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Reflections on a Milestone with ChildFund

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In 1938, at a time when many Americans were fixated on the escalating tensions in Europe, while at the same time resolute that the country not become entangled in distant affairs, one Virginia man was focused on getting involved in another part of the world. Japan's incursions into China had made orphans of countless Chinese children, and Dr. J. Calvitt Clarke, a Presbyterian minister with a talent for fundraising, was determined to help.

Clarke was a veteran promoter of relief efforts dating back to the First World War, and what particularly stoked his compassion was the plight of innocent children. Reading about the situation in China -- with so many children in desperate straits -- Clarke launched a campaign to help. But unlike his past efforts, this one had a different twist, one that would tug the heartstrings of many Americans who shared Clarke's empathy for children, despite their distance from our shores.

Clarke's simple strategy was to connect donors on a one-to-one basis with the children receiving their help. These sponsorships -- "adoptions," as he first called them -- were so successful that they formed the basis of a new organization: China's Children Fund.

Seventy-five years, and more than 5 billion dollars later, the organization that began in a minister's home in Richmond, Virginia, has become one of the global leaders in helping many of the world's poorest children and their families. Today, ChildFund International works in 30 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas on strategies designed to disrupt the cycle of poverty and bring hope to hundreds of thousands of needy children.

Much has changed in the past 75 years. Not only has the organization's geographic footprint expanded beyond China, but in the 1960s, the focus shifted from orphanages to children living at home, along with their families. That strategic move was instrumental in enabling ChildFund to attack poverty at its source, and expand our influence beyond immediate families. By helping entire communities create the conditions where children can grow and thrive, we are multiplying the impact of our work and engendering the kind of change that can take root and propagate from one generation to the next.

Our emphasis on personal sponsorships has not changed. Last year, more than 1.2 million letters were exchanged between sponsors and their children. Even so, the ways in which those sponsorship dollars are invested have evolved so that we are able to help even those children who are without sponsors. Today, sponsors' monthly contributions do not go directly to children, but are pooled with other donations to support ChildFund's work in sponsored children's communities. This exponential effect of sponsors' dollars helps improve the lives of sponsored and non-sponsored children alike. Importantly, these funds give us the capacity to instill changes that lead to greater self-sufficiency, enhance children's access to education and create healthier communities.

Last year, more than a half million children were sponsored through ChildFund International, and if the past is a prologue to the future, a great many of them will benefit from the support they are receiving, to make lives for themselves beyond what they could have imagined. Not long ago, the ChildFund car I was riding in during a visit to Kenya was stopped by a local policeman -- not for some traffic violation, but to thank me for the 11 years of support that ChildFund had given the officer as a child. He credited his success with his ability to rise out of poverty.

Another example started 25 years ago, when John Kulu, shoeless but determined to succeed, studied under the shade of a tree in his village in Uganda. Today, he is a prosecuting attorney for the government there.

Then there is Chun-Wai Chan, a Chinese refugee whose 10-year sponsorship by Doris Hawkins helped sustain him while growing up in a Hong Kong orphanage until a relative arranged for him to immigrate to New York. He studied English diligently, graduated in the top of his high school class, and eventually earned scholarships to Princeton and Harvard Medical School. Today, Dr. Chan is a retired cardiologist living in Fresno, still grateful to his ChildFund sponsor.

Just how many children has ChildFund helped over the past 75 years? The answer is impossible to know. So many children that have received our support have, in turn, helped countless others. Joel John Roberts, a formerly sponsored child from Korea, founded a nonprofit organization in Southern California that fights homelessness. Joe Brings Plenty, a sponsored child in one of ChildFund's U.S. programs, is today teaching Lakota culture in a school on the reservation. And Dr. Chan, who grew up in that Hong Kong orphanage, created a foundation that supports orphans like himself. The ripple effect of sponsorship is endless.

As we mark this milestone and reflect back on the three-quarters of a century since Dr. Clarke looked beyond our borders to assist children in need, we can look with a great deal of pride at the progress we have made in helping lift children out of the grips of poverty. Our sponsors, whose hearts are big enough to make an impact in distant places and on children they will likely never meet, have helped to make all of that possible.

With 75 years under our belts, the good news is that we are making progress -- tangible, measurable progress -- and learning every day how to replicate and broaden that success. And yet, the sobering reality is that there are more than 400 million children throughout the world living in extreme poverty. As we pause to mark our 75th anniversary, we can only do so ever so briefly. We still have much work to do.