It was one of those days where if I heard my child say “I want …” one more time, I was going to scream.
Then I got a text from a friend, who is currently home-schooling her daughter, asking if I wanted to join them at a Compassion Experience. It’s a free event put on by Compassion International, and was held at a church in Glen Burnie last week. I had just been talking about it with another friend who had taken her 6-year-old son and raved about it.
I was excited to take my boys, ages 5 and 3. I’ve been seeking out ways to teach them gratitude for what they have and compassion for others. My husband and I have been supporters of Compassion International for over 10 years. They’re one of the world’s largest child development organizations, providing child sponsorship programs in 25 different countries.
Our family currently sponsors two boys through Compassion, both of which are the same age as our boys. We love writing them letters, drawing them pictures and receiving letters back. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to teach our children how to give back to those who are not as privileged as we are. I felt the Compassion Experience would be a great way for our kids to actually see what life is like for children like our sponsored boys.
We registered online to attend the Compassion Experience right after preschool. My friend met us there along with her two daughters. The whole experience took place inside a climate-controlled tent in a church parking lot. It included 2,000 square feet of exhibit space. You walk through rooms that have been recreated to look like schools, homes and markets in the poverty-stricken areas of countries like Uganda, Kenya, Dominican Republic and the Philippines.
There wasn’t anyone else there when we arrived. The volunteers asked which “story” we wanted to experience — either a young girl named “Kiwi” from the Philippines or a boy named “Jonathan” from the Dominican Republic. Each story would take about 15 minutes to walk through.
We were given headsets, and I was surprised how well the kids listened to the story as we made our way through each room. The story would pause and prompt you to move on to the next room, but we would wait and ask the kids a few questions about what they just heard, or what they were looking at in the rooms. A few parts in the stories were a little mature for our children — the child’s father came home drunk, a father said he didn’t want the son to be part of his family, a few babies died before medicine could be made available, and the violence of crime in unsafe areas of their towns. For the most part, however, the story was pretty simple to follow and even our 3 year olds seemed to understand most of it (though by the end they had discarded the headsets and were having more fun with the pretend food).
The rooms were very small, which made an impact on our kids who are used to much larger living spaces. The props setup in the rooms, such as shoes with holes and leaky roofs, further drove the points home. It was important for our kids to hear about how these children had to share one apple for dinner or only had rice to eat.
As the story progressed, we heard about how the children became sponsored by Compassion International. The local church in their towns helped provide them with an education and medical care. They were given hope and a chance for a better life.
Though Compassion is a Christian organization, and the theme of faith was interwoven through the stories, my friend and I didn’t feel that it was overly religious or that we were pressured in any way.
At the end, visitors are encouraged to consider sponsoring a child, and the last room has a display of pictures of current children waiting to be sponsored. But even then we weren’t pressured, just asked if we had any questions. My boys were excited to share with the volunteer about the children that we currently sponsor. The volunteer showed them a picture of the child she sponsors and the one toy they had bought with the money she sent them for Christmas.
I’ve already enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with my kids based on what we learned during the experience. I think it really gave them a visual for what we are trying to teach them. I’m grateful we had this opportunity.
Compassion Experience will be returning to Baltimore July 7-10. More information can be found on the Compassion Experience website, compassion.com.
Mandy Watts is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Crownsville with her husband, Justin, who runs their family business, and their two sons, 5-year-old James and 3-year-old Luke.