Dr. Wess Stafford, Making a Huge Difference in the Lives of Children!

by Kees J. Boer

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I don't know if you've ever seen those commercials of a charity that allows you to sponsor a child. Generally, they will tell you that for the price of a soft drink, you can sponsor and rescue a child in an impoverished country. I've always had a desire to sponsor one of those poor children, but was always held back, because I knew that with so many charities the money actually doesn't go to where it is supposed to go.

When I watched the last episode of DOC, both Clint and Nancy leave to go serve with a ministry called Compassion International in Indonesia. Since I had interviewed both Gary and Joan Johnson (One of the producers and his wife), I've come to highly respect their views and endorsements. Then a few weeks later, I visited my church and they had a special Compassion weekend and I found out that Compassion International is one of the largest charities in the world. It gives people the ability to sponsor a child in another country and to keep in touch with them and see them develop into all they were meant to be. Besides that the Compassion Ministry is completely dedicated to being faithful stewards with the money that has been entrusted to them by the sponsors. In other words, the money is not wasted, but indeed does go toward the child that one sponsors.

Having heard of the endorsement of both the Johnson Brothers and the church that I am part of, I was so excited about the ability to make a huge difference in one child with just my pocket change. ($38/month). The way this works is that each child gets only one sponsor and he/she knows them and the sponsor is able to develop a relationship with the child and see them develop till they are mature adults in their own country. For instance, I sponsored a little girl in Ecuador called Erika. Erika and I have been able to develop a relationship with each other through letter writing and I know that my investment in her life is indeed going toward her, because I've seen the results. Since then I've gotten letters from Erika. She even knows my dog Corgi! The neat thing is that Compassion International is there to facilitate this. Compassion International works with local churches to provide the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of about 800,000 children worldwide.

Later on, you can only imagine my excitement when I got the opportunity to do an exclusive interview with Dr. Wess Stafford, the President of Compassion. The best way that I can describe Dr. Wess Stafford is as someone very humble with an undying love and passion for children in need. He is very friendly and started off our interview by suggesting that I call him Wess and during the interview, I felt like I was talking to a new friend. After I started actually transcribing the interview, I also noticed how Dr. Stafford is perhaps one of the most articulate persons, I've ever interviewed.

Dr. Stafford explained how he became the President of Compassion. "I've been with Compassion now for 30 years. I can see that my path to Compassion really began when I was 4 or 5 years old. Now, that I look at my life, I'm pretty sure that when I was born, that God and the angels must have looked at this new born and said: 'He's not a rocket scientist now, is he? We are going to have to make it clear what he is to do with his life.' From the time that I was 5 years old, I was able to be raised in a missionary family in a little village in Ivory Coast, West Africa. So, I was raised among the very ones that I would later minister to. I know what poverty really is from having grown up in it till I was 15 years old. I lost half of my friends as a boy. They died when I was a little boy due to poverty. So, I'm thinking, my path to the presidency started when I was 5 years old in that little village and I was probably Compassion's President in training way back then. So, God was shaping my heart and He was helping me understand the poor and understand poverty. To this day, when I think of the poor, even in a tiny way, I don't think downward toward the poor; I think upward toward the poor.

I eventually came to Compassion after I had come back to the United States, when I 15 years old, went to High School and Moody Bible Institute and then the military. I finally came after the end of my Master's degree, there was a group of agencies that were looking for a representation in Haiti. This was back in 1977. They told me this in a dining hall and it was quite noisy and I thought they said Tahiti. I thought: 'There's poor people in Tahiti?' Then the horror when I realized that they had said Haiti. I thought: 'Oh, my goodness, this will be a tough assignment!' But Compassion was one of six agencies at the time, that were looking for someone to coordinate their efforts and I was offered the job to do that. So, I represented Compassion and five other organizations for about 4 years in Haiti. When that four year contract was up, I had enough time working around the poor and enough listening and learning from the poor as a grown up, that the organization that was doing the most strategic work of all was this one, the one dealing with children. And I came to the conclusion, that if I was going to give my life to the poor, I had to do what they would do, if they had the financial resources. They are not stupid, they are just poor. And I began to realize that the more you listen to the poor and if ever you asked a poor person: 'What can I do to help you?', inevitably his answer would be: 'If you want to help me, help my child.' And I said: 'The organization that is doing for the poor what they would do if they had the resources is Compassion International.' At the end of that four year contract with that consortium, I joined Compassion on a full time basis."

We spoke about how Compassion operates: "Compassion is a servant of the church. So, what Compassion does is that they come alongside of the church to give them vision or resources and training, in order for the church itself to be the one, who blesses the community. We partner with 3600 churches around the world, but Compassion maintains a really low profile in those churches. If anyone gets thanked in those churches, we want it to be that local pastor and that local body of believers. So essentially, what we're doing is that we're equipping the church to be salt and light in a really hurting community. What Compassion has been doing all of these years is to equip the church to live out its life in a hurting community and to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel and earn the right to speak of the Gospel. And so when a church, even in a moslem setting has the heart or the courage to reach out to the needs of it's own community, Compassion is very happy to come along and give them the tools for the church to be the church. And so, some of the latest countries that we've gone to are Bangladesh, where Christians make up less than one percent of the population, Burkina in West Africa, Ghana and in Tanzania. So, essentially, we are equipping the church to live out its faith in any kind of setting, be it communist or islamic and allowing those local believers in their own language and their own custom and culture to live out the Gospel in that settings."

I asked Dr. Stafford about the issue of integrity as it related to how the sponsors' money is used. "I think that all of us, who are followers of Christ, have got to realize that any financial resources that God entrusts to us is nothing but stewardship. It's only our duty to steward that for the Kingdom of God. One of my favourite quotes is from Edward Burke, the great statesman from England, who said: 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' I've been here for 30 years and I've talked to many good people and I've come to the conclusion that good people do nothing for only two good reasons. The first reason is that they don't know what to do and the second reason is that they don't know who to trust. And so what Compassion has tried to do for the last 55 years is to give everyone a very practical, tangible, strategic, and loving thing they can do. Most anyone can do this. You can sponsor a child. You can find $38.-/month in your life if this matters to you.

So, now you come to the second question and that is: 'who can you trust?' And what Compassion has done for many years is that we've consider integrity to be our highest calling. We figured that if you lack integrity, you lack absolutely everything. And if you can't be trusted, you probably have nothing to give. We work very hard at this. We audit externally with secular auditors, so it isn't just a track within the family of faith, that we give each other some slack. We've gone to one of the most powerful external auditors that we can find, KP&G. We also audit inside the organization from headquarters. Last year, about 82% of all of our 3600 projects were audited."

Compassions' commitment toward integrity has been proven to be exemplary. The Wall Street Journal has a magazine called Smart Money. They did a study for Smart Money magazine of the 680,000 non profit organizations in North America. What they said to their readers is: "We know when you buy a stock, a bond, a piece of property, you do due diligence. You want the biggest bang for your buck. That's what our magazine is all about. But we know that you also give to charitable causes. Do you do the same due diligence, when you give to a charitable cause? They are not all the same. You must know that. Our research tells us that you don't. So, we're doing it for you." What they did was that they studied the 680,000 non profit organizations, ran them all through the same grid and then wrote up a list of the top ten organizations that you can trust to do what they say, they'll do' And Compassion International was one of those top ten. That was back in 1997 and Compassion is now 2 or 3 percentage points better than back in 1997.

There is another very good watch dog called the Charity Navigator. They watch the biggest and the best of the organizations and they contacted Compassion a couple of months ago and said: "We're giving Compassion our top rating this year, that's 4 stars and that's the fifth consecutive year that we've given you our highest rating." When Dr. Stafford heard this he asked them: "How many people do you do this to?" Their reply was: "You're in the top 1 percent of non profit organizations that we watch."

Dr. Stafford however suggested an even more thorough audit for the sponsors to do themselves. "The strongest way to know whether you can trust it or not is that we say to our sponsors: 'You know if you want to see whether the child exists and whether we are doing in that child's life what we say we do, is to go see it for yourself. Go be your own audit trail and if you can get to the country, where your child lives, we'd be very happy to get you face to face with your child and you can talk to the child, the parents, the pastor. You can see the impact for yourself. Last year 4000 of our sponsors met their children face to face. And that, I think is probably the best credibility trail you can have." It's a very trustworthy organization and they have been for over ½ a century.

Dr. Stafford was very excited about Compassion International being part of the DOC show. "We've never been written into a show like DOC. That's a totally unique idea! What a powerful idea, that God can get a hold of that and use the story lines to forward His Kingdom. I love it!"

We spoke about what kind of work, Clint and Nancy would have been doing in Indonesia. Dr. Stafford explained how this could possibly have happened. "We have about 1200 staff over seas, who are all nationals of their own countries. What Compassion does with all of these children is we contract with a local hospital, which is very often a mission hospital on behalf of these children to come and help the children with training, health, sanitation and hygiene. To screen the children for critical health needs, to treat the children of those who need curative care. And that is all done by a local hospital or clinic in the vicinity where our project is with that local church ministering to children in all their other areas of their life, beyond health. So, probably people like that, they would go over there and they would work at a mission hospital and they would have access to the poorest of poor children through the Compassion program, that would find their way, because that hospital is in the community that Compassion is trying to help. So they could be missionaries with a denomination or in a mission hospital that is partnering with Compassion."

Dr. Stafford went on to explain the benefit of using locals in the Compassion program. "Many of the present staff members came up through our program themselves. They were sponsored children and are now program directors. I'm living here in Colorado Springs and I often meet with the Presidents of other mission organizations and inevitably, when we gather for breakfast, we talk about what crisis's there are in the world and Indonesia was actually one not too long ago and the question that came up was: 'How did you get your missionaries out of there?' And of course the answer that most of us where looking for was what embassies or airlines work. And after everybody had talked about their escape route out of Indonesia, they looked to me and I said: 'Well, we don't get out. When things get tough and there is political tension, we just lower our profile a little bit. We may take the sign out of the window and we weather the storm and we're right back in there. Even in the Rwanda massacre back in 1994, we never stopped, but we were the only organization in Rwanda, that had been operating prior to that massacre and we didn't have to pull out, because our staff were all Rwandan. So, it makes sense on a lot of fronts."

He explained more about how Compassion will help these young men and women, once they get to adulthood. "We have 1000 of our children right now, who are going to college on the Compassion Leadership program. And those young people that God gifts with leadership and academic ability, if they can qualify for University in their countries and they have a good testimony and have demonstrated a servant's heart, a leader's heart, we put them in a leadership program and we pay for their tuition and we get them a mentor. We get tutoring for them, so that they can do well in college and 400 have graduated from that program and right now, we have 1000 in the program. These are kids, whose mom and dad probably can't even read, but these kids were given a chance through Compassion's program. They excelled in school. Now what we're doing is that we're finishing the job and they turn around and they become leaders in their countries. I could introduce you to doctors and nurses, politicians, communicators, all who started off as children, trapped in horrible poverty setting, but are now fully engaged in being part of a blessing to their nations. In fact, we're starting what we're calling alumni associations, where young people, who are now part of society, who came through our program are staying united as a network to bless their own countries. I love it! It's one of the neatest programs. As a matter of fact, I'll be going over in January to Uganda to help launch the Uganda Alumni Association."

We spoke some about the relationship between the sponsor and their child and if he had any suggestions for sponsors on how they could encourage their children. "They have to understand that while this may not cost them a lot of money, $38/month is not that big of a challenge. They have to understand how incredibly important they are to that child. They play a very important role in that child's development. Poverty is more than just the circumstances. It's not about bad water. It's not about poor hygiene and poor sanitation and poor housing. That's not poverty. Those are symptoms of poverty. That's how things look when poverty exists in the community. Poverty is ultimately a message. It's a mindset that gets inside of a little child, that says: 'Give up. You don't matter. Nothing works. You're sick often. You don't go to school and when you go, you don't do well in school. Nothing is going to change for you. Give up.' That message gets into a child's heart to give up. It becomes an apathy of fatalism. You can see the spark goes out of their eyes, when they believe the lie that they don't matter. One of the most powerful things we do however is to bring a child to the Heavenly Father. Some of the most important steps for a child to come out of poverty is to realize: 'God knows me! He knows my name. He knows how many hairs there are on my head. He knows the pattern of my fingerprints. He made me laugh the way, I laugh and He sent His Son to die on the cross for me! Maybe I do matter.' When someone comes to the conclusion that: 'I do matter.' They are on the road out of poverty."

He went on to explain the importance of the sponsor beyond just the finances. "Well, the importance of a sponsor out of this is not only the funds that we use to provide this remarkable program for their child, but the very fact that they exist. The very fact that someone all the way across the world is somebody, who knows my name. Somebody who has my picture on their desk. Somebody, who is watching over me in school. Somebody, who is praying for me. Someone, who writes me letters and tells me that they are proud of me. That's probably more important than anything else that we do programmatically. If you send that sponsor's child a picture, I can guarantee you, it will be on the wall of that child's home in a prominent place or in that child's Bible, where they probably look at it everyday. When I meet sponsored children, I often ask them: 'Do you know your sponsor's name?' And they have it on the tip of their tongue.

I would say to any sponsor, who is reading this to first of all to pray for your child. That's probably the most powerful thing, you can do and secondly, write your child letters. Anytime, you get a letter from your child, sit down within a day or two, write right back and answer any questions that they ask. Share passages of Scripture and Bible verses. Share how they can pray for you for and anything in their life that they can pray for you for. Ask them how you can pray for them and look for anything in their letters that they tell you that you can praise them for. If they say: 'I graduated to Second grade.' A sponsor should be all over that and say: 'I'm so proud of you. You must be working very hard. You must be doing your very best. I'm praying for you. I'm proud of you.' If they say: 'This is my favorite verse.' You should jump on that and say: 'Oh, my that's a very precious verse to me. Isn't the Bible wonderful? Isn't it wonderful that we have a heavenly Father?' We're asking our sponsors far more than the money that they have for us that they help us in that little church, disciple that child. They need to understand how incredibly important they are to their child. As a matter fact, any time, I visit a child, I ask them: 'Did your sponsor ever write a letter to you?' And if their sponsor has, their eyes brighten. They will run to a corner of their house and they will pull out a baggy or a notebook and they will show me proudly: 'My sponsor wrote this to me!'"

He shared a very touching story, illustrating this. "I even know a little girl in Honduras that her house was flooded and our project director went in and rescued her from the rising water. It was up as high as her chest. And he picked her up and carried her out of her house and the whole time, she was reaching back toward the house, crying. And he thought: 'She must have puppy in there or she must have a doll or something that she doesn't want to leave.' And when he put her down on dry ground, she turned around and ran back into that flooding house. She felt around in her little corner of the house until she found her little baggy that had her sponsor's letters in it and only then with that in her hand was she willing to be rescued. She was not going to leave that behind. That's how precious it was to her. These sponsors are so much more important in that child's life than they can possibly imagine."

I can personally tell you that having sponsored a child with Compassion has been a huge blessing in my life. I know that Gary and Joan feel the same way about it. If you really think about it, the message of Compassion is really the same as that of the DOC and Sue Thomas FBEye series. It really is the message of hope. Be it that Clint will help a sick person, who doesn't see any future for their life any more to Sue Thomas realizing that even though she is deaf, and Compassion meeting the needs of a child that might otherwise die of poverty. It is to bring hope in a world where there is no hope, and ultimately isn't that the very message of Christmas. Christ coming into the world to die for us. Or as II Cor. 8:9 states: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich." (Copyright NIV)

Dr. Wess Stafford has written a book called: "Too Small To Ignore, Why Children Are the Next Big Thing." It's a great book that has been translated into many languages and I highly recommend it. You can order it from Amazon by clicking here.

Also, if you have a desire to sponsor a child with Compassion International, (which I highly recommend) please visit their website at: http://www.compassion.com.

* The pictures were taken of Dr. Wess Stafford with children in Indonesia -- the very children that Clint and Nancy would be ministering to.