Charity can be a tough business. As Larissa MacFarquhar writes in her best seller Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, “The life of a zealous do-gooder is a kind of human sublime…confronting it, you see its formidable nobility, and at the same time, you sense uncomfortably that you would not survive it for long.”
That sublime ambition is what Children Incorporated tries to bring to its donors and supporters – a sense of connecting someone who can give with someone who so desperately needs help. Since 1964, Children Incorporated has extended its reach to over 250,000 children, spread across 23 countries and through over 300 programs and outreach projects. Operating without religious or political affiliation, and with a lean staff of 16 located at headquarters in Virginia, sponsorship donations and volunteer support are the lifeblood of the organization.
For people like Shelley Callahan, Director of Development for Children Incorporated, the everyday work of global charity relief is less of a superhuman exercise in sublime divinity than it is simply magnifying the many generous actions of donors, supporters, and others who can only give “a little.” “Working for Children Incorporated has made me a much more considerate and patient person,” Callahan observes, “but it’s also made me realize that the most important thing anyone can do is give back. You can do something small, and make a huge difference.”
Since it was founded by Jeanne Clarke Wood in 1964, Children Incorporated has engaged in direct sponsorship of specific children. After witnessing poverty on a trip to Guatemala, Wood began writing letters to friends and colleagues asking for donations that would specifically match them with one of the 95 children she met on her travels. Since then, all of the organization’s work has revolved around connecting donors to individual children. As the organization reaches these children all around the world, they also find ways to engage in other local projects and relief efforts that help improve the children’s lives from the outside as well.
Direct sponsorship is behind one of Children Incorporated’s current high-profile projects, inspired by the 20th anniversary of the self-help best-seller Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. The book proved a boom for Children Incorporated in 1997 when Carlson wrote about giving to charity, “There are many fine agencies to choose from, but my personal favorite is Children Incorporated…the experience has brought tremendous joy and satisfaction to my family.” “Dr. Carlson’s mention was one of the most meaningful things to ever happen to our organization,” says Ron Carter, President and CEO of Children Incorporated. “Thousands of impoverished children were helped as a result.” Now, Carlson’s widow Kristine is continuing that legacy, partnering with Children Incorporated to generate 2000 new sponsorships, with the Richard Carlson Memorial Foundation pledging $5000 in matching donations.
For Callahan, working on behalf of Children Incorporated involves travel to points near (Appalachia, the inner city, and the reservation) and far (the rainforests of Bolivia and Southeast Asia). Callahan not only manages the organization’s communications, but is the social correspondent for the web series “On the Road,” where she is able to highlight individual and community success stories and bring evidence of the effectiveness of donor support into the digital spotlight.
Her job also means celebrating the recent accomplishments of Children Incorporated’s successful community based projects, such as the recent effort to add seven classrooms to a school in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. “It’s easy to see the impact of these projects on the lives of individuals,” explains Callahan, “but we also see how the entire community benefits.” The new classrooms, for example, meant that there could be adult literacy classes offered at night for the first time, and members of the community have pooled their resources to buy AC units for the new buildings. “We can claim that our reach is more than twice as much as the individual children we directly sponsor, because it always includes siblings, family members, neighbors, and others who benefit.”
The same goes for another project in Bolivia, Villa Emelia, a home for women who are transitioning from living on the streets. “It’s a place to stay, with their children, as well as a factory that makes garments and school uniforms to give them new job skills and work towards sustainable living situations.” The Catholic nuns who have partnered with Children Incorporated in the region have also developed a program where they purchase property that the women can pay the mortgage on as they earn. “They had eight plots of land that were ready to go, and we were able to step in with the funding needed to actually build new homes.”
Callahan explains that each new project must be carefully planned and vetted before donors are approached for support. “We always have a general idea about what we can do, but we need to assess everything before we fundraise, and then look to our existing donor base and ask them is this what they would want to support?” Looking towards visits to Sri Lanka and India this summer, Callahan says that recent efforts are geared towards broader environmental issues like clean water solutions, as well as the more traditional efforts of providing shelter, clothing, and basics for sponsored individual children.
While many efforts are focused overseas –such as providing growing shoes and group homes to children in Costa Rica and Nicaragua – Children Incorporated also has projects in several states, notably in the Appalachian region. “We have a lot of coordinators in Kentucky that have made for a great partnership, but we also have programs for children in Arizona and New Mexico, and inner cities like Detroit, and locally in Richmond and Washington DC,” Carter explains. “Most people think of urban poverty, but rural poverty in the mountains is a real challenge. Beyond the beautiful scenery, you have kids who live miles away from their schools, where the only transportation might be the school bus, with roads that are inaccessible in the winter. Many of these kids live with extended family, separated from their parents because of abuse or neglect.” While American children, unlike their foreign peers, are at least guaranteed some sort of education and basic health care, they still lack many of the basics. One of Children Incorporated’s more successful programs is “Backpack Feeding” – literally stuffing kids’ backpacks full of easy-to-make food on a Friday, since they might not have access to food until school resumes on Monday. “Poverty looks different in the U.S.,” says Carter, “but no child is better or worse off – poverty has an impact wherever it is. Our programs remind kids that someone is looking out for them when they don’t have that anywhere else in their life.”
That brings Callahan back to the central point of the mission she shares with Children Incorporated: the life of charity isn’t at all about realizing the potential of her own goodness, but simply a way to facilitate and magnify the generosity of others. “There’s so much that each person can do for a child’s confidence,” she reflects. “I didn’t realize how privileged I was to have parents who kept me safe and educated and encouraged me to do things, until I meet children that didn’t have that. We don’t have to be superheroes to make a difference – I don’t do anything out of the ordinary except to tell these stories and be a voice for the voiceless. We just want people to understand that it’s very easy to give back, it’s important to do something outside of yourself, because every gesture you make in that regard, whether it’s for Children Incorporated or somewhere else, is very valuable.”
Grammy-award winning artist Rosanne Cash who has been a supporter of Children Incorporated for 30 years sums it up perfectly: “The personal attention to the children and programs is exceptional and rare, but what is really unique about Children Incorporated is that they know who they are. They have a vision for their best, most productive self; one that retains their uniqueness and effectiveness, and they are acting on realizing that vision. You can trust them. You will know you are truly helping real children, in real time, and you will know how every penny you give is spent.”