A Letter Writing Wordsmith

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Tips on writing your sponsored child from an expert 

Jennifer Brown’s letters have travelled around the world. As a long-time World Vision supporter, Jennifer has written consistently to her sponsored children. While in the country of Georgia, I visited one child whom the retired art teacher had sponsored and saw first-hand the letters he had collected from her. There were hundreds overflowing from bags. The child had kept each letter, which made sense: Each letter showed a level of craft and care indicative of a sponsor who has fun writing letters to her sponsored children.

Jennifer’s letters made it look easy, but we know that writing your sponsored child can be tricky. What to say? How to say it? I decided to email Jennifer to get some tips on writing to your sponsored child. Naturally, she wrote back. 

How would you describe yourself to others?
I'm a mother and art teacher, with a love of writing, art and education. I get along well with children—I think my sense of humour and what I find exciting hit arrested development around Grade 5! After leaving teaching due to an autoimmune disease, I moved from Montreal to the countryside and seaside of P.E.I., where I work in my studio illustrating children’s books.

What made you decide to start sponsoring?
When my daughters were growing up budgets were tight, but I began to sponsor for perspective. We sponsored a child in Bangladesh for 10 years, sending letters and drawings to her. When I left teaching, I returned to sponsorship with the idea of finding children who specifically expressed an interest in art, hoping to find some I could support with encouragement and guidance for their art. It seemed unlikely that a talented child in a developing community would have access to an art teacher. Most children responded to that very positively!

How would you describe your approach to writing sponsored children?
I think about what they would find funny or amazing about our life here. I smile while I'm writing as I would when having an enjoyable chat with a child in person. I ask questions which can't be answered with a simple yes or no, and answer them myself too, so it's an exchange of information. I avoid stories and pictures of materialism in my life (house, car) and of our society to keep a level playing field. (Besides, who says our consumerist, status-bound society is the better way to live?)

What tips would you offer to a sponsor who doesn't know what to write?
Show an interest. Ask the child to describe a normal day, school, family. In my first letter, I send a map and circle where I live and where they live so they can see it. Ask about favourites: food, colour, school activities, games, animals, friends. Check the child’s bio for favourite subjects and activities. Then exchange information—answer the same questions yourself. Tell them something funny that happened. Pets are often a good source for this. If you are writing to a child in a different climate, send photos of snow and icicles on windows, of children skating, tobogganing and making snowmen. Then ask about their seasons and what they do in them. Asking about the animals and birds in their area is fun, and telling them about moose, bears, deer, foxes and beavers is interesting to them. One boy loved a photo of a Beware of Moose sign on the Trans-Canada! I try to keep to one topic per letter. As you continue, you get to know them and you can respond to what they tell you. Something important to tell them is that mail takes time, so if they ask a question, the answer is probably in the letter after the next one—our letters pass each other in mid-air!

What’s the best gift to send a sponsored child?
Depends on the child. School supplies for doing homework are greatly appreciated. I send a pencil case with pencils, coloured pencils or markers, an eraser, a pencil sharpener, 6-inch ruler, roll of tape and child's scissors. It isn't costly, but they may be the only tape and scissors in the house! A pad and coloured pencil set are good at any age, provide pleasure and may result in your receiving some drawings. Balloons are good for little ones. If you can assess the size of the child through the photo, a T-shirt folds flat into an envelope. Warm socks or gloves for kids in cold climates are appreciated.

How much time do you take to write each letter to your sponsored children?
Some letters take only 15 minutes if I am describing a trip, a celebration or responding to their questions in a recent letter. It takes longer to include photos with notations, or to make illustrations. Some messages are important. A girl in Ecuador had learning disabilities and low a self-image. For her, I chose my words carefully, helping her with effective responses to bullies and with seeing herself in a better light. I answered her sad letters very carefully, sent uplifting books in Spanish written for girls on self-image and how to cope with life's difficulties.

My sponsored girl in El Salvador, Mariela, worked very diligently at school, but all her older sisters had had babies by 15 or 16. I spoke to her earnestly about boyfriends, not getting pregnant until high school was finished. She did it! Only now that she has graduated does she have a boyfriend.

How did you handle writing about tough topics, such as teen pregnancy?
As with my own children, tough topics simply come up, and that's when to address them. When Mariela sent me a photo of her with her sisters and their babies, I expressed delight at seeing them and praised the girls for their beautiful families. Then I said I could see that some day Mariela would also be a great mother. I told her that with my daughters I insisted they finish their educations, then get married if they chose to, then have a family. I said this pattern varies in different cultures, but that this way is good because you can support your family if you have to, and that's what happened to me. Because I finished my education first, I could support my family by teaching.

Were you worried how Mariela would react when you wrote her about tough topics?
She accepted this and responded positively because of the way it was approached and because of who she is. She thanked me for genuinely caring about her and her future, and pledged to finish her education (even math!).


A version of this article appears in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Childview.




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