Michelle Tolentino — From Poverty to True Riches.

by Kees Boer

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I've done a lot of interviews in the last several years, but very few have impressed me more than my recent interview with Michelle Tolentino from Manila, the Philippines. Michelle is the youngest sales and marketing head of Trumpet, the first ever Gospel theater in Asia. When talking with Michelle, what is more evident is that she is one of the most passionate advocates for children in poverty that I've ever met. At one point, Michelle lived a life in desperate poverty in the city of Manila. As a little child, she was told that she had no value. But at the young age of six, her life changed when she entered into a Compassion program in her hometown. After coming to faith in Christ, her life started to change and poverty began to loose its grip on her. By the time, she graduated from High School, she was able to continue in Compassion's Leadership Development program and get a degree in Communications Arts from the University of Santo Tomas, one of the most prestigious universities in the Philippines.

Michelle explained what her early life was like. "When I was growing up, I lived in a very chaotic community. I was surrounded by drug users, prostitutes, and gamblers. During that time, my father was also a drug abuser and he ended up leaving us for some time. It all was a picture of hopelessness, a picture that communicated that our father didn't really care for us or love us. The people around me would always tell me: "Michelle, you are so ugly just like your father and you'll grow up like him." Those are the words that were spoken into my heart and those were cruel words of anger and hatred. So, therefore I didn't have a future, because no one would love me. So, I felt so hopeless, that I really didn't matter and that I was not important."

Michelle Tolentino's Home in Manilla

All was not without hope though. "My aunt, who was the only Christian person that I knew brought me to Calvary Foursquare Church. It's a Church in our community, which was partnering with Compassion International. (They would do an outreach in the community to poor children. This outreach was called 'a project' Compassion International allows sponsors to sponsor children in 25 different countries. Each child has only one sponsor and through letters they develop a close relationship with their sponsored children.) So, some project workers in the Church, who knew me, told my aunt, that if she wanted to change the life of me niece, she could enroll me in the Compassion project. Once I got to that project, my life was never really the same again. I learned a lot of things, but the most important thing that I learned in the project is that Jesus loves me. (I always cry when I say this). When I spoke the Name of Jesus and His Love, I felt that my heart was melting. I felt how much God loved me. I was able to know Jesus Christ and know more about prayer and the Bible. My first Bible was given to me at the Compassion project. It was really precious to me."

I asked her what it was like at the very beginning to walk into the Compassion project. "I was really young. I thought I have to go there to the Sunday School classes and at first I didn't have a lot of expectations. Then I was really happy to go there, because we had food in the project. We also had really nice pictures that told us the stories from the Bible. They also helped us with our schoolwork. It was something that we really looked forward to. I was really poor when we were growing up. For instance we would share one cup of noodles as a family of 5. I had a baby brother during that time and we didn't have milk for him. We fed him water from rice. It wasn't really a good life, when we grew up. Going to the Compassion project was like a haven for us. It was a place where we would be fed. We would be treated well and people would really love us."

Photo of 6 years old Michelle Tolentino, when she was first sponsored.

Michelle was only 6 years old, when she first entered the Compassion project. "The first years that I was in the Compassion project, I was very small and I didn't realize that I had a real Compassion sponsor. So, I thought all the while that it was the church, which was sponsoring me, because we were always going to church. I think I was about 7 years when I got my first letter from my sponsor. Their names were Tom and Esther Brasile from the United States. I really love them. They wrote me letters and I still have all of them. I underlined some of the thoughts that they were always telling me. They always wrote me: 'Michelle, you are so beautiful. We love you. We are praying for you. We are so proud of you.' So, those words really spoke to my heart. At that time I had people telling words that were really tearing me down as I was growing up. So, my sponsor really gave me hope and so much encouragement. They would often send me pictures and those pictures really touched me. If people could see the impact of a sponsor on their sponsored children, they would see that the words of encouragement, the love that they are giving us is really important. I was thinking about how Jesus Christ He died and sacrificed His life for us, even though we didn't have a blood relationship with Him. In some way, likewise the sponsors sacrificed their life, in order for us to have a life where I can be faithful and successful and fulfill my calling. So, those letters really spoke to my heart. They were so important. My sponsors also really encouraged me to dream much bigger than who I am."

She spoke more about the importance of the letters of her sponsors. "As Compassion sponsored children, we were really excited to get letters from our sponsors. We're always waiting for the letters. If you didn't get a letter, you felt out of place. We would all show each other the letters from the sponsors and we were so proud of it. We hang the letters on our walls. In our particular project to get our letters from the sponsor, we had to recite a memory verse. So, I have a lot of verses memorized now, because I wanted to get the letters. We were so diligent in memorizing verses, so that we could get them. My sponsors wrote so often. They were writing me once or twice a month. I know that some sponsors are really busy, but it was a really big delight for us to get something from our sponsors."

Michelle with her sponsors Tom and Esther Brasile

Michelle never met her sponsors in person as a child. Last year she was speaking in a church in Pennsylvania and she had a big surprise. Michelle recalls: "In November of last year, I got to meet my sponsor at a church in Pennsylvania. I'm starting to cry now, because it was a life changing experience for me. After so many years it was my first time to see them in person and to thank them and to hug them. I was speaking in that church. After I had given my testimony, the pastor said: 'Michelle, you are so blessed, because your Compassion sponsors are here.' Then everything stopped and I saw a couple walking in the isle towards me. I called Esther my mom and I noticed that she had crutches and was disabled. She could not walk very well, but it didn't stop her from sponsoring me, or giving me a good life. I was praying to God to allow me to really show the gratitude that I have in my heart for my Compassion sponsors. I never knew that my mom Esther was disabled, but they kept on sending the letters to me and sending their support, so that I could go to school."

Once a child graduates from the Compassion program, Compassion will offer a special scholarship called the Leadership Development Program to the most gifted students, who have demonstrated a heart of servant leadership. Sponsoring a child through the Leadership Development program is much more expensive. Michelle spoke how her sponsors continued to help them. "They even paid for my college education through the Leadership Development Program that is so expensive. It really touched my heart and I want to encourage the Compassion sponsors that their love and their finances, which they are showing to us is not for nothing. They are making themselves the instrument in raising up Godly leaders, who have the mind of Christ in them."

Michelle with Dr. Wess Stafford,
President of Compassion International.

We spoke about the effect that Compassion had on her life. "Compassion hasn't just released me from poverty, but it has gotten me to dream big, to make a difference and never ever to forget my country, even if my country is living in poverty. They taught me to always give back, to always make a difference for the cause of Christ. A lot of people, when they are poor, try to become rich. But Compassion taught me is that it is not about me. It's about other people and God. Always, sow seeds and plant seeds in the lives of other people, that we can reap in the future. I look at Mother Theresa. I really would like to be like her. Even in overwhelming poverty, her heart was for other people. I heard that her foot was deformed, but Mother Theresa would always wear the worst kind of shoes, so that others could wear the best type of shoes. She was not concerned about her own feet, but the feet of others. A lot of women want to keep their feet looking beautiful. Isaiah 52:7 says 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news." Even though Mother Theresa was not physically beautiful, her feet were nevertheless beautiful, because she had touched a lot of other people."

Michelle recalls how Compassion really helped her whole family. "I remember New Years Eve of 1990. I was about nine years old and our house burned down. But the next day the people in the Compassion project really helped us rebuild our house. The people in the church were so compassionate in providing us with our basic needs. It was really life-changing for my family to see Compassion really spreading the love of Jesus Christ. Through the years, I was able to get a job and support my family in their basic needs. I was so blessed by the Lord that I was able to give back to my family. But one of the best things that I was able to give to my family is the prospective of not really seeing poverty, but seeing hope and a future, so that one day, we could really do something about it and change the community that we live in."

After Michelle graduated from the Leadership Development Program, she was able to start working in a ministry using her theatrical and marketing skills. "I'm in ministry here, since I graduated from college six years ago with Trumpet, which stands for Triumphant Peoples Evangelistic Theater Society, because my passion really is in the performing arts and spreading the Gospel using the Theater arts. I'm the head of the sales and marketing of Trumpet. I really love what I'm doing with Trumpet. Trumpet was started in 1989 by a group of Pilipino artists. Their passion was to perform and share the love of God. Its focus is on Jesus Christ. We spread the Gospel using professional performing arts. So, we travel all around Asia, doing musicals and performances, so that we can speak about the Gospel.

Michelle's Sponsored Child

We have our own version of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and we have a version of Joseph, the Dreamer and then another version of the Little Mermaid. We took the Hans Christian Anderson version as to when the little mermaid died, and we've given it a Christian slant. The mermaid sacrificed herself, for the love of the prince. We interjected the Gospel and the love of Jesus into the performance. We are also doing outreach through the Theater arts. We call it "artreach." We go to orphanages, where we spread the Gospel. Trumpet is very passionate about the children. We use the performing arts, because we believe that the young generation's mind should be captured by something really grand. Every summer we have 1,500 children around the Philippines doing a workshop with us in musical theater, in dance, in acting. I sometimes act in it myself, but I'm more on the side of marketing. My job is to get donors for Trumpet and to get commitments of partners, so that we can further what we want to do."

Michelle will be studying in the USA for a while. "I applied and was accepted in the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. I'll be majoring in Spiritual Transformation and Discipleship. Real transformation happens through deep and meaningful relationships and I want to be more equipped in that. I'd like to move back to my home country and minister to a lot of hurting and aching people and encourage them. It's about changing their life with the love and Word of God. Currently the Philippines have a corrupt government. I'd like to move the minds of the young people, who will be the future leaders of our country. It will be something that I can really contribute in and change the cycle of poverty in my country."

One of Michelle's greatest joys is that she is able to sponsor a child with Compassion herself. "Right now, I'm a Compassion sponsor myself, because I know the impact that Compassion is making in the life of these little children. It's what I can do now that I'm released from poverty. His name is Andrew and he is an eight year old boy from the island of Samar in the Philippines. He usually goes to the market with his brothers and they can sell vegetables in the public market. So, he's a very industrious child and I really pray that Andrew will be a very godly man and eventually if God wills for him to build up his family, my prayer for him is that he will a loving father for his children that is really my greatest dream for him. God has brought me this far and I'm sure God will do amazing things through my sponsored child Andrew. I always cry when I talk about him, because I really never dreamt of being a sponsor someday. God is really good and so true with His promises and when we trust Him, we will never be put to shame."

A Great Video of Michelle telling her Story.

Since Michelle was a sponsored child herself and is currently a sponsor herself, I thought she would have some good input as to what to write to sponsored children. "The thing that I always want to tell my sponsored child is that Jesus loves him and that I love him. I told Andrew, the greatest prayer for you is to become the man that God calls you to be. Words of love and affirmation are words that he can stand on, that will build his self image. The Word of God is like that for us. But growing up as a child, I really didn't know much about the Word of God. I really am so grateful that my sponsor really told me that Jesus loves me and that is really something that changed my life."

She summed it all up nicely when she said: "There is more to life than just being content with the things that keep us comfortable. Serving God and knowing Him more, those are the things that will change our lives. I was telling God: 'Lord, who would have thought that someone like me would become someone, who will stand in behalf of my brothers and sisters, living in poverty all around the world, spreading your message of love and compassion and that a lot of people's lives will be changed.' That is not just the life of a sponsored child, but also the lives of people, who decide to become a sponsor."

For more information about the Trumpets ministry check out the Trumpets Website. If you'd like to find out more about Compassion International or would like to sponsor a child, go to the Compassion website.