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BARRIERS OVERCOME BY COMPASSION

When a caring family is moved by their own challenges to reach out to a boy in need, an amazing kinship develops.



Clockwise from left, Santos, 15, spends time with his sponsors, Dalton, 16, and Dalton’s mother, Colleen. They met at the Unbound program center in southern Guatemala.

June 15, 2020 | STORY

Two boys who are deaf build a bond across the miles

Colleen and Travis Green understand the barriers faced by families with children who have special needs. That understanding has nurtured within them, as it does with many caring people, a desire to help others in similar circumstances.

That’s why the Arizona couple decided to sponsor Santos, now 15, who lives in Guatemala. Santos, like two of the Green’s four sons, is deaf.

“When we picked Santos,” Colleen said, “I wanted to pick a Deaf child because I felt that our family and his family would have an extra special sort of kinship. And we do. There are similar challenges we face. … I thought if we could help just one Deaf child with education and other needs, that in some small way we could help break down those barriers that Deaf people face.”

The Greens sponsored Santos when he was 6 years old. He’s a year younger than Dalton, their oldest son, who is also deaf. From the beginning of their relationship, Colleen had a future visit in mind for her and Dalton to meet their sponsored friend.

“On [Dalton’s] 15th birthday in 2018, I finally felt he was ready,” she said, “so I baked him a cake and decorated it with airplanes and enough letters to spell Guatemala. He had to solve the puzzle to figure out where he was going.”

That summer, Colleen and Dalton flew to Guatemala on an awareness trip. They gathered, along with other travelers, at the Unbound program center in San Lucas Toliman, in the southern part of the country on the shores of Lake Atitlan. As they sat in the gym during the welcome ceremony, they could see Santos and his family in the stands.

“Dalton said, ‘I'm not sure why, Mom, but I feel like crying,’” Colleen recalled. “I felt that way, too. It was a nervous excitement and something we had waited [to happen] for a long time.”

When the two families finally met, they were surprised and gratified to learn that, despite the differences in the versions of sign language each had learned, they were able to communicate.

“It is often said that when Deaf people meet each other for the first time, there is an instant connection and bond,” Colleen said. “I didn't think that would apply to two Deaf teens from two different countries, but this principle absolutely applied.”


Sponsorship makes a difference

For children and adults with special needs, having a sponsor often means more flexibility for individuals in getting the support they need, and the type and level of support can vary widely. There are more than 6,500 sponsored persons in Latin America, Africa and Asia with special needs, including individuals with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, various mental, sensory and physical disabilities, and other conditions. At this writing, 275 were waiting for sponsors.

Lorna Flores serves on Unbound’s Sponsor Services team and works with sponsors, like the Greens, whose own experiences with special needs lead them to help others with similar challenges.

“They know by experience what it’s like to have a disadvantage, even more when poverty is a huge obstacle,” Flores said. “They are kind, they are patient, they understand and, to me, it’s always a joy to serve them.”

Santos exemplifies the difference a sponsor can make for someone with special needs.

“When we met with the family,” Colleen said, “Santos' dad (also named Santos) expressed that some of the funds we send support the fee to attend the special needs school, and also transportation. During the school year, Santos gets on a bus at 6 in the morning and comes home at 6 in the evening. The family stated they would not be able to support the weekly cost of transportation on their own.”


From left, Dalton, 16, gets to know his sponsored friend Santos, 15, on an Unbound Awareness Trip in Guatemala. The boys, both deaf, bonded right away, according to Dalton’s mother.

Unbound’s program allows families with special needs to tailor benefits to the unique needs of their child or older adult, International Program Director Melissa Velazquez said.

“Sometimes that means the support of the social worker to navigate alternative education options, or accessing a wheelchair or paying for needed therapies,” Velazquez said. “In most Unbound communities, special needs participants and their parents, who frequently experience more extreme isolation, are integrated into regular mothers groups where they can experience social and emotional support.”

Colleen said she was thankful to learn more about how Unbound operates while in Guatemala.

“As a community health nurse, we always talk about social determinants of health,” she said. “Our health is not only impacted by the lifestyle choices we make, it is impacted by our level of health literacy, our access to health care and the environment around us. You might assume your [sponsorship] money is only being spent on that child, but really you are helping an entire community to stand up out of poverty.”

The Greens look forward to an even deeper investment in the Unbound community in the years to come.

 

“Since the trip,” Colleen said, “we have sponsored another child, Leon, who lives in Kenya. He is the same age as my second son, Casimir. In a few years, I plan to take Casimir on a trip to Kenya to meet Leon. I hope to be able to sponsor two more children that are [sons] Brennen and Jude's age.

“We love and cherish our partnership with this organization.”

Their time in Guatemala had a profound effect on the Greens. Colleen was especially moved by the gratitude they received from Santos and his parents as they parted.

“Up until that moment,” she said, “I didn't really realize how impactful our sponsorship is to their family.”