As a teenager, I began sponsoring a poverty-stricken boy in the Caribbean. Twelve years and thousands of dollars later I flew down to meet him—and to learn if my efforts did any good at all.
The cinder-block school has no windows and no doors, just a string of incandescent lightbulbs hanging down the center of the ceiling like the spine of a great whale. It’s hot and humid, and the room throbs with the voices of 200 Haitians who have paused from fishing, gardening, or painting the sides of handmade wooden sailboats to come see the special visitor who has traveled 1,500 miles to Île de la Tortue, an island where the hills are green and lush and the sand is sugar white and the small children play with shells that line the shore by the thousands.
They have been waiting all day under this tin roof, watching one local man set up his old Casio keyboard and another tune the heads of his bongos, so that they can see the blan, the white man, the first ever to visit the school on this nearly roadless island five miles north of the Haitian mainland. In short, they have come to see me. And I have come to see one of them: Ervenson, the Haitian boy whom I have been sponsoring for 12 years.
Every month since the fall of 2000, I’ve sent roughly $35, or about $5,000 in total, through a Christian organization called Compassion International. Compassion funnels money to children all over the world to pay for things like tuition, schoolbooks, clothes, food, medicine, and sneakers. I sent the money to give him a better life. And I’m here to see if it actually made any difference.
The only contact Ervenson and I had during that time was through handwritten letters. I wrote the first one when I was 15 and included a photo of myself in a ball-chain necklace, my braces sparkling in the camera’s flash, a few dozen zits covering my face. With his response, I received multiple copies of the same photo of him, one that I can only barely remember now. He was five, with a shaved head and a baggy, short-sleeved shirt that buttoned up in the front. His lips were pinched tight against a smile.
Often the letters would pass each other in the mail, so they never became much of a conversation. They were more like questionnaires. How did he like school? What did he do with his friends? What was the weather like? Each letter was translated by someone working for Compassion, and there were times when I felt like I was getting updates about a relative through an aunt. Oh, Ervenson? He’s a soccer star, and he loves the color purple.
As I sit at the front of the schoolroom, a keyboard amplifier blasting in my ears, I wonder whether we’ll have anything to talk about. Will he like me? And then there’s the larger question: Did the money do any good? Each month I sent a check, trusted that it was being put to good use, and forgot about the transaction entirely.
At this precise moment, however, I am most worried that I won’t recognize him. Because for as long as I’ve known Ervenson, the only pictures I’ve seen of him have been small headshots. He could be any of the teenage boys in the room. So I smile at everyone, just to be safe. And then, in a lull in the dancing and singing, the translator leans over and says, “Here is the boy.” And here he is. Ervenson. Pimply faced and thin. His eyes are wide. His arms are like piano strings, stretched wide to welcome me.
When I started sponsoring Ervenson, I was camping at a Christian alt-music festival in rural Illinois, where bands played concerts for sweaty mosh pits of Jesus-loving teens. Between two of the shows, someone from Compassion International got on stage and talked about how difficult it was to be a child in places like Haiti. They described the lack of clean water, the rampant disease, the voodoo ceremonies on every corner. Even then I was vaguely aware of my privilege as a white American male and felt a little guilty about it. Plus, I had a part-time job at a guitar store, which meant that I had enough spending money that I wouldn’t miss thirty-odd dollars out of my monthly paycheck. I signed up as soon as I got home. All I had to do was get online, do a quick search by age, country, or birthday (in case I wanted someone who shared mine), and then click that I agreed to send the checks.
Almost immediately, Compassion sent an e-mail suggesting that I write to Ervenson. Many child-sponsorship organizations actually support villages, not children—the child that you “sponsor” actually just lives within that village. Not Compassion. My money went directly to him, less 20 percent for overhead. It’s one of the few organizations in the $3.4 billion child-sponsorship industry where you can exchange letters and develop a relationship.
Which I tried to do—until I was a junior in high school. Until that point, I’d been as Christian as you could get. I “witnessed” to friends, trying to get them to accept Jesus as their savior. I led praise and worship at See You at the Pole, an annual event where Christians gathered in front of their high schools and prayed before classes started. I held a Bible study in my house once a week.
But at 17, I rejected my faith. Mostly because it stopped making sense to me. Jesus was friends with prostitutes and the poor, he wanted to help the outcasts. But it seemed to me that many churches—or at least the ones I’d been to—were missing the point. The larger a church was, the more money it spent on sound systems and video equipment and massive buildings with large water features out front instead of helping people who needed clothes or food or a place to live. It began to feel more like a rock concert or a gala—a place people went to be seen or to impress other people.
So, in the black-and-white thinking of youth, I gave up. I felt like a hypocrite when I sang praise and worship songs in front of other kids, because I didn’t believe a word of it. Instead, in 2002, I started smoking pot, became a Democrat, and stopped writing Ervenson. The letters had begun to feel a little fake. When I asked questions, he rarely answered them; when he wrote, it sounded like he was being prompted. I later found out that Compassion makes the kids write three letters a year. Besides, Compassion International is a Christian organization, and though I wasn’t quite clear how, I knew that they were evangelizing to him. I didn’t stop sending my monthly 35 bucks, which seemed cruel. But I did stop caring.
The only time I really thought about him was when I got another letter. They didn’t say anything important, but they made me think. About him. About being a Christian. I thought about whether God was being shoved down his throat. I wondered if that was a fair trade-off for getting an education.
Even though I had my doubts, I kept sending money. It felt good in that pat-yourself-on-the-back, first-world-guilt-assuasion sort of way. It was maybe the one selfless thing I did with regularity, and I believed that being a good person required selflessness. I had started to think that that was what Jesus was really getting at anyway. Don’t judge people. Love others like you would yourself. If you have money or food or clothes and someone else doesn’t, help them out. I hoped that’s what I was doing with Ervenson.
Don’t get me wrong. I still got angry that megachurches built stadium-size sanctuaries when people in their communities were homeless. And I still couldn’t see any reason why Christians would make it into heaven but other good people—be they Buddhist or Muslim or atheist—were doomed to hell. But I realized that I could be a different type of Christian than that. And in my own faith, sending Ervenson money was exactly the type of thing I felt I should do. I started writing to Ervenson again. It was still boilerplate stuff—it’s snowing here, study hard—but it made me feel a little less shame for not being involved.
It did not, however, help me know him better. When the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, I stood in my apartment in front of the TV with a bowl of oatmeal and tried to remember where he lived. Port-au-Prince? La Gonave? I had thrown away each of his letters as I read them, so there was no way of going back to see. And though I worried a little, I didn’t take the time to call Compassion to find out.
Then, in late 2011, I got an e-mail. Ervenson would like to meet you, it said. It was a form e-mail, something every sponsor gets on occasion, but it was the first time I had received it. If I wanted to, I could pay Compassion to join a handful of other sponsors to meet our respective kids. By then, Ervenson was 17, and I was 26. In a year, he’d be an adult and I’d no longer support him. This was my last chance to see him. I decided: Yes, I did want to meet him.
I expect Haiti to look poor. I expect vast tent cities sprawled out on the hillsides and buildings half demolished by the quake and people picking through garbage for food. I do not expect it to be beautiful. When I arrive in Port-au-Prince in April 2012, one of a dozen Compassion sponsors here to meet their kids, the Caribbean is the sort of blue I’ve rarely seen. The mountains seem to cover the length of the island. People are everywhere, dressed in bright purples and oranges and yellows. Tap-tap truck taxis painted in pseudo-psychedelic patterns careen through the streets, bouncing over potholes, the people inside swaying in unison like a choir.
We see our first tent city as the road curves north around the bay. A patch of sea blue tents and tarps appears on a denuded hillside. Beyond the tents, stones are arranged in acre-large squares. “Are those fields?” I ask, thinking that perhaps Haitians have used the after-earthquake chaos to start new agricultural ventures.
“Those are mass graves from the earthquake,” says Ben Depp, an American-born photographer who has spent the past five years in Haiti.
“There were so many dead, we had to burn some of them,” adds Jeannot, our Haitian translator, who was himself trapped for two days in the rubble.
After the earthquake, money poured into every NGO working in Haiti, including Compassion. The organization sponsors more than 75,000 children here. There are programs for babies, kids in school, and college students, but they all work roughly the same. Donors send a check, Compassion routes it to its in-country offices (staffed almost entirely by Haitians), and they in turn give 80 percent of the cash to the kids to spend on various specific things: food, health care, books, supplies, tuition at Christian schools, things like that.
Thankfully, I learn that kids do not have to accept Jesus in order to attend school, though they do have to attend a weekly meeting called Club, where they learn about Jesus and how to be a moral person. But I appear to be alone in my concern about evangelism.
On that first night, all of the visiting sponsors gather at the hotel for a quick talk. “OK,” says Yvonne, our wispy tour leader, who wears a permanent smile. “What did you see today?”
The group is quiet for a minute before one woman finally speaks up. “There’s a spiritual darkness here,” she says. Heads nod in agreement throughout the circle.
Ben and I look sideways at each other, my eyes trying to say, Can you believe this? Granted, it’s been only one day, but I’ve seen more churches than public-service buildings.
“Voodoo has such a stronghold,” she adds. (In the mind of most evangelicals, voodoo is pure evil, though it’s really an amalgamation of West African animism and Roman Catholicism.) And so the group prays that Compassion’s programs will help lead people out of voodoo and into Christianity.
Thankfully, I have Ben as a roommate. Like me, he grew up in a conservative Christian home in the States and moved strongly to the left in college. And like me, he was a little uncomfortable with the meeting. So we sneak away after the prayer and step onto our third-floor balcony overlooking the Caribbean.
While working as a photographer for outlets like The New York Times and Newsweek, Ben’s been present at some of Haiti’s most pivotal moments in recent history. When the earthquake hit, he and his wife were at home in Petionville, a leafy neighborhood in the hills outside Port-au-Prince. Dressers, tables, and chairs fell over; pots and pans hit the floor. The three-story hotel behind them crumbled, but their house stood. Much of the poorer parts of the city weren’t so lucky. He said there was dust in his teeth, throat, and eyelashes. Once the ground stopped shaking, Ben grabbed a pickax and helped dig through the rubble looking for bodies. “It was like the apocalypse. The dead and the injured were everywhere,” he says. “Everybody was helping dig strangers out from under collapsed houses and caring for the injured.”
Ben’s most haunting photos came from the cholera epidemic, introduced, tragically, by UN peacekeeping troops who came to the country after the earthquake. “I was on my motorcycle, trying to see what the situation was like,” he tells me. “People were literally dropping dead in the streets.” Cholera causes rapid fluid loss. To date, more than 8,000 Haitians—men, women, and many, many children—have died of it. Victims look like corpses even before they die. Ben once found the body of a dead ten-year-old on a rubble-strewn stretch of road. “His mother hadn’t understood how quickly cholera could kill him,” he said. “She didn’t have money to do anything with the body, so she put him in the road for the government body collectors to find.”
The earthquake and the resulting cholera epidemic are only the most recent disasters here. Haiti has suffered through 200 years of brutal dictatorships, military invasions, and natural disasters. The chaos doesn’t stop people from trying to understand and fix it. Haiti’s streets are full of young, white do-gooders in shiny Land Rovers, many from NGOs, governments, or other secular outfits. But every day another group of Christians in matching T-shirts arrives to spend a week building churches or playing with kids. Ben says he hasn’t seen them make a real impact.
“A lot of Christian organizations send groups here for quick trips,” Ben says. “They build a latrine or a school and then head home.” Their efforts may provide some relief in the short term, but they don’t create jobs or a lasting infrastructure—things Haitians desperately need.
It’s not just Christian organizations that come up short, though. Haiti has been called the NGO Republic. As many as 10,000 of them operate in the country, and they’re often criticized for making the situation worse. “It’s one thing to provide water for six months,” says Jake Johnston, who studies aid in Haiti for the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “But they’re not going to provide a public water system for the future of the country.”
NGOs don’t have to coordinate with the government and often start projects without consulting a community. Once construction is under way, much of the money never makes it into Haitian hands. Of the $450 million USAID has spent here since the earthquake, more than 70 percent has gone to U.S. contractors. “It’s hard to have a strong state when NGOs are doing much of the work,” says Johnston.
Remarkably, no one had ever really looked at whether child sponsorship helped or hurt the people it supported until three years ago, when Bruce Wydick, a developmental economist at the University of San Francisco and a Compassion sponsor himself, decided to study the organization. He found that sponsored kids are nearly 27 percent more likely to graduate from high school, have a better chance at getting a white-collar job, and make an average of $14 to $19 more each month. When nearly two-thirds of the country lives on less than a $1.25 a day, as they do in Haiti, that’s a substantial improvement.
“It’s a pretty cost-intensive way of addressing poverty,” Wydick says. It costs more than buying a mosquito net or building a water pipe, for example. “But it works.”
Yet, Wydick’s research hit upon another important aspect of sponsorship. “Compassion does a good job of addressing the internal issues, which we’re finding to be just as important as external.” In other words, self-confidence may be just as crucial to finishing school (and overcoming poverty) as infrastructure. And a big part of addressing those internal issues, Wydick says, is the letters the kids get from their sponsors.
“They have these people telling them, ‘Study hard and you can be successful,’” says Wydick. “And they believe it.”
Ervenson and his family live in a seaside shack on Île de la Tortue (Turtle Island), Haiti’s northernmost island, a 69-square-mile speck five miles north of the mainland. Three hundred and fifty years ago, its primary occupants were a band of European pirates called the Brethren of the Coast. The Brethren are gone, but the island doesn’t look much different today. There are few cars and even fewer roads; the only way to get there is by boat. But first Ben, Jeannot, and I must get to Saint-Louis-du-Nord, on the north shore of the mainland.
After a two-hour wait for the six-seater plane, a one-hour flight, a stop for chicken and rice (Haiti’s national dish), and an hour in the car, we finally reach the dock in Saint-Louis. Live goats hang upside on the sides of pickup trucks, and small tin-sided shacks sell lottery tickets linked to numbers drawn in the States or Venezuela. The sun washes out the colors, making everything look Instagrammed. A small motorboat with a suspect Yamaha engine is waiting for us. But there are two problems: it’s already late afternoon, and our hotel is here in Saint-Louis. Meaning we’ll have to turn right back around from La Tortue—90 minutes away—if we want to make it back before sunset.
Jeannot doesn’t think we should go. “We won’t have time to see him,” he says. “We should go in the morning.”
“How much time would we have on the island tomorrow?” I ask.
“A couple hours,” he says.
After 12 years, I want more than two hours. “Can we stay on the island?” I ask him.
Jeannot and the pastor and the boat captain and a committee of men whose roles I’m not sure of converse in Creole. Ben whispers a translation to me.
“There’s no hotel on the island,” he says. “They don’t know where we can sleep.”
I’m prepared to sleep on the boat if I have to. Eventually, their desire to please the foreigner outweighs their concerns. We go tonight.
Shirtless men with sea salt dried on their backs carry us on their shoulders like children, 30 yards through the water to the boat. After nearly a week in Port-au-Prince’s dust-choked streets and the endless mud of everywhere else, the water here is shockingly blue and clear. The captain spears a bit of meat with a hook and trails it off the boat, searching for fish. A dolphin briefly swims alongside us, weaving in and out of our wake.
After 90 minutes, we reach La Tortue. Lush hills rise up from the sea. Giant trees line the shore. Boats bounce through the waves, their sails made of tarps, billboard scraps, old sheets, anything they can use. On shore, a small crowd waits for us. Pastor Eustache, a short bald man in glasses who runs the school and church here, shakes my hand. I am the first sponsor to visit this Compassion-supported school, and the community has prepared a welcome ceremony, he says.
We walk through sandy paths lined with bamboo, until we reach the long, gray school. It feels like the whole village is here. I’m starting to get nervous about giving a speech when Jeannot says, “Here is the boy.” Ervenson walks in. I start to speak, but before I can say anything, his arms are around me. Everyone cheers, like we’re long-lost relatives on a daytime talk show. It’s exciting to see him—but also awkward. He barely speaks English; I know only a few words of Creole. So every so often I reach over and pat his shoulder. I am your friend, I’m sorry that I haven’t written as much as I should have, and I’m really happy that you look healthy.
In his last letter, Ervenson said that he recently bought a new pair of shoes with the money I sent. “Hey!” I say, pointing to his white Dexter-brand shoes. “Cool shoes!” But he covers them up, pulling his jeans over them, like I’ve made fun of them. Then he gets up and walks out.
Where is he going? I think. Memories of the way kids made fun of my fake Doc Martens in middle school come flooding back. Or maybe he’s embarrassed because his shoes are nicer than those on the other kids I see.
When he finally reappears minutes later, he has changed shoes, though I’ll never figure out why. He doesn’t make eye contact as he sits down next to me, so I put an arm around him. Hey man, cultural misunderstanding there. But we’re OK, right? He half-smiles, like he has no clue what I’m saying but wants to be accommodating.
After the ceremony—a half-dozen speeches, another song, an impressive breakdance performance by Ervenson and his friends—he takes me to his home. We pass shacks with thatch roofs, fishing rafts made of bundled logs, and wood-beam ships in various stages of decay. The house’s frame used to be covered in a plaster-like material, but it’s gone now, rotted away by time, sun, and seawater. Tin pieces cover gaping holes to keep out the wind, rain, and sand. The metal roof is rusted through in several places. The cement floor crumbles away. The family lives maybe 20 yards from the ocean, and the tide sometimes washes over the floor, forcing them to wait it out with neighbors until the water recedes.
As I look around his house, my first instinct is guilt. Right now I have $200 tucked into various pockets and my shoes. I briefly consider giving it all to him. But we’ve been cautioned by Compassion to avoid giving money on this trip. And part of me thinks, I gave $5,000—how do they not have a decent house? Did they never get the money? Or is the rusted tin an improvement over a thatch roof? Did I not send enough?
I set my backpack down on the floor and bring out a gift for him. A picture of my family.
“This is my mom, my sister, my brother, and my dad,” I say. Now that I’m here, the picture looks like exhibit A in First World wealth, with our electric lights and aluminum siding and a front door with a holiday wreath on it. So I quickly show him a picture of me and my girlfriend instead.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask.
“Is there any girl you want to be your girlfriend?” The crowd giggles as Jeannot translates.
“I have seen some,” he says, lowering his head and almost, just almost, breaking a smile.
As Ervenson and I talk through Ben and Jeannot’s translations, I start to piece together a picture of his life. His father’s only job is selling green wood to be made into charcoal on the mainland. The family mostly live on rice and beans, but sometimes they buy a chicken when they can afford it. They don’t have mosquito nets, so when the family—all 11 of them—sleep on the floor of this 150-square-foot house, they are sometimes bitten and contract malaria. Then they have to go to the mainland to get treatment. The pastor says that they’re able to do that because of the money I sent, but I can’t be sure he’s not buttering me up.
The insects already cover my arms and legs when the pastor says we have to leave, that we’ll be staying at his house tonight. It’s only a five-minute walk from Ervenson’s, but it’s as if I walked into a house in America. He has glass windows. There’s a large cinder-block wall surrounding his acre-plus property. His bedroom, which he graciously offers to Ben, Jeannot, and I, has a queen bed with a headboard, footboard, and mattress. There are two dressers, like you’d see in any American home. His wife has maybe five dozen porcelain figurines spread on every flat surface available. “This is the nicest house I’ve seen here,” Ben says.
The next morning, Ervenson gives me a tour of the island. We see his school, with the broken tables and the benches made of planks set atop cinder blocks. We see the soccer field that floods in the rainy season, where Ervenson tells me he scored a goal from the opposite end of the field last year. We see the natural spring where Ervenson bathes before school, after school, and before bed. Through Ben’s translations, we talk about his family’s garden, an hour’s walk deeper into the island, where they grow breadfruit, mango, spinach, beans, and potatoes.
“It’s beautiful,” Ervenson says of his island. “A beautiful little spot.”
Does he think he’ll have to leave this place if he wants to work? I ask.
Maybe, he says. For a job. “I would really like to work in an office,” Ben translates. Then Ervenson says he has a question for me. “Can I come visit you?”
It catches me by total surprise. I try to imagine Ervenson showing up in my tiny studio apartment back in the U.S. Sleeping on my couch. Trying to cook something on the stove while I’m at work. Deciding to stay permanently while he goes to college. It’s selfish and un-Christian, but I can’t imagine myself enjoying that.
I’m pretty comfortable with the current arrangement of sending money, occasionally writing a letter, and keeping my distance. Which may be the problem with the NGO-donor relationship in general. When disaster strikes, it feels good to send money, whether it’s a tweet to the Red Cross or through an organization like Compassion. But most of us don’t want to go beyond that.
“What do I say?” I ask Ben in English, worried that Ervenson is picking up on my hesitation.
“I can say it’s difficult,” says Ben. “That there are visas and documents that have to be signed. That it’s not an easy thing.”
“Do that,” I tell Ben. So he does.
Before I leave Ervenson, he walks me to the dock, carrying my backpack from his home, past the village market, and over the beaches so thick with shells, we have to watch where we’re walking.
“Do you think you’ll have a good life?” I ask. He takes a moment.
“I have some hope for myself with my education,” he says. “If I can finish this education and continue high school, I think that things can be good.”
The trouble is, he doesn’t finish high school. For the next 17 months, I write him once a month, encouraging him to study hard, trying to do what Bruce Wydick, the developmental economist, says effective sponsors do. Then, in October 2013, I get an e-mail that says:
Ervenson has left Compassion’s program because [of] unjustified absence from program activities for two consecutive months. This means he is no longer able to be sponsored. Please know that your sponsorship made a difference in the life of this child, and even though he is no longer in the program, the love you have shown will continue to have a great impact.
Despite the reassurance, I don’t know that it did have a great impact. I knew that high school was a stretch for him—his teacher told me he was an average student. But the point of donating the money was to give him a better life. Ervenson got roughly $28 of my money each month. That’s far more than the majority of his fellow Haitians make in a month. Some of that (roughly $6.25 per month) went to pay for school, and some went to books and school uniforms. Those things are relatively cheap in Haiti. What I don’t get is, how did the money not improve his life more than that?
Maybe most of it went to higher tuition, which in turn put a new roof on the church or created jobs for teachers. And really, I’d be OK with either of those. But when I look at Ervenson’s home, at his father’s life, at Ervenson’s own future, it feels like the money failed. I believe Wydick when he says that, over time and a large enough sample size, Compassion helps people move into the middle class. Indeed, one former Compassion child is now in Haiti’s Parliament.
But I also know that this island is far removed from many of Haiti’s most pressing problems, such as cholera, the earthquake, and deforestation. And still, the money did not lift him out of poverty. Maybe it takes time. Maybe it takes more money. I’m not an economist. I’m just a kid who—perhaps naively—believed that I could make a difference.
The money did what Jesus asked when he told his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. But, as with most aid to Haiti, I don’t think it will have a long-term impact, at least not in this particular case. His life will probably resemble his father’s: he will work in the fields, he will collect wood, he will build a small house on his beautiful little island with views of the sea, and over time it will slowly, inevitably fall apart.
When Ervenson left Compassion, I debated whether I would sponsor again. On the one hand, I’m still not comfortable with the evangelism, and I worry about contributing to Haiti’s aid problem; on the other, I believe that the money can make a difference, though there’s no guarantee that it will. And then, less than two months after Ervenson left, Compassion sent me a letter from another boy named Widny. I didn’t request it, but it was sent all the same. Widny is nine years old. He lives on Haiti’s southern coast, about 130 miles from La Tortue. He likes math and soccer and the color yellow. I grabbed a pen, and I wrote him back.
Jonah Ogles is an associate editor at Outside.