January 19, 2015

The power of words

Lisa and Joe, Unbound sponsors
Lisa and Joe Brisley, Unbound sponsors from Oregon.

Lisa Brisley felt the worry in the words written by the Ugandan mothers.

A letter from the Atawola Tabanja Mothers Group told Lisa and her husband, Joe, that the teenager they had been sponsoring for eight years, Ivan, wasn't participating in the program.

"Ivan has been walking with us for [a long time] but we are now worried because we no longer see him and hear about him," the mothers wrote in their letter, translated by a social worker from their native Luganda language. "He is not willing to continue with us."

The Brisleys, who are from Oregon, weren't ready to give up on Ivan. They had sponsored him since he was 9 years old, after seeing his photo and family profile at a church presentation.

They wondered what could have happened to cause the 17-year-old to turn his back on something that had meant so much to him. They decided they would try to find out.

The Brisleys wrote to Unbound headquarters in Kansas City and enclosed letters for Ivan and the mothers group. The letters were part of a series of communications that would involve the couple, staff members in Kansas City and Uganda, the mothers group and Ivan.

"Thank you for all your help in connecting us with Ivan, even if it is one last time," Lisa wrote in her letter to Unbound. Lisa's letter to the mothers group thanked them for "taking the time to write us such a genuine, heartfelt letter."

"We could sense your worry because you have not seen or heard from him as this is a genuine concern," Lisa wrote.

In her letter to Ivan, Lisa asked him to reconsider his decision and rejoin the sponsorship program.

"We know that life can be very hard and a daily struggle," she wrote. "But, life is also very beautiful when we focus on our blessings and the love in our lives. …

"Love is the most powerful energy in the universe … it is limitless. Love has no boundaries ... we love you from across the world. … we love you like a son.

"Please write to us soon and let us know that you are well and that you have received this letter. If you are not well, you need to reach out for help. There are people who will help you. …

"You are in our hearts and prayers. Please write us and tell us the truth of how you are."

The truth came in a letter from Ivan a few months later. Lisa's letter had reached him thanks to the efforts of the staff and mothers in Uganda.

Ivan's reply said he had gotten involved with friends who encouraged him to leave school and made him think no one else cared about him. He was living without hope.

Ivan reads a letter from his sponsor
Ivan keeps a photo of his sponsors on hand as he reads their letters.

"I am sorry to tell you that I decided not to write to you and I kept away from [Unbound] all that time," Ivan wrote.

But after getting Lisa's letter, he had a change of heart.

"I made a mistake to think that no one loves me and cares about me," he wrote.

Ivan comes from a family of 10 and is the second youngest. His father died when he was a small boy, leaving his mother with the sole responsibility of taking care of him and his siblings.

"Life was not easy," Ivan recalled in an interview at his family's home in Uganda. "We sometimes went hungry and my mother was not able to afford school fees."

Things changed when the Brisleys sponsored him and his school fees were covered.

Last year, though, Ivan began to get off track. His mother had gone to take care of his ailing uncle, and Ivan and his siblings were at home alone.

"I felt staying at home was boring," he said. "It was more interesting being around my friends."

He felt proud to be part of the group.

"At that time I felt good being around them," Ivan said. "I felt that I belonged. They understood me and we had so much fun together."

The boys encouraged him to drop out of school.

"They said that being in school is not important," Ivan said.

Lisa's letter gave him a lot to think about.

"At first I felt annoyed because I was feeling fed up with school and did not want anyone telling me to go back," Ivan recalled. "Then at night, as I went to bed, I took some time to think over the situation. …

"My sponsors had done their best to pay for my school fees and I was letting them down and my mother, too. Lisa's concern for me overwhelmed me."

Ivan decided to return to the sponsorship program and school. He wants to be an auto mechanic or even a mechanical engineer.

Ivan writing a letter
Ivan writes a letter to his sponsors.

While Ivan, now 18, admits that his studies are "a bit hard" and he's struggling some, mostly in biology class, he's happy to be back in school.

"My life makes more sense now that I have a vision and hope to attain it," Ivan said.

Lisa and Joe are grateful to the community that reached out to Ivan to remind him there were people who loved and cared about him, who wanted him to succeed and were there to support him.

"With grateful hearts, we would like to thank the Atawola Tabanja Mothers Group and project staff for the love and support they have given to Ivan throughout his journey at Unbound," Lisa said. "They were instrumental in reuniting us with Ivan when he was temporarily away from Unbound."

Many young people come to a point in their lives when they reach a crossroads. They may face a decision to continue in school or drop out to work and help support their families. Some fall prey to gangs or other negative influences. Some become discouraged and simply give up on school.

Not all return to the sponsorship program like Ivan did.

Support from sponsors and Unbound helps young people choose education and the long-term benefits it affords them and their families.

Ivan's story shows what is possible when relationships are formed and a community comes together to rally around a young person who is struggling.

It also shows that letters can be life-changing. Young people need positive voices in their lives. Lisa's letter to Ivan expressed how she and her husband felt, and that broke through.

Lisa stressed the importance of letters.

"A letter creates a personal, emotional connection that delivers love and hope to your sponsored friend and vice versa," she said.

"Writing a check for your sponsored friend transforms his or her life. Writing a letter transforms his or her heart."

Give encouragement to someone in need. Sponsor today.