Written by Renata Lewis
Milena Jimenez Saunders is living the life of an accomplished, industrious young Canadian.
She’s an early childhood educator, supporting kids with special needs in Toronto. She’s a TikTok influencer
and a happy newlywed with a budding ministry on YouTube.
But there was a time when life looked a lot different for her.
Milena was born and raised with five siblings in Mesetas, a small town in Colombia. Her parents were farmers, and life was overall simple and beautiful.
But ongoing conflict in Colombia eventually made its way to her peaceful town, forcing Milena’s family and many others
to flee. Milena’s family escaped to Bogotá, the capital, where their lives took a turn for the worse.
Migrants in Colombia walk down a road, in search of safety. Violent conflict in a region often pushes people to flee for their safety, often to other parts of their country or other countries entirely. Photo: Linda Cruz and Sebastian Portilla
With only farming as work experience, her parents struggled to find employment; she and her siblings had to beg for food.
“We couldn’t just go into the backyard and pick fruits and vegetables to make a meal like we could in Mesetas,” Milena said.
She said her older siblings would go to a market in the city with large bags and ask for food, while she and her younger brother would spend time looking through garbage for food and toys.
”The beautiful thing about Colombia is that even if a person has nothing,” she said, “they find a way to give something.”
On a good day, they would come home with big bags full of food. On hard days, dinner would be raw potatoes.
“It’s amazing how good anything tastes when you’re starving,” she said.
Having to beg and scrounge for food, Milena and her siblings became malnourished.
“We didn’t think anything was wrong. It was normal where we were living, because every other family and all the other kids were doing the same thing.” she said.
A fresh start through child sponsorship
The turning point for Milena and her family came when her parents encountered World Vision through a family friend.
“Life was different after that,” she said. “We didn’t have to think about finding food, or any of the basic needs that we were so used to worrying about anymore. World Vision became home, a place where we as children felt safe, happy and were fed.”
Milena and her siblings were always a team in surviving hardship and poverty in Colombia. Photo courtesy of Milena Jimenez Saunders.
In addition to benefitting from World Vision’s nutrition programs, Milena and her younger brother became sponsored children. Her sponsor was Sam Prior, a young woman from Australia. Even now, Milena keeps one of the letters she received from Sam.
“My brain is still stuck on the fact that someone on the other side of the world actually cared about me,” she said, “because it makes you wonder: how do you truly care for someone that you’ve never met, insomuch that you’ll even take the time to write to them?”
Milena is now in her twenties and still cherishes Sam’s letter—proof of the impact child sponsors’ encouragement has on their children. Photo courtesy of Milena Jimenez Saunders.
“I was just one of the millions of little girls living in poverty. Many people wouldn’t care. They don’t need to care,” Milena said. “But Sam did. So, I hope one day I’ll have the opportunity to meet her and express how much her care meant to me and how much it inspires me now.”
Paying kindness forward
Milena says she owes much of who she is to her experiences in Colombia.
“The woman I am today is very connected to who I was then and how I grew up. I love and care for people a lot. And I think it’s because I had someone who cared about me.”
The impact of care from many in her life as a child is what influenced her decision to become an early childhood educator.
“I wanted to play my part in positively shaping children’s lives,” she said.
Now working as an educator for children with special needs, Milena has come a long way since living in poverty as a child. Photos courtesy of Milena Jimenez Saunders.
As someone who lived in a low-income country before coming to Canada, Milena said her experience of poverty gave her a perspective of gratitude.
“Poverty is very unfortunate, but it doesn’t equal unhappiness. You can still be the happiest person with very little… But the truth is when you don’t have a lot, you’re able to see and be grateful for what you have,” she said. “It also makes you very close to the people around you. You don’t attach yourself to things because you know that all things eventually disappear. But if you ever visited our communities [in Colombia], you would notice that families and neighbours are much closer. People stick together because it brings more happiness than material things.”
Child sponsorship in a community like this one in Guajira, Colombia, means opening doors for safe places to learn and play, nutrition programs and parenting workshops for vulnerable families. Photo: Erica Bohorquez
If she had an opportunity to speak to the little girls in her home country, Milena would give them words of encouragement.
“I would tell them: you’re not stuck. You don’t have to be trapped in a certain mindset, regardless of your background or where you come from. You are bigger than that, and your God is so much bigger than that. If you hold onto him and have faith, you’ll look back one day and be amazed at how far He’s taken you,” she said.
Milena’s sponsor had a remarkable impact on her life.
“My sponsor, Sam, with her giving heart and loving spirit, has inspired me to be that for someone in my life,” says Milena. “I want to pass on her kindness, and hopefully whoever I pass it on to will pass it on as well. And slowly, one person at a time, we’ll make the world a little bit better.”