A Real Connection

While traveling in Mongolia, Holt donor Mary Buckley sees first-hand how sponsors change the lives of children — inspiring her to become a sponsor, too. 

My husband, Mike, and I adopted our children from Korea through Holt. Our son, Christian, came in 1988 at 13 months old, and our daughter, Kim, followed in 1990 at 8 months old. At 2 years old, Christian was diagnosed with a cleft palate, requiring corrective surgery and speech therapy for many years. Kim arrived with previously undiagnosed medical conditions, including Turner syndrome.

At a time when most children were coming home to their adoptive families in as few as three months, we also sponsored children in Korea. It seemed that as quickly as we put a photo on the fridge, that child would be adopted. Updated information was rare because of the rapid turnaround, and we did not have the opportunity for a closer connection.

Mike and I had our hands full tending to our children’s medical issues, our careers and graduate school. We had to cut back on expenses, and Holt sponsorship was one expense that we trimmed. In the years since, I have been fortunate to travel with Holt to Korea three times — in 1994, 2010 and 2016. I have enjoyed seeing Holt-supported programs in Korea, and I obviously have a strong family connection to Korea. However, I did not sponsor again, perhaps because I never connected enough with a specific child to resume sponsorship.

But after all those years, that was about to change.

In December 2016, on a Holt Gift Team trip to Korea, I had the pleasure of meeting David Kaufman, another team member. A jovial man with a New York accent who loves to get down on the floor and play with kids, he is an instant magnet for children. I loved watching him interact with children wherever we went. A few months later, in New York, I met up with David again and over dinner, he shared more details about his sponsorships for children in Holt’s care. I heard about his extended stays in Korea to visit and advocate for children, saw his photos of the kids, and I heard how he keeps up with the children’s progress. He truly loves these children as if they were his own, and after dinner, I found myself thinking, “Wow, you can really go places with sponsorship beyond just putting the child’s photo on the fridge.” My conversation with David convinced me that, unlike the days when the fast adoption timeframes for sponsored kids left no chance of a real connection, it was now possible to do just that.

Today, in fact, most children in Holt sponsorship live in the care of their birth families. Sponsors support these children for months, sometimes years, while their families work toward stability and self-reliance.

A few weeks later, in May 2017, David and I traveled together to Mongolia as part of a Holt vision trip. We donated funds to provide “gers” — traditional Mongolian homes — for vulnerable families, and even helped build the gers. Meeting the families and spending a day building a ger for them was an experience like no other. That is, until the day we visited the Red Stone School bordering the city dump and the destitute families living nearby.

When Mary met Gerel and her daughter, Gerel was six months pregnant and severely malnourished.

We walked on a cold day near a ravine strewn with trash and entered a lone ger to visit a family identified as one who might benefit from Holt’s support. Inside, we met Gerel*, a malnourished woman in her 20s. She told us how she lives there with Erhi*, her tiny, 3-year-old daughter, three brothers and an abusive boyfriend. I was amazed how easily Gerel told the details of her difficult life to a group of foreigners who gathered in her ger. We heard how she was six months pregnant, which seemed unbelievable as there was no sign of even the tiniest baby bump on her frail body. As she spoke, I recognized something familiar about her speech — the same nasal speech and difficulty with sounds as our son, Christian. Turns out she, too, had a cleft palate.

I was so mesmerized listening to Gerel that I did not interact with Erhi. But I was next to another team member who did, and little Erhi entertained us with her smiles and laughed as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

Gerel agreed to leave with Erhi and receive care at a medical facility Holt partners with in Ulaanbaatar. I knew immediately that Erhi was a child that I must sponsor. As soon as we left, I said to David, “I want to sponsor that little girl.” David said, “Talk to Courtney. Today. She will make it happen.”

Mary’s sponsored child, Erhi.

I couldn’t wait any longer. I left David and asked Courtney, a Holt staff member on the trip, if I could sponsor Erhi. I was beyond thrilled when she said yes, because finally I had the sponsorship connection with a child that I had always hoped for. As it turned out, our team had also donated enough funds to provide a new home for Gerel, while David and I teamed up to provide furnishings — ensuring Gerel and her daughter would never have to return to her abusive situation.

When my sponsorship packet arrived, there were photos, a magnetic fridge frame and so much more information than what I used to receive. The packet cemented the relationship. Now, it is official that I am responsible for this child, and I know first-hand that the sponsorship will go a long way to meet her needs.

Not long after, I learned that another teammate came forward to sponsor Gerel’s new baby — creating yet another connection as I now share the bond of helping this family with my fellow teammate. We have emailed each other about how important it was to us to have been there, seen the family, and to know the desperate situation first-hand.

After receiving treatment at a Holt-supported medical care center, Gerel delivered a healthy girl. Here, the young family stands beside a Holt Mongolia social worker inside their new home, provided by another Holt donor.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to travel to the countries where Holt works and personally choose a child to sponsor or hear from social workers and caregivers how greatly sponsors are valued. In most cases, an online photo is all that is available. So I encourage everyone to spend a little time with the photos, read whatever information is available about the child, the program and the country, and know that sponsors are appreciated beyond belief.

Mary Buckley | Omaha, Nebraska

* names changed

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