A Sponsor’s True Story
For more insight about what it means to sponsor a child, One Spirit talked with John Carmen because over the years John has sponsored a total of five indigenous children from two different reservations. John began sponsoring kids over 20 years ago. The most he ever sponsored at one time was four. All are adults now. He sponsored them through an organization called Futures with Children that is no longer active.
Two of the children he sponsored moved away with their families when they were still young. That happens sometimes on the reservation. The other three keep in touch and now have families of their own. John also has a family of his own that includes 12-year-old twins. Now that his children are older he plans to become a sponsor again.
“I’d like to introduce my children to life on the Reservation. I want them to know about it,” he said. “And I really encourage anyone considering sponsorship to pursue it. Sponsorship is one of the deepest relationships I’ve ever had in my life.”
Following is his story:
John Carmen lives in northern California, a two-day drive from the Navajo and Hopi Reservations where five indigenous children he sponsored grew up. His visits there were rare due to the distance and time required to reach them. And the reservation families did not have phones.
His liaison from Futures with Children suggested that John write a letter each month to each of the children he sponsored. Instead John decided to write 52 letters per child per year – a letter every week no matter what. His liaison personally delivered his letters to the children.
The highest priority in indigenous cultures is for the education of their children. Indigenous children are respected. It is considered natural for a woman who gives birth to them to also educate them. So it helped to have the liaison there. Like a good counselor she would encourage the relationship and encourage the children to write back.
Eventually they all started writing back and answering John’s letters every couple of weeks. All except for one. . .
That child got a letter from John every week for a year and a half – 78 letters --before he finally answered and wrote his first letter back. By then he was in sixth grade. He was growing up on the Navajo Reservation raised by his grandmother in a hogan with no running water or electricity. His grandmother herded sheep and spoke only Navajo.
The boy’s father had left as soon as he was born, and his mother left when he was only five or six years old.
“Of course he didn’t write back to me right away,” John said matter-of-factly. “He didn’t want to be abandoned again.”
John said sponsors shouldn’t expect anything in return. “It’s important to give unconditional love. You know it’s not about me, it’s about them,” he added, “and if you do that…… well, my gifts from all five of them have been invaluable.”
He kept writing and became close to each of them. But he became closest of all to the boy who wouldn’t write back for a year and a half.
Eventually John made the two-day trip and visited this boy and his grandmother in their hogan. He took fruit to give them.
That boy went on to graduate from high school and go to a junior college in Santa Fe, NM. One day he telephoned John.
“I just can’t do this anymore,” he said. “All my friends back home are tellin’ me I’m trying to be white, that I should come back where I belong. I just don’t fit here and I’m not making it. It’s so hard.”
This often happens to youths who leave their home on a reservation to go to college.
“Well I can get you a tutor because I believe in you,” John told him. But the decision of course was up to the boy.
John didn’t offer advice or make a judgment. He simply asked, “What are those friends who are telling you this doing with their lives?”
The boy answered.
“I see. Just hanging out? Well are they doing any drugs or alcohol?”
“What would Grandmother say?” John wanted to know.
So the boy went home that week-end to see his grandmother. And all the relatives held a ceremony for him and prayed for him all day. Then he made his decision and went back the next day to finish junior college in Santa Fe. From there he transferred to college in southern Colorado where he got his civil engineering degree.
Today that young boy is a man of 35 with a wife and young child of his own. He telephones John on Father’s Day and calls him “Dad”. John thinks of him as his son and calls him that.
The first time he and his wife flew to California to visit John was the first time they had been on an airplane. John got a phone call from them asking, “Is Ontario close to San Francisco?” because they were at the wrong airport in Ontario, CA. So John asked them to find someone from the airline he could talk to, and the only person they could find was a man handling baggage. John spoke with the kind-hearted baggage handler who offered to walk with the lost couple to the correct gate and make sure they got on the right plane.
The highlight of that trip was the couple’s visit to Pebble Beach. Neither had ever seen the ocean. They just stared at it, inching closer and closer until finally they stopped almost at the water’s edge, staring with reverence at the vast stretch of water before them. John watched in silence. Eventually they gently touched their feet to the water. A few minutes later both of them were splashing and jumping up and down in the ocean laughing and playing like six-year-olds.
“That was magical to me,” John said.
During another visit he took them to the Top of the Mark Hotel for its Thanksgiving buffet. A beautiful view of the San Francisco skyline was behind them. Suddenly the young Navajo man dropped his head and tears streamed down his face. (He wasn’t trying to hide the tears. Hiding tears is not in their culture.)
John was concerned. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m just so happy it makes me cry,” he answered.
The next day he said, “You know, John, we come here to visit you. You don’t have to take us special places when we come. We come to be with you.”
John observed, “I guess that’s why they call us human beings instead of human doings.”
Over the years John made six trips to visit all of the children he sponsored on both reservations.
He visited the young Hopi girl he sponsored before she grew up. She lived with her grandparents in a mud hut literally on top of a mesa. The rooms were divided by sheets. There was no glass in the window. One time John sat on the window ledge and looked straight down 300 feet below where her grandfather was a kachina dancer.
“I could feel more connected there than with people I’ve known for years,” John said. “You don’t get gratification like that here. If we just look to appreciate the diversity, then that sense of community that we all share emerges.”
“You’ve got to let go of your ego and truly step forward with kindness and compassion.”
He paused a minute and then quietly added, “You know in our western culture we’re taught to dominate everything, to control it. But native culture looks to life. Everything has energy and they see life all around them, life in everything. And a lot of love.”
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Many Lakota children on Pine Ridge Reservation need a sponsor. If you or your friends are considering becoming a sponsor, please call this number and we will answer your questions: 570-460-6567.