Visits to sponsored children
When Eileen Fernandes-Smith planned a trip to West Africa, she was excited about including a visit with her sponsored child, Sidonie in Benin. Eileen has been sponsoring Sidonie since she was four years old. After a decade of writing letters back and forth, it was time the two met face-to-face.
Eileen soon learned that a visit to a sponsored child is much more than a brief meeting – it's a special event that involves the entire community.
View a slideshow of Eileen's visit to Sidonie's community.
/ Eileen's first stop is at the Plan Office in Couffo, Benin
/ The long dirt road that leads to Sidonie's remote villaget
/ Eileen meets her sponsored child, Sidonie, for the first time.
/ Sidonie, Eileen and Ursule from Plan Benin enjoy a few quiet moments together
/ Sidonie's father makes a speech welcoming Eileen to their village and expressing his appreciation for sponsoring Sidonie
/ Sidonie reads a heart-warming speech she wrote to Eileen, thanking her for all her years of support
/ Everyone wants to meet the guest of honour, including the village chief
/ Eileen is guided on a walking tour of the village where she gets to see what typical homes look like in rural Benin
/ Eileen feasts on a delicious meal prepared by Sidonie and her family
/ After lunch, Eileen meets Sidonie's entire family and poses for a group photo.
/ Eileen accepts gifts from Sidonie and her family – cassava and oranges
/ Eileen has the opportunity to see some of Plan's projects in action
/ Sidonie proudly shows Eileen her secondary school
/ Eileen says, 'I would recommend visiting, because the experience is one you will never forget!
The start of a journey
Her journey began when Plan staff picked her up from her hotel and drove three hours to reach the Plan office nearest to where Sidonie lives.
Eileen was greeted by the office manager, Ursule, who explained Plan's role in Benin and the several projects Plan has initiated in the area. It was only then that she realized how vast the area is that the local Plan office services. She also noticed six women sitting amid stacks of papers. Ursule explained that these dedicated volunteers manage all correspondence between sponsors and sponsored children.
"I was able to witness first hand the work that Plan does in the community; the important and sometimes difficult roles that the district, field and community leaders play; the vast and sometimes remote areas they travel to, to effectively promote the various programs. Visiting my sponsored child helped me understand the scope of Plan's efforts" she said.
Next, it was back into the truck to travel to Sidonie's village over a bumpy dirt road.
As they drove into the village, excited children came running and crowded around the car. The women of the village were waiting to greet Eileen, the first sponsor ever to visit. One woman poured water on the ground in front of her in a traditional welcome and a sign of peace
Face-to-face with her sponsored child
Finally, Eileen spotted Sidonie, who was waiting for her with flowers.
"When I met Sidonie, neither of us knew quite what to do. It was just so emotional!" says Eileen. "So, we hugged, held hands and walked in a procession led by the women of the village, singing and dancing."
Eileen and Sidonie spoke with each other through a translator provided by Plan. Eileen learned that Sidonie has plans to stay in school and eventually go on to become a teacher.
A community event
The two sat together and enjoyed a community performance of singing and dance. Eileen was also introduced to other sponsored children in the village.
There were several speeches by the community leader and others including Sidonie, but the most memorable was by Sidonie's father who, overcome with emotion, thanked Eileen for her support over the years and giving Sidonie the opportunity of an education.
"It encouraged me that her father was also supporting her to stay in school," said Eileen. "He said to her, 'you stay away from the boys'!"
After the official welcome from the community, Eileen visited the compound where Sidonie lives with her extended family. She enjoyed a lunch with the family, and was presented with a gift of cassava and oranges.
After lunch, she had the opportunity to tour various projects that Plan had completed in the community, including a well that provides safe, clean drinking water to the village.
"It was rewarding to see the significant difference I've made in her life and in the community, especially in such a remote place!" Eileen said.
"I would highly recommend visiting for other Plan sponsors, because the experience is life-changing and one you will never forget!"