An 18-year-old Barron woman spent Feb. 18-28 in Uganda where she met the 16-year-old young woman that she has sponsored and written letters to for 2 years.
Alona Savchenko was part of a sponsor tour through Compassion International, a child sponsorship and Christian humanitarian aid organization headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The organization aims to positively impact long-term development of children living in poverty, globally. It operates childcare programs in 25 impoverished countries involving more than 2 million participants, from infants through young adults.
The Barron resident said with the sponsorships, CI child care centers offers the children education, meals and most importantly hope for the future.
“Just $38 a month provides them with so much,” she said. “It changes their whole lives. It really does.”
Alona, who is the second oldest of nine children of Alex and Lydia Savchenko, said her older sister Vicki started sponsoring a girl about 5 years ago.
She decided that after getting her first job, she wanted to sponsor someone as well. After finding employment at Dairy Queen in Barron, she was delighted to find out that she could select a child of her own choosing. She chose someone close to her own age, just 2 years younger, named Phionah.
“I saw that she was an orphan. I thought maybe I could be a friend for her.”
In the months that followed the young women did develop a friendship, sharing hopes and dreams and favorite Bible verses that have helped them through challenges.
A chance to meet
When Compassion International announced that it would be offering a Uganda Sponsor Tour this February, Alona had no hesitation about it.
“I knew for sure I wanted to go,” Alona said, doubting it would ever be possible for her Ugandan friend to make a trip to the United States to visit her.
She spent the next several months saving up funds, making and selling scrunchies, asking friends, relatives and church members for support and as a singer shared a fundraising concert at a pavilion at Anderson Park in Barron, just 13 days before the a wind storm wrecked havoc in the park and throughout the Barron area.
Alona said she appreciates all who donated funds, large an small, toward her trip.
“Thank you everyone for your donations and prayers,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without your support.”
To get to her destinations, Alona traveled from Minneapolis to New York, where she met up with all of the other CI sponsors on the trip. From there, the group flew to Amsterdam and then on to Entebee, a city in Uganda.
They all wore Compassion International name tags so they could identify group members.
Their itinerary included visits to five of Compassion Uganda’s childcare centers.
Their first visit, on Feb. 21, was to the Survival Project. They were the first Compassion group to visit this place, where they were in an open grass, dirt area by a gathering of 35-40 moms and babies. Like a baby shower, the sponsors shared gifts of small toys or baby blankets, food and prayers.
The next day, Feb. 22, they visited a child development center that oversaw 400 children. Here the sponsors and children were divided into age groups (2-8,10-14 and 15-20) and together participated in classes and games. They served the children lunch followed by a time to meet the staff. That afternoon the sponsors got to visit nearby homes of children who attend the center.
“There is nothing that helps better define what Compassion’s program does and the impact it has than to hear their first-hand testimony,” states the travel information. “It will all come alive for you.”
Alona observed, “They’re tiny, typically one-room homes with animals walks around outside. The people we met were very kind and hospitable.”
Sunday, Feb. 23, brought another experience that Alona will not forget, taking part in a church worship service, Ugandan-style. She said there was a lot of clapping and dancing and joy calls, where they vibrate their voices in praise.
They were also able to visit a handicraft market that day to pick up some souvenirs and support the vendors.
Another unique privilege awaited on Monday, Feb. 24, when they were the first sponsor group to visit the second largest Sudanese refugee camp in the world, housing 275,000 Sudanese refugees.
Compassion International works in four refugee camps, focusing on water, sanitation, education and psychological support.
Alona said her group only saw a small part of it, meeting with a group of about 200 of the 1,000 kids in one of the camps and sharing songs, smiles, bubbles and selfies.
On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the sponsor group left the 90˚ heat for a bumpy ride to a cooler, lusher and greener mountainous area. There they visited another child development center located in the Nebbi/Arua region, where mostly 15- to 19-year-old children are enrolled. There they met the staff and served the students their break tea.
“Education unlocks the doors for a brighter future in a teenager’s life,” the CI information stated. “A young adult can explore their God-given talents and pursue their dreams as skills are being developed.”
The next day, Feb. 26, included an option of going on a safari game drive, and Alona got some great photos of the land and wildlife that makes their home there—giraffes, cheetahs, antelopes and monkeys.
“It was so nice to have a day to visit and just enjoy God’s beautiful creation,” she said.
Next was a travel day to Kampala, where they visited the Compassion Uganda National Office, leading up to their last day in Uganda and the day they were all waiting for—the opportunity to meet the children they sponsor and to take a group photo with their Uganda “family.”
Although Phionah had not spoken of it in her letters to Alona, she had recently delivered a baby as a result of a rape, and the Compassion staff said it was doubtful that the two would be able to meet.
However, the young mother and child, who was living with her grandmother, traveled many miles over bumpy roads to be there. Both young women had tears of joy in their eyes and their hug of greeting was heartfelt. The young mother named her child Ivan, which means God is gracious.
Now back in Barron, Alona remarked, “One of the biggest things I took away is we are always wanting more, seeking joy in temporary things and not content with what we have.
“A lot of us try to fill a void with things that cannot satisfy. Jesus fills the void that nothing else can fill. One of the most inspiring things is the joy they have with so little.”
Alona plans to stay in touch with Phionah forever and would love to go back and see her again some day.
In the meantime, she encourages others to consider sponsoring a child for $38 a month, which requires no more than giving up a fancy coffee once a week.
She said the Latin meaning for compassion is “to suffer with.” To learn more search Compassion International online or call 800-336-7676.