Catholic Charity Helps Lift People Out of Poverty
Christian Foundation for Children and Aging is a Catholic nonprofit that helps children and the elderly through sponsorships. June 17 issue feature
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Allison Yancey and her family, of Wadesville, Ind., had been sponsoring a Filipino child through the charitable organization Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA) for 11 years, but it wasn’t until she joined a mission trip in 2011 and met her sponsored child that she fully realized the impact of their sponsorship.
“Before the trip, it was writing a check and an occasional letter — and hoping that it reached its final destination,” said Yancey. “After going on the trip, I was impressed with the integrity and the level of commitment of CFCA and the hope that the sponsored children have.”
The mission-like international nonprofit was founded by lay Catholics to assist people of all faiths living in poverty in developing countries. CFCA was originally incorporated on Nov. 20, 1981, when the Bob Hentzen and Jerry Tolle families gathered their Christmas card lists and sent a mailing to hundreds of relatives and friends asking them to consider sponsoring children. Hentzen, a former Christian Brother, and Tolle, a former Jesuit priest, had been missionaries in Central and South America and had witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of poverty. They, along with Hentzen’s siblings — Bud, Jim and Nadine — were committed to finding a way to help. That original letter, Bud Hentzen recalled, “fell flat on its face.”
Eventually, sponsors trickled in. Today, through CFCA’s Hope for a Family program, more than 250,000 sponsors assist some 300,000 children, youth and aging persons.
In April, CFCA reached a milestone: having distributed more than $1 billion in aid to more than 650,000 children and elderly.
The interpersonal connection with a sponsored child is one of the aspects that first attracted Yancey to the nonprofit.
“We were looking for a charity to support and saw a CFCA ad in our local Catholic newspaper,” said Yancey. “Through CFCA, we wanted to find someone in similar age to our son Brennen, who was 9 at the time. We wanted someone he could correspond with and also someone from whom he could learn about the culture.”
CFCA has projects in 22 developing countries located in five regions, including Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and South America. Its largest project is in Guatemala, which is the location of one of the founding projects.
Sponsorship costs $30 a month, about $1 per day. The children, youth or aging receive support such as food, clothing and education supplies. In exchange, the sponsor receives a photograph, letters and the prayers from the sponsored recipient.
In addition, socialization and exercise programs keep the aging engaged in their communities. Children also receive such benefits as medical care and blankets.
“Benefits depend upon the local project and their needs,” said Larry Livingston, director of church relations with CFCA. “We give our people in the field with the families as much say as possible regarding what benefits to receive.”
The benefits, however, go beyond the families being helped. Sponsors are also touched through their charity. About 1,000 sponsors go on CFCA’s mission-awareness trips annually to visit the projects that they financially support, and they have the opportunity to meet their sponsored individuals. CFCA coordinates approximately 48 mission trips each year.
“They’re not luxury trips,” said Father Arthur Kirwin, OP, of Irving, Texas, one of the priests who gives talks at Catholic parishes in support of CFCA. “They’re safe, simple trips where sponsors go to meet their sponsored friends and see how CFCA works.”
“That was a life-changing trip,” said Yancey, who took a 10-day journey to the Philippines with her parents and her teenage son Brennen. “The trip really opened our eyes to the work that CFCA is doing on behalf of all the children and elderly and their commitment to help them get out of poverty.”
During the trip, Yancey had the opportunity to meet with the social workers, meet with their sponsored child, Rey, and to see how the donated money is used.
“Our assistance provides Rey with clothing, school supplies and food,” said Yancey. “If he needs some basic medical and dental care, they help with that as well.”
“We visited different livelihood projects where families and communities can provide a service to their community that they can be paid for,” added Yancey.
“Both Brennen and I underestimated the impact that our letters had,” she said. “A simple word of encouragement, our photos and small gifts give them hope to continue under difficult circumstances. The sponsored children have every reason to be unhappy, but when you visit them, you see all this hope on their faces.”
Yancey said that she was most touched by meeting Rey’s mother and seeing how hard she had to work to provide for her four children.
“She made her income by washing clothes 10-12 hours per day, in addition to cooking and doing other household tasks,” said Yancey.
The Yanceys worked with CFCA to provide her with a washing machine and a bicycle so that her children could get to and from school.
CFCA utilizes 35 priests, most of whom are retired, as independent contractors to help spread the word about their work. Father Kirwin has been preaching once or twice a month for CFCA for the past 10 years at various parishes.
“At the invitation of a pastor, we preach at all the weekend Masses,” explained Father Kirwin.
In addition to tying the work of CFCA to the Sunday readings, the nonprofit assembles folders of individual children and elderly to have on hand after the Masses. Each folder includes a photograph and information about the person, the makeup of their family, and other data.
Three-quarters of CFCA’s sponsors are the result of parish visits. Father Kirwin has had as few as 20 and as many as 200 individuals sponsored as a result of a weekend visit.
“It’s not donating or adoption; it’s sponsorship,” said Father Kirwin. “That involves an ongoing commitment. We ask people to pray and to write to their sponsored person a couple of times each year. Wonderful things happen.”
Father Kirwin told the recent story of a couple from Baytown, Texas, who had begun sponsoring a girl from the Philippines about a dozen years ago as the result of a priest visit to their parish.
“The couple told me that the girl had no shoes, and she looked unhappy,” explained Father Kirwin. “They had sponsored her through high school, and through CFCA had paid for her to go on through nursing school. She was finished with nursing school, and the couple planned to attend her graduation.”
“Walking with the poor is a way that people can connect with their Catholic faith,” said Father Kirwin.
The charity’s “core values flow from Catholic social teaching, the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life,” said Livingston.
“Most of our sponsors are Catholics who want a viable and trustworthy way to put their faith into action,” said Livingston.
“We do not have an overt evangelistic mission,” noted Livingston. “Our primary objective is to help people raise themselves out of poverty. There’s no litmus test for those who receive benefits. Having the word ‘Christian’ in our name puts the burden on us rather than on those we serve.”
Today, the Yancey family sponsors not only Rey from the Philippines, but three other children as well. They see the assistance they provide as completely consonant with their Catholic faith.
“As Catholics, we feel compelled that as we have been blessed, we’re meant to go out and bless and help others,” said Yancey. “This is a way of doing that on a large scale and knowing that it really does make a difference.”
Tim Drake is the Register’s senior writer.