92: Letters from America

92: Letters from America

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Letters from America

The one good thing about not seeing you is that I can write you letters.

~Svetlana Alliluyeva

“I want to sponsor a child, Mama,” my seven-year-old said, looking up at me while I stared at photos of African orphans strung across our church lobby.

We had just finished watching a video of children rescued from war-torn Sudan after their parents were killed and their homes destroyed.

“I do, too, Desirée, but I can’t afford it.”

“I’ll pay for it,” she pleaded. “I’ll pay for it.”

I looked down at her adoringly. “How, Baby?”

“With my allowance,” she exclaimed.

Her allowance was five dollars a week, not quite enough to cover the thirty-dollar monthly fee. I was a single mom in my last year of college. We lived off of student financial aid, my part-time job on campus, and public assistance. I could barely provide for my own child, let alone someone else’s. I couldn’t take on another financial commitment.

But if I stopped eating in the college cafeteria, I thought to myself, I could cover the rest of the sponsorship.

“You’d be giving up your entire allowance, Desirée.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s okay.”

“That’s very generous of you, sweetie,” I said. “You have a kind heart.”

Even though it meant a longer commitment, I wanted my daughter to be pen pals with a child her age. We picked a girl named Teddy. Desirée liked the name. We received a photo and biography of Teddy. Her hair was so short we thought she was a boy. But she was a little girl with eyes as wide as her smile. Teddy liked playing kickball and going to school, and she wanted to be an accountant when she grew up. She was a triplet, an occurrence so rare in her country that they didn’t have a word for it. Teddy’s father was killed in front of her, leaving her mother unable to care for their six children in a Ugandan refugee camp. Teddy’s only hope was to find an American sponsor family whose support would give her shelter in an orphanage, along with an education, food, clothing, and medical care.

Desirée couldn’t wait to write to Teddy and get a letter from her. Since Uganda is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, language wasn’t a barrier, but there was a cultural and economic learning curve. Desirée had to learn how to put herself in Teddy’s shoes when she wrote. Complaining about school, having to eat vegetables, or not getting a puppy for Christmas were all things African children couldn’t understand. Desirée loved going to the mailbox and was so excited when she got Teddy’s letters. We watched Teddy grow up over the years through school photos that we framed or put up on our refrigerator. We sent her photos as well, along with bookmarks and stickers of teddy bears.

For years, Desirée went without an allowance and said nothing about it. After I graduated from college and got my first full-time job, I was able to give her a bigger allowance so that she would have some spending money left over, but nothing close to what her friends got.

Through times of unemployment and economic hardships, we still managed to honor our monthly commitment to Teddy. Through the distractions of adolescence and the terrible teens, Desirée wrote faithfully to her pen pal across the globe.

We sponsored Teddy until she was grown up, out of school, and no longer needed our financial support. The experience inspired me to travel to Uganda as a volunteer and write profiles on orphans to help them find sponsors. While I was there, I got to meet Teddy in person. Guides took me to where she was staying for her last year in school. When we pulled up to the property, I couldn’t believe that the seven-year-old girl we first saw in a photo was now the grown woman standing in front of me. It was surreal. As we embraced each other like long-lost relatives, I thought about what might have been if I had walked away from those photos hanging in the church that day.

“Mum,” Teddy said, “I want to show you something.”

She grabbed me by the hand and pulled me to a concrete room full of bunk beds from floor to ceiling. Because of space issues, each child was only allowed to have one small trunk and whatever they could fit in it. Teddy grabbed hers, opened it up and pulled out a bundle of letters tied with a ripped piece of cloth. She had kept all the correspondence and photos we sent her going back eleven years. I was overcome with emotion. I had no idea what getting those letters from America meant to her.

My girls, who grew up together through airmail, are now twenty-eight years old. Desirée works with children and is pursuing a master’s degree in social work. Teddy is an accountant and works in a big city. They don’t send letters to each other anymore. They Skype.

~Adrienne A. Aguirre

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