Weatherford Democrat

October 30, 2012

Crafting compassion

Judy Sheridan

PARKER COUNTY — A Trinity Christian Academy family and the founders of Come Together Trading Company, which markets the products of poverty-stricken artisans worldwide, recently presented a gift and craft market.

The wares were exotic, fashioned by more than 200 craftsmen and craftswomen from 40 different countries, and buying them put money in the pockets of those who desperately need it.

But those who missed the market can still learn more about and help these people — which is what one local couple is trying to do.

For Tammy and Terry Marshall, founders of Come Together Trading Company, and Amy and David Smelley, a local couple who support a dozen children in Third World countries, the trigger to their own transformation was Compassion International.

The Christian organization matches children in some of the world’s poorest communities with sponsors worldwide, who pay $38 per month for educational opportunities, health care, hygiene training, food and Christian training.

The idea is not to give handouts, but to help break the cycle of poverty through education and microbusinesses.

The Marshall’s fair trade retail stores (one in Canton and one in Tyler) sprung from the devastation the couple witnessed when they traveled to Africa to meet a child they were sponsoring through Compassion, Deborah Allen, Trinity’s Gift & Craft Market chairwoman, said.

“They realized they had to make a difference,” she said. “In 2008, they were able to sell their recreational vehicle business and devote themselves full time to their goal of helping eliminate poverty and funding their Compassion children.”

Amy Smelley’s determination to make a difference began during the summer of 2007 when she attended a Point of Grace concert at McKinney Memorial Bible Church.

“Compassion promotes their program through Christian artists,” she said. “People feel like it’s a worthy charity because of who’s promoting it.”

During the intermission, Smelley, the mother of four boys: Riley, 15; Ty, 12; and Carter and Luke, 7-year-old twins, grabbed the information packet of 8-year-old Gideon from Ghana, impulsively deciding to become his sponsor. The two began to correspond.

“I got to be with him through difficult times,” she said. “His mother abandoned him and four others. They were traders, and she took all the items from their stand.”

Smelley said Gideon, and then his father, contracted malaria and Compassion paid for the treatment, as well as for restocking the little store. A church social worker trained the father to run it properly.

“They saved the father’s life and helped him support his family,” she said. “Otherwise, the children would have wound up in an orphanage. This is about keeping families together, releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.”

The more Smelley learned about Compassion — through Gideon and others she began to sponsor — the more she became convinced that the organization was the real deal.

Donors’ funds were well managed, she noted. Administrators were willing to go the extra mile to make it personal and relational.

“I went to Ethiopia in March of 2010 — I had five children there — and I met a little girl named Beminet, who grabbed my skirt and held her hands out to me. Compassion Colorado had to search for her packet; it was traveling with a Christian artist, but they got her for me.”

Smelley said she and other sponsors met their children at a hotel with a pool and a big lawn. They spent a few hours getting to know them there, playing ball and doing arts and crafts projects, then ate together at a restaurant.

Each child was accompanied by a parent and a worker from one of Compassion’s child development centers, located in local churches, she said. Translators were on hand as well.

“They allow you to bring a backpack of love — stuff for each child ­— but they give you guidelines; kids in poverty have nothing, and it can be overwhelming,” she said, “You take toys, underwear, socks, cooking supplies, sheets ...”

The culture is really different, Smelley said, and the children are not used to adult attention.

“It might be you don’t hug them,” she said. “One boy might have said two words to me, but he played with my son the whole time.”

The children in the Compassion program are required to stay in school and attend weekly Bible classes, Smelley said.

The organization is unapologetically Christian, she said, and has turned down millions of dollars from organizations that have offered to donate provided the teachings of Jesus are removed from the mission statement.

Sometimes, Muslims will threaten other Muslims who allow their children to take part, she said, causing them to withdraw, but that has not been the case with her two Muslim children. In fact, she has begun to develop a relationship with the father of 8-year-old Hanita Jamal.

“I’ve met him twice,” she said, “and it is interesting to learn where we are different and where we are the same.

“I’m not out to convert them, I’m out to love them and help them. It’s the Holy Spirit who calls them.”

People in America don’t really understand poverty, Smelley said. In other countries, people step over others who are dying of starvation in the street.

“Americans think poverty means you’re lazy,” she said. “But those in poverty lose all hope that their tomorrows can be different.”

When asked to relate a favorite experience, Smelley mentions watching some of “her” children encounter the ocean for the first time.

“In Ghana this summer, our kids met us at a beach. All the kids lived within 10 minutes of it, but they had never seen it before. They can’t afford the public transportation. It’s only 50 cents, but that’s poverty.

“The look on their faces when they saw the ocean ... at first they were terrified, then they began laughing and running in the water.”

For Smelley, sponsorship means much more than providing money. It’s getting to know the kids, visiting them, committing to their development and future success.

Smelley said one of the children she has sponsored has been accepted into Compassion’s Leadership Development Program, an elite group that is educated and groomed to assume leadership roles.

Smelley said she and her laid back and supportive husband, David, now sponsor seven children in Ghana, four in Ethiopia and one in India.

Caring for them has broken her heart — in a good way — and made her much more vocal.

“There should never be a child who starves or has no access to clean water and immunizations,” she said. “I see the affluence in my own circles, and it changes how you think about every dollar you spend.”