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Foundation links sponsors with children, elders in distant lands


Where missionaries venture, ministry comes in many flavors, tailored to people's needs, conditioned by climate and culture. Perhaps less obviously, the missionaries' presence is stamped with characteristics of their sponsoring mission organization, sometimes a diocese, frequently a religious order with its individual charism.

A distinctive ministry to missions originated in the Kansas City area in the 1970s. The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging was founded by lay people and developed characteristics different from other missionary groups, yet complementing and supporting their activities.

This year the foundation is expected to bring in about $19.5 million, said Ed Stankard, director of marketing. Last year's total was $15.1 million, of which 87.7 percent was spent on program services and 12.3 percent on fundraising and administration. CFCA facilitates sponsorship of almost 80,000 children and elderly people in a hundred mission projects and a thousand subprojects in 23 nations. Sponsors provide $20 a month to assist the person they sponsor.

CFCA does not operate its own projects but funnels the money into existing ones -- a mission parish, for instance, or an educational or agricultural project run by lay people. Catholics operate almost all the projects. An exception is the Umrao Singh Memorial School, operated by Hindu adults to educate almost 700 Hindu children in Allahabad, India. The foundation never dictates how a project should spend sponsorship money, only that it benefit the sponsored individuals and not be saved up, for example to construct a building. CFCA monitors how the money is spent by inspecting reports from project personnel.

The organization began in 1981 at the instigation of two laymen, Robert Hentzen, who had served as a Christian Brother in Colombia and Guatemala, and Jerry Tolle, once a Jesuit missionary in Honduras. Their passion for the poor -- the two had met in Latin America -- burned within them until they, along with Hentzen's brothers, Bernard (Bud) and Jim, decided to start a sponsorship organization. Bob Hentzen is president of CFCA, and Bud is chairman of its board of directors.

The men grabbed their Christmas card mailing lists and wrote "to our friends, relations or enemies, whatever they happened to be, and said, 'We're starting this, and you need to sit down and write a check so we can deliver benefits,' " Bud told NCR. The start was small and the organization struggled its first 10 years, he said, until a cadre of some 50 priests was formed to speak in parishes throughout the country, soliciting sponsors.

"At the end of last year, we had appeared in about 1,900 parishes," Bud said. There are about 19,000 U.S. parishes, "so we have a ways to go." But they are being invited back after about three years. "The parish priest says, 'Hey, that was good for my people. Would you consider coming again?' "

CFCA also advertises in the Catholic press to obtain sponsors, who correspond with the person they sponsor and receive photos of him or her. From time to time, CFCA conducts trips for sponsors to visit projects and meet the child or older adult they sponsor. "That is an experience of a lifetime," Bud Hentzen said.

"We feel sponsorship is a proper ministry for lay people, especially Catholic lay people," he said, "because we have sat there in the pew all our lives, and we want to be part of the solution to poverty."

The call of the poor has become so strong for founder Bob Hentzen that, with his wife, Cristina, and youngest son, Jacob, he settled in Guatemala recently after a 4,000 mile, eight-month pilgrimage on foot. The pilgrimage began in Kansas City, Kan., where CFCA has its headquarters with a 55-member staff.

Over the years, CFCA has sent 300 to 400 volunteers, as many as 30 at a time, to work in projects in many parts of the world. Today, 18 volunteers serve in Guatemala, Haiti, India, El Salvador, Mexico, the Philippines and Guatemala. Unlike quite a few mission-sending organizations, CFCA does little active recruitment of volunteers, said Molly Harkins, director of volunteers. "Basically we have our name in publications" that list volunteer opportunities. Potential volunteers contact her for more information.

Volunteering with CFCA differs from volunteering through many other organizations, which require at least a two-year commitment in return for which the organization financially supports the volunteer. Although some CFCA volunteers stay in a foreign mission project many years, the minimum requirement is one year, sometimes less in India, depending on visa requirements. However, CFCA volunteers support themselves entirely.

"We set up a fund, an account, for them, and they have a code," Harkins said. "They find donors through their church, their school, various church organizations, friends, families, whoever they can find." One hundred percent of a volunteer's money goes into his or her account, which can pay for airfare, health insurance, visas and monthly stipends doled out to them at a rate the volunteer selects, "usually about $50 a month."

The official minimum age requirement for a CFCA volunteer is 21, Harkins said, but exceptions are made. One volunteer just returned who was 19 when he left. "It kind of depends on their maturity, if they're ready to serve," Harkins said. Another recently returned volunteer is 47.

Harkins said, "I just talked to a woman -- she and her husband just retired -- and she wants to go for 20 years." Harkins recommended starting with a shorter stint and then extending it.

Doctors and agricultural experts have been CFCA volunteers, but the organization does not have an educational requirement. "An open mind and a willingness to serve and a big heart are the major requirements," she said, "because those are most important if you want to survive" in a country steeped in poverty.

"We don't have a job description," Harkins said. Volunteers do what projects need. "Our big thing is for volunteers to get there and say, 'How can I help?' " That frequently means translating letters between sponsors and sponsored individuals. It can mean agricultural education, medical and health care, teaching English or building projects.

Tony Benevento, who serves in Quiche, Guatemala, reported, "When I first got here, I felt a lot of excitement and yet at the same time I felt a little overwhelmed. Each day has its dose of the unexpected, plans continually change. Yet with a handful of patience and humor, things turn out well, and the work begins to take shape."

Harkins, who herself has been a volunteer with a different organization in Mexico, said she misses people there, "people who really cared about you, who took time out of their day to be with you, and you do the same. I think that's what is really important about the volunteer experience and what most volunteers miss when they return. I'm dying to go back."

CFCA missionary activity has always been international, and over the years sponsorship has grown to be international as well. A priest in Spain asked CFCA "to give his people in his country the opportunity to be sponsors," Bud Hentzen said, and 200 people have taken that opportunity. Canadian sponsors became so numerous that CFCA asked Canadian Catholics to start a parallel organization. That offshoot, Christian Child Care International, based in Spring Hill, Nova Scotia, now has 2,000 sponsors. At first, CFCA found children for its Canadian counterpart to sponsor, but now the Canadians do that themselves.

The benefit of CFCA's sponsorship and volunteering to someone who is sponsored can be shoes or schoolbooks, medicine or a wheelchair, perhaps a simple, one-room house. The gifts sponsored people give to sponsors and volunteers may be greater.

"As Bob [Hentzen] would say, we need their faith life, we need their willingness to extend themselves more than they need our money," Stankard said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997