01/23/2012 07:31 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

How Our Words and Actions Change the Lives of Children

As the president and CEO of Compassion International, the world's largest Christian child development organization working to release children from poverty, I've noticed that with each child I encounter, there's power and opportunity to build up... or sadly, to tear down. A life can be literally launched with as little as a single word, an uplifting comment, a well-timed hug, a tender prayer, a compliment, the holding of a frightened hand, or the gentle wiping of a tear -- all in just a minute.

So who was it for you? What did they say? What did they do? Who hurt you so profoundly that you vowed never to make anyone feel the way they made you feel? Who believed in you before you believed in yourself?

For me, it was my father that first believed in me. He changed my life in one moment, one sentence, at the age of 14. My family had just arrived from Africa -- the only home I had ever known -- to the United States. While in Africa, I lost nearly half of my village friends to measles, malaria, smallpox, hunger, or snakebite. I had cried myself to sleep hundreds of nights after we buried my childhood buddies.

Now stepping off the gangplank, I was a lost soul in this new and foreign place. I had been torn from a gentle African village to step a month later into the biggest, most intimidating metropolis known to humanity. I was shell-shocked.

A man was driving us to a church service one of those first days. My father was in the passenger seat, and I sat alone in the back. The driver glanced my way and said the familiar words, "So, Wesley, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

After a long, awkward pause, my father came to my rescue. "I've been watching Wesley for a long time," he said. "He has seen a lot of pain and a lot of suffering. He has a big heart... he loves helping people who are hurting."

I remember thinking, Really? Is that who I am? Is that what matters most to me? That was the end of the conversation, but not the end of the thought. In fact, it was the beginning for me. Now in this minute, the tapestry of my life got turned over. The knots and tangles from the backside of the needlework fell into a pattern that suddenly made sense. I was launched!

Every life option now found meaning and purpose as it was put to the test of "How does it help people? If it doesn't, then is it even worth doing?"

Eventually, I found the ministry of Compassion International, where I could pour all my passion into my calling, my purpose, my mission. My father's words echoed through the corridors of my life from that minute forward. To this day, I wear my father's wedding ring. It prompts me to remember my calling and ask myself, "What can I do in this moment to help people around me, around the world?" Trust me, moments matter -- for a lifetime.

These pivotal moments come seldom in life. If you are blessed enough to live out your full "threescore and ten years," you will have been given, from birth to death, the gift of nearly 37 million minutes. Most rush by in a blur as the years flow. But some, maybe just a handful, stand out like beacons in the darkness, forever etched in your memory, defining who you are and what you do.

So how do you begin to speak powerfully into the lives of your children? How about the children you encounter in your community, at church or elsewhere?

The first step on the journey is to pause and remember the "just a minute" moments of our own lives. Before eagerly reaching out to others, you may need to start by reaching back into yourself. You cannot pass on what you have not received. Pick one that stands out -- why did it matter? How were you affected by it? Has it made you a better person? Or has it wounded you deeply?

For joyous memories, give thanks -- both to the Lord for orchestrating the moment and to the person who launched your life. For excruciating memories, forgive the one that hurt you. Once you have come to grips with your own memories, you are ready to reach out to the children God brings into your life. You have been equipped with your own childhood journey, either building on the positive or overcoming the negative, good or bad, tobless any child God places before you.

You don't need another day of training. You, having been a child yourself, know all you need to know. You know deep in your heart what is needed. Your mission begins with the very next child you encounter. Say hello, give a high five, a hug or say encouraging words. What you do doesn't have to be profound, just loving. It doesn't have to last a lifetime -- but it might.

Wess Stafford is president and CEO of Compassion International and author of 'Just a Minute.'