Eleven year-old Ali-Elisco Correa jumped and flailed his arms after he popped his opponent’s balloon to win a game known as “crazy chicken.”
With sweat streaming down his tanned face and a bright white smile, Correa was congratulated with a hug from his mother and a high five from his sponsor, William Huebel, a man whom, prior to Tuesday, he had known only through letters and pictures exchanged during the last few months.
Huebel, from Pennsylvania, in the United States, is a sponsor for the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA), an international agency that provides support for impoverished children, families and senior citizens in 23 countries around the world. Each month Huebel donates funds to the CFCA, headquartered in the U.S. state of Kansas, to provide school supplies, shoes and household supplies for Correa and his mother, Yessenia Fernández, during a difficult time.
“My husband died from cancer a few months ago,” Fernández said. “He didn’t have a pension and I am out of work. Without the help from Mr. Huebel, Ali-Elisco would have to go to school without shoes or without socks. The help we get from Mr. Huebel is truly a blessing from God.”
This week, Huebel and several other sponsors arrived in Costa Rica to meet the children they support and to accompany them on a “Walk2gether,” an international, 16-month walk that spans 12 countries and is led by 73-year-old Bob Hentzen, who founded the CFCA with his brothers in 1981.
Hentzen began his international walk in Guatemala on Dec. 29 of last year and has since made his way through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. After Costa Rica, Hentzen, accompanied by various international sponsors and CFCA members, will travel through Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil before completing the walk in Valparaíso in central Chile.
“It’s not logical. It’s kind of crazy,” Hentzen told The Tico Times. “But, our people walk all over. Many of the families in CFCA walk to get firewood, a lot of them walk to get water, a lot of them walk to get corn or food, and a lot of them walk to school. We thought this would be a good way to try to identify closely with our families. And you know something? It really works.”
In Costa Rica, the CFCA sponsors more than 6,000 kids, families and senior citizens in different areas of the country. The CFCA assists more than 300,000 people worldwide and has more than 270,000 sponsors who provide funding. In 2009, the CFCA was rated 39th by Forbes magazine in the category of “charitable commitment” and as the 117th largest charity in the U.S. in terms of private support.
What sets the CFCA apart from other donor-funded charities is the agency’s encouragement in connecting sponsors with the children or families they support. Children sponsored in Costa Rica, for example, write letters to their sponsors thanking them for their financial support, and they provide detailed information to their sponsors about their lives in Costa Rica. Local CFCA staff members translate letters sent between the sponsors and the sponsored children or families.
“CFCA is different in that, when you send money to support a needy child or family, they make sure you know that someone is receiving and appreciating your help. You can put a face and a story with the check you send,” said Ray Dawson, a sponsor from Redding, in the U.S. state of California.
“It’s a pretty magical experience to actually meet the child you sponsor and to watch him or her grow,” said Dawson, who has sponsored five children, including four in the Philippines. “I first sponsored a girl 16 years ago in the Philippines. She just recently sent me an update with pictures of her two children and her husband. … I don’t think other organizations create relationships like that.”
In the upcoming week, Bob and his CFCA followers will walk south to the Panamanian border. Each day, the group makes four, 10-kilometer treks, stopping for small breaks along the way. The Walk2gether mission will cover over 12,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) en route to Chile.
“When we walk, we learn,” Hentzen said. “We see bad things – from trash, to accidents, to countries that have outgrown their roads. But we also see tremendous solidarity among the families who belong to our foundation. We are doing this for them. There are a lot of families out there who are doing very admirable things and striving for more. Those are the people we want to help.”