I remember decades ago, watching a famous actress’ late-night commercial repeating, “For the cost of one cup of coffee a day, you can help a child in need.” It all sounded nice, and I was glad there were people participating in these programs. It was a distant good deed, something felt in one’s checkbook but not, I didn’t think, deep in their hearts. After all, we are here and they are there; while we know our money can help, it’s not like there could be a true connection.

I was wrong.

I came down to Jamaica in February of 2017 with my first ACE team. During that week, we were visiting a school where one of our team members had a sponsored child. I watched as ACE’s Jamaican Child Sponsorship Coordinator brought a young boy over to him, and they sat together outside a classroom, away from the crowd. My teammate gave his sponsored child a small gift and they conversed quietly with each other. I tried not to stare at this private moment, but I was intrigued.

Knowing I was bringing my family in June of 2017 to serve, I wanted them to experience something like what I had witnessed. I checked with our Stateside Child Sponsorship Coordinator, Dawn, and she matched me up with a five-year-old girl named Denecia. I studied her picture and bio, trying to figure her out from that information. Her favorite color was brown (seemed pretty down to earth), she loved to run and she had the most distinctive, beautiful eyes.

During our June trip, while we were doing concrete work at the very school where our child was, we were tapped on the shoulder and told, “It’s time to go meet Denecia.” The whole family was introduced to this tiny, shy girl, and we huddled around her, all smiles. Denecia was so quiet, almost scared of this strange American family drenched in sweat and concrete, but she let me read her a story. I asked her if her favorite color was still brown. It was. She sat on my lap and took a picture with us, but I wasn’t sure she even understood. I’m not sure I did.

I sent her a letter and a photo from that day and, later that year, a birthday gift, and in return, she sent me a short thank-you note. That was about it.

Eight months later, in February 2018, I was back in Jamaica. This time, there were no projects at any of the schools, so those on the team who had sponsored children all went together to visit the schools or homes of their children. When we arrived at Denecia’s school, I looked through the dozens of kids surrounding the bus, hoping to recognize her, afraid I wouldn’t. When we finally saw each other, she was still reserved and overwhelmed, at age six, but she sat with me for a short time, mostly looking down, more interested in her juice bag. We talked – well, I talked, she whispered – about whether she still liked to run and still liked the color brown. She nodded and, while she was very reserved, sat close to me and hugged me gently when I left. I wondered if she had truly remembered me, if I made a difference at all. I felt a little awkward.

Pictures of that meeting were sent to her, as well, as a reminder of our visit together, along with pictures of my family and my dog. Later, I sent her a small birthday gift when she turned seven. She sent me a thank-you note and a Christmas ornament she’d made. Her writing was improving.

This past February, when I was back in Jamaica, I was prepared to see Denecia, but I was a little disappointed. I was going to miss out on a fun day at another school where the rest of the team was doing PE, because that was the only time to go see the sponsored children. It would probably be another quick meeting, awkward and uneventful. Maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew, trying to forge a relationship with someone I could only see every so often and who probably didn’t even care. I wasn’t good at relating to kids, especially those who hardly knew me. After this visit, I thought maybe it would be better if someone else sponsored her, someone who was more invested than I was, with more to offer than just a monthly donation and a stuffy conversation.

When I got out of the bus at her school, I saw her walking down the hill, her eyes sparkling, with a smile on her face from ear to ear. I’d never seen that smile; it was genuine. She quickly made her way to me and gave me a big hug. I hugged her back, and, as we sat down in the grass, I started with that old standby question, “So what’s your favorite color now?” After establishing that it was now yellow, I asked her again about her love of races and how fast she was getting.

That was when she finally, quietly, said a full sentence to me: “If you want, in March, you can come and watch me; we will have a race here…” Her voice trailed off, but she didn’t have her head down this time. She looked up at me with those gorgeous eyes full of hope, right into mine, and we made a connection. She knew I was in it with her. We had sent letters. We had photos together. We had history. She had a future and was inviting me in.

It was worth more than the cost of a cup of coffee, and she didn’t need stickers or hair ribbons. She needed to know someone was thinking of her, supporting her, praying for her, loving her. It didn’t happen overnight. It took time, bit by bit, as she got older and wiser… as I got older and wiser. I was overcome with peace, knowing that this was more than a monthly transaction in my bank account. It was a relationship. She asked about my family, and we talked about her school, my dog, she sang her favorite song and so much more. When I left, she hugged me tighter than she ever had, and she ran back up the hill with her head high, still beaming.

Having the chance to see my child face to face, even when it was a struggle to converse or I didn’t think it mattered, has been a wonderful experience. I love that ACE combines this program with their mission trips, so that you can serve the community and still leave behind a piece of your heart with someone who knows your name. Relationships are built, child to sponsor, with letters and prayers and the knowledge that a visit is only a flight away, if that’s possible. It’s certainly not required, but what a nice opportunity! I wasn’t able to come back in March, but I can’t wait to hear how she did in her race, and I know she can’t wait to tell me, even if it’s just in letters. No matter how little you think you are doing, every action makes a difference – and, oh, the lives you will touch by simply reaching out and becoming a child’s sponsor. I’m invested, heart and soul.

For more information on our sponsorship program, please contact Dawn Wheeler, ACE Stateside Child Sponsorship Coordinator, at dawn@acexperience.org.