’t-smile pose. Maybe he’s told not to smile or maybe “picture day” is not his favorite thing. Our tour leaders asked us to hold the hands of our sponsored children as we strolled into the Acuario de Veracruz (the aquarium, which is like Sea World on a much smaller scale).
As we meandered through the aquarium, I was so taken with Manuel’s devoted attention. He offered to hold my hand, opened doors for me, and took on the role of personal guide while motioning to me as he pointed out sights of interest. Manuel had never been to an aquarium in his life. Yet, he stopped and directed my attention to the snapping turtles, the moray eels, the manatees, and the translucent and graceful jellyfish. We stood together silently in awe at each exhibit. I found myself all agog with the moments we shared, the darling boy holding my hand as we stood in wonder at the displays of toddling pingüinos (penguins) and monstrous tiburóns (sharks). The dolphin show had me screaming and laughing when one mischievous dolphin splashed his tail at the side of his open swim-tank and drenched us. Manuel loved it, shooting me an excited smile in his dripping-wet shirt.
I was reading an article today in the Reader’s Digest, “Overtaken By Joy” by Ardis Whitman. She writes, “Joy is the feeling that we have touched the hem of something far beyond ourselves.”
That is how it was for me, sharing that day with Manuel and his mother took me to a place that could only be blessed by God.
After our excursion to the aquarium, we hiked to a seaside restaurant for lunch. I sat at a table with Manuel, Alma Rosa, our interpreter Aaron, and Manuel’s school director Devir. As lunch commenced, I gave Manuel my gifts and he and his mother had gifts for me and for Jerry. Then we spent time at the beach. His mother said to me, “He is happy.” She said it with a smile that beamed delight. I hoped she was happy too since she had lost her baby son Daniel only months ago to some fatality not explained. My heart broke when she told me, with tears flooding her eyes, that he had died.
Changing into his swimsuit (which looked brand new), Manuel raced to the ocean and bounced in the waves. Alma Rosa explained he had never seen the ocean before and had learned to swim in a river. Manuel dug for seashells in the surf and then padded in the wet sand up to the shore where I stood. He handed the seashells to me. Back and forth, in and out of the water, Manuel handed me more and more shells until my hand couldn’t hold any more.
When Manuel told his friends at his school he was taking a trip to Veracruz to meet his sponsor, his friends said, “How come my sponsor never takes me anywhere?” Our Compassion tour leader, Kim Ulm, told our group that only 1% of sponsors actually visit their sponsored children. For whatever reasons, the cost of the trip or too busy with their own domestic agenda, sponsors do not often visit.
The moment I will never forget happened when our interpreter asked Manuel if he had anything he would like to tell me. He looked at me with brown eyes so adorable he could ask me for the Eiffel Tower and I would try to get it for him. Jerry has a blow torch, after all.
Manuel thought for a few seconds on what he wanted to say and then said to me, “Please, never forget me.”
I told him I would never, ever forget him.
Poverty chips away at self-worth, providing a struggle of every day burdens that we in America can’t comprehend. One of my gifts for Manuel consisted of a fleece $9.99 Batman blanket from Walmart. I had stuffed it in the backpack with other items, such as books, a flash light, socks, soccer ball and granola bars, (as you know if you read my last blog). Manuel held the blanket up to his face and, as he closed his eyes, he brushed the blanket against his cheek.
Poverty doesn’t supply comfort, but it does supply a sense to the children they don’t matter, that the world has forgotten them.
As sponsors, we have the privilege of encouraging them that they do matter, to us and to God. We have the joy of giving them our love, but what they give us back is so unimaginable miraculous that there’s isn’t a word for it.
“I have saved all your letters,” I told Manuel.
“I have saved all yours,” he said.
And now he knows. Jerry didn’t write the letters he saved.
However, Jerry just wrote to him for the first time, thanking him for the t-shirt and handmade leather wallet. Jerry understands, as I do, that God has placed Manuel in our care and we appreciate so much having this opportunity.