PIME invented Sponsorships at a Distance 50 years ago, thanks to which tens of thousands of children continue to have a chance to better themselves and their community. These are the voices of the young people who benefited from this program.
The image of a doctor wearing a nice white lab coat, printed on an elementary school book. Malafi’s dream, to become a doctor and treat people, was born this way; looking at that picture that stood out on the glossy page. Yet, the silhouette that intrigued him as a boy would never be seen by him, nor could he have begun his studies in Medicine years later, had he not met someone who decided to open the doors of a school room to him for the first time when he was 12 years old.
“I was born in Cutia, a small village in Guinea Bissau, the first of eight children,” says Malafi Quequtu Mané, who is now 39 years old. “My parents were farmers and could not pay for my studies. I helped them in the fields and took care of my siblings. Until, through the help of PIME missionaries operating in Mansoa, the turning point in my life arrived.”
Fr. Davide Sciocco explained to the very young parishioner that a family from a distant country, Italy, had decided to “sponsor” him at a distance and that he could then attend school. “I began to study a lot while doing small jobs on the side to contribute towards covering the expenses. With the passing of time, my dream of becoming a doctor came into focus and intensified more and more. So I went to Bissau, and then to Bafatá to attend the Faculty of Medicine. It was not easy, but thanks to God and that sponsorship support, I made it.”
Today, Malafi wears a white lab coat similar to the one that inspired him as a child: he works in a clinic, practicing obstetrics and gynecology dealing with HIV-positive patients. But this achievement was not enough for him. “In my years of medical school, I kept telling myself: ‘If one day I can become a doctor, I will set aside my salary for five years and use it to do something for my village’”, he confides. “I wanted to give back a little of what I had received, so I decided to build a school in Cutia. In order to allow children to start studying from an early age, and not later in life like me. Last year, the new institute was inaugurated. It also includes a kindergarten. It is never too early to work for constructive changes. If we want to develop our communities, the key is education.”
It is precisely this conviction that led PIME to create the former “Foster Parents Mission Club: Adoptions at a Distance” 50 years ago. Now Sponsorships at a Distance, the program is a tool to support the development of needy children in mission countries through constant assistance from donors. This type of support aimed primarily at handling the education expenses of children. It is a formula that proved to be effective to such an extent that it was eventually “copied” by many other associations and NGOs.
“PIME believes, and has always believed, in the importance of the education of the new generations as the first tool to wrest families, and even entire countries, from the grips of poverty,” commits Fr. Mario Ghezzi, Center Director of the PIME Mission Center in Milan. “A commitment to support in the long term makes the difference for those who are helped because it allows them to plan a course of study with tranquility that many young people would not have otherwise. Economic uncertainty is one of the first reasons for their dropping out of school.”
For Amy, whose family emigrated from Myanmar to northern Thailand when she was nine, missionary support has been a constant in her childhood and youth. The possibility of studying has gone hand in hand with “education leading to a real lifestyle focused on the needs of others,” she says. In the early 2000s, Amy Chemue, whose family is Catholic, learned about Mae Suay’s Holy Spirit Center. Here, she had gone to accompany her father to a meeting with Fr. Maurizio Arioldi. It was him who, shortly thereafter, would give her the opportunity to enter the program. So, she began to attend school at the center that he ran. After graduating from high school, she was accepted into a four-year university to become a catechist. “I then began to work at the mission with the children; for seven years I wandered from village to village, teaching catechism and working with the youth and engaging them in many activities.”
An experience that led her to the next step: “Every day I experienced cases of many emotional problems, and I wanted to be able to help these people properly,” Amy says. Hence, she decided to enroll in a course on psychological counseling. It is a new challenge that is ending in the coming weeks with her dissertation at the university. “I have already received some job offers, and I am considering whether I should work in a setting wider than the Church in order to be able to affect society in a broader way and to make my Catholic education, that helped me already so much, bear more fruit.”
Children helped by the Sponsorships at a Distance program, become catalysts for development. This is because the tuition paid by donors often guarantees teachers’ salaries and food at the school cafeteria, widening the benefits from the individual to the community. However, it is also because every young person who has received education, medical care, spiritual assistance, and affection is the best equipped to roll up his/her sleeves, and do their best to give back in the setting in which they live.
There are now tens of thousands of these “sparks of change” who have had their lives changed thanks to the commitment of many “Sponsors at a Distance”. Like in Cameroon, where Bernadette Maipa (24) and Marcel Diele (26) live, two such sparks who were welcomed as little children to the Monsignor Yves Plumey Center. An educational center founded by the Congolese Religious Sister Nicole Nshombo in Marza, a few kilometers from Ngaoundéré. Bernadette and Marcel came from grave family situations, for them, the entry into the Children’s House meant living a serene childhood and building the foundations for a future of hope. “Already as a young girl, whenever young people arrived at the Center in need of medical care, I ran out to help; I think my vocation was born there,” says Bernadette. Today, after obtaining a license in Nursing Sciences at the local university, she works in the same building that opened its doors to her when she was little. It is a path similar to that of Marcel, the fourth of nine brothers, who graduated in Biomedical Analysis and is now the head of the Center Laboratory. “Attending school helped me avoid bad company and allowed me to discover my passion for science, which I decided to put at the service of the poorest”.
Emmanuel, on the other hand, loved mathematics. “I was the best among the 123 students at my school in Kapwapu, a village on the remote island of Kiriwina, in Papua New Guinea,” he recalls. “I was selected to attend an advanced high school in the city of Alotau. I was happy, but also very worried because I didn’t know how I would pay the tuition. There were five of us children, and my parents were subsistence farmers.” It was then that Emmanuel Budibudi, now 35, met Fr. Giorgio Licini, a PIME Missionary in Papua New Guinea. “It was the year 2003, and Fr. Giorgio had come to celebrate Mass in my village. I asked him for help, and so it was then that my brother, Simon, and I became pioneers of the scholarship project in the country.” Today, PIME promotes programs to even support university students, from Cambodia to Bangladesh.
Emmanuel chose the Faculty of Science and graduated in 2010 with a degree in Computer Science. “For five years I worked abroad, but then I decided to try to fulfill my dream to become an academic at the University of Papua to train my country’s young elite, but a post-graduate qualification was needed.” That goal was achieved two years ago thanks to a new scholarship and a lot of effort, meanwhile, Emmanuel got married and had two children. Today the young man, with his post-graduate degree in Web Technology, has become a tutor at the university (while his brother Simon is an elementary school teacher). “Helping disadvantaged students is strategic,because in exchange for the chance obtained they commit themselves even more than the others to obtain the best results.”
For Fr. Mario Ghezzi “Sponsorships at a Distance is an opportunity to build bridges between different people, cultures, and countries, overcoming the closures and selfishness that always tempt each of us.” Sponsorships are a tool for development aid that also promotes greater awareness of the situation in mission countries. “Activating an ‘adoption does not mean simply sending a check to a young destitute, but it involves starting and carrying on a relationship with them and their families,” Fr. Mario explains. “Letters, photos, report cards keep the relationship alive and opens up horizons and worlds unknown on both sides.” These things help to make that distant “sponsored family member”, whom they are helping, feel that much closer. It could be a child, a young university student, a disabled person, or a seminarian.
Indeed, Fel Catan is in the seminary today, and in September he will become a deacon. At seven years old he was sponsored for the first time, the son of a large family of six children from the Philippine city of Sirawai, an area held hostage by Islamist terrorist violence.
“At the beginning, when I was included in the program that had been started by Fr. Alessandro Brambilla, I didn’t even realize it,” says Fel. “Then, little by little, it dawned on me that there were people from far away who were taking care of me because the teachers asked me to write letters, and I received their greetings for the holidays, family photos, etc. We children knew that it was thanks to these people that we could have notebooks and school supplies, shoes and clothes. I did not understand the words in those letters, but an expression ‘best wishes’ stuck with me. Only many years later, when I found myself in Italy, I would have discovered the meaning!”
Once he grew up and graduated with a degree in civil engineering, Fel felt that recollection stronger– which he refers to as “a seduction” – whenever he went to the parish church to sing during Mass.
“Suddenly, I realized that my desire was to become a priest, like Fr. Alessandro and my uncle, who many years before had been the first Pilipino PIME priest.” Then he spent years in the seminary in Tagaytay in the Philippines, and finally, from 2014, in Monza, Italy. It was there that the memories of childhood resurfaced. “I thought of that family that had helped me. I wondered where they were, what they did for a living.” In the end, the young man recently contacted the PIME Mission Center in Milan and, having obtained the information he was looking for all this time. When he felt ready, he got in touch with his old sponsors. “It was a great and moving experience,” he says. “The ‘mother’ still remembered me. We talked on the phone and I hope that, on the occasion of my diaconate, we will finally embrace each other.” A very special type of “family reunion” indeed!