By Peggy Weibye, Plan International USA Sponsor
Growing up in a large Irish family, with more cousins, aunts, and uncles than can be counted, not only makes for interesting conversation and fun family gatherings, but also imparts a strong sense of kinship. Hence, family ties, sharing, and generosity became words intrinsically associated with how I decided to live, avowing to impart those values to those who would be part of my new married life.
And those values led me to Plan International USA.
1990 was a momentous year. I had just recently gone on leave from my human resource executive position at Merrill Lynch to have my first child and already was looking for a new venture to champion. In my quest to find a cause that could impact my child, I found Plan.
Before becoming a Plan sponsor, I’d had a negative experience with a charity organization. As it turned out, my contributions weren’t being used the way I would have liked. After investigating the history, management, and mission of Plan, I found the organization to have unquestionable trustworthy devotion to their cause of empowering children. After 27 years partnering with Plan, I can vouch for its unwavering quest toward the betterment of children worldwide.
The memory of my first sponsored child, I must admit, evokes a chuckle. For anyone who knows me understands I operate by the “Noah’s Ark Theory.” Everything is at least two or more.
I actually have two wonderful firsts, Santos-Benito, a delightful boy from Ecuador, and Ramya, a precious girl from India. As they both grew, I tried to encourage them to love and cherish their culture, while enlightening them about mine. What I received in kind was more than banks worldwide could produce – a newfound family.
Despite miles and language differences, they instead ironically adopted my family.
Obviously, it takes time to build trust and memories with anyone we encounter. As I would with any new friend, I shared with Ramya’s mom stories about being an inexperienced mother, asking her about her different customs, and learning that she loved perfume. Much to the raised eyebrows of my friends and my family dentist, I would send her all the torn-out pages in magazines that featured perfume samples, which she coveted. I also sent art supplies for Ramya. One would not imagine that such small tokens are the tools that cultural bridge builders use to erase lines that separate us. So, when the untimely news of my mother’s passing reached them, I heard back in their correspondence (they addressed me as aunt and my husband as uncle – a huge honor) that they conducted a traditional ceremony and celebration in their village honoring my mother to usher her spirit to her next home.
That is what the word “family” is all about, no matter your name, culture, or country. Here’s a picture Rayma once sent me.
As my husband is Hispanic, Santos’ customs were somewhat similar to our culturally-blended Irish-Mexican family. Sharing stories, footballs, pictures of race cars, and prayers for each family was indeed a delightful pastime. It was, however, during my fourth pregnancy that I asked the Santos’ family to remember me in their prayers. Doctors thought there might be a problem with the baby; it was too soon to tell. It was the letter and sentiment conveyed by Santos, in response to my humble request, that was so awe-inspiring and moving.
“I am very happy because I already received the Holy Confirmation in June,” he said. “It means the force of the Holy Spirit. I know that God will listen to my prayers. I will also pray for the new baby that you will have in December, because he will be like my brother.”
He may have been shocked that my baby was actually a girl, Jackie. But, he was also pleased to know that the condition with which I was previously diagnosed had resolved prior to birth. I had always told the family they were in my prayers, but a family thousands of miles away clearly was looking out and praying for me.
I’ve been so inspired by sponsorships through Plan that I gifted our town’s school in Saddle River, New Jersey with a child in perpetuity.
So many children in our country have no idea about the conditions children their age endure. It was my hope that children could share letters and experiences with children across the globe and forge new friendships that could last a lifetime. I hosted a whole United Nations Day at the school, hoping to enlighten them on life and culture outside their bedroom community.
As all the festivities were unfolding, it was noticeable that the collective student body was clearly excited seeing dancers from other countries and their own students dressed in costumes, while hearing the deafening echo of the bagpipers warming up. One student was not excited, though. A 5-year-old Nigerian boy whose parents had relocated to America was having none of it. I noticed he sat with his head buried in his hands and tears staining his face. When I asked the teacher what was wrong, she answered, “He desperately misses his village; he is homesick.”
It was just about that moment that the thunder and boom of tribal drumming got his attention. Enter Sounds of Afrika, whose mission is to promote “Afrikan” culture. Suddenly, this little boy jumped to his feet and ironically mimicked the lead drummer and director’s steps. He joined them on the floor, knowing every step from this tribal customary dance. What happened after that is nothing short of a miracle. The director, Kojo, told the boy that he had a job to do: to be the best student and make his country proud of him.
I later inquired at the school how that little boy had adjusted, and was told he was an “A” student.
All of my children have been inspired by our philanthropic endeavors, hoping to continue this practice into their adulthood. In fact, our fourth child, Jacqueline, now applying for college to major in Japanese and Chinese, has been so moved by what she has seen growing up, that she has plans to distribute her copyrighted comic book character, The Adventures of Bubble Man, both domestically and abroad to pediatric wards, free of charge.
During 27 years as a sponsor with my husband, advice I seriously took was reading all the information provided by Plan that covers customary practices, beliefs, and celebrations. Being mindful and respectful of others’ way of life is crucial to forging friendship. Sponsored children and their families are as interested in how you celebrate your holidays, what foods you eat, or which hobbies you enjoy as we are to learn from them.
Listen, it would be amazing to publish all the wonderful recipes I’ve been given from mothers all over the globe, not to mention 25 ways to heal a burned hand!
I’m so glad we consider ourselves cultural bridge builders. Hopefully others might consider that as well.