Until my husband, Rich, became president of World Vision, we were, in many ways, blissfully unaware of much of what was going on in the world around us. We were raising five children from the ages of 6 to 19, and our world was limited by our own personal experiences. I suspect that's probably true of most families—I remember many days when my world seemed only as big as the space between our home, the local supermarket, our children's school, and the soccer field.
But beginning in August 1998, that all changed. As Rich took on the leadership of World Vision's U. S. office, I had the opportunity to travel to some of the most amazing places on the planet, and met children whose lives are very different from those of my own sons' and daughters'. After every trip, I couldn't wait to share what I learned from the children I met abroad with my own family.
I've met Thomas, a young boy who had the misfortune of growing up in Northern Uganda during a brutal civil war. At an age when most children are playing soccer or hanging out with friends, he was taken from his home and forced to become a child soldier.
Twelve-year-old Nagavini was sold into slavery so that the rest of her family could survive. She spent most of her young life in Vellore, India as a bonded laborer in a matchbox factory.
And in drought-stricken Niger, little Rakia stands knee-deep in a fetid pond as she draws water for her family to drink.
These are only three examples of children currently suffering in poverty around the world. Almost eight million children under the age of five die because of issues related to their poverty—19,000 children every single day. Over 1 billion people—1 out of every 6 living on planet earth—survive on less than a dollar a day, and one in eight has no access to clean water. Knowing all of this, I want my children to understand that the life they live in affluent, suburban America isn't the norm. I want them to be aware of the larger world around them, not only so that they better appreciat what they have ("Eat your vegetables. Don't you know there are children starving in Africa?"), but also so they would develop caring, compassionate hearts for others.
Here are some simple, profound ways we can help our children to become more aware of the world around them:
- Buy a world map and talk in age-appropriate ways about what it's like to live in other countries.
- Read stories about boys and girls growing up in places very different from suburban Seattle (or other metropolitan city).
- Get involved in community programs that celebrate international customs and cultures, making sure to highlight not only the challenges but also the wonders of places far away from home.
- Pray specifically for the needs of children around the world. For example: When you give your son or daughter a glass of water, pray together for those who can't do what we so easily take for granted; at bath time, remind your child of those who in their whole lives have never bathed in anything but a muddy pond; when you take your child to the pediatrician, point out that there are children around the world who are sick and lack access to medical care; and as you drop your child at school, pray for children who long for an education but for whom there is no school nearby.
- Most importantly, model what it looks like to give – of time, talent, and treasure to those in need, both here at home and around the world, reminding children that while we can't do everything to solve the problems of the world, we can all do something.
It's not always easy, but it's so important to intentionally help children counterbalance a natural inclination to put self first with the message that we have a responsibility for the welfare of those around us. God has invited even the youngest among us to join him in making this world a better place to live.
Reneé Stearns is a writer, advocate for women and children, and wife of World Vision U. S. President Richard Stearns. She draws on her experience and passion as a Christian, attorney, and mother of five to speak on behalf of the children and their mothers she has met in her travels to World Vision projects in many countries, and recently released a new devotional publication, He Walks Among Us.