Despite their varied contexts, the leaders of Compassion’s ministry in the 25 countries where we work share many things in common, too. They are committed followers of Jesus. They value our local church partners. They work hard to see children released from poverty. And this past year, they had to adapt quickly to changing realities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic to meet urgent needs and save lives.

Now, as we begin to mark a full year of the global pandemic and look to the future in 2021 and beyond, the leaders from Compassion’s national offices are sharing their hopes and top priorities for the year ahead.

MORE: See video updates from each of our National Directors on our COVID-19 Regional Updates pages.

In many ways, the pandemic has provided leaders with new vision and opportunities to innovate. Yet at the same time, their priorities remain the same: meet immediate, critical needs and invest in long-term, sustainable solutions so that children living in poverty—and their families and communities—can survive and thrive.

Here is what’s on the mind of the leaders in seven of Compassion’s field countries:

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Asia region

Bangladesh: Food security in the midst of skyrocketing poverty

In Bangladesh, 16-year-old Rik is wearing a red and black striped shirt and is standing in a field holding a basket on his head that he uses to gather grass in. He uses the grass to feed his cow.

The COVID-19 crisis has devastated almost all of this century’s poverty alleviation progress in Bangladesh. Between 2000 and 2016, the poverty rate dropped from 48.9 per cent to 23.2. Today, it has risen back to an estimated 40.9 per cent.

In the face of these developments, hunger and malnutrition are top issues to tackle. Hunger and malnutrition can affect a child’s physical and mental development and also cause life-threatening illness. Food security was already a major issue in Bangladesh before the pandemic, and in the wake of this crisis, it’s a top priority for Compassion Bangladesh in 2021.

“COVID-19 has deepened the situation of the poor and most vulnerable. It is critical that children and families are supported to ensure that they have food security through home gardens, poultry rearing and livelihood opportunities,” says Christabel, the National Director of Compassion Bangladesh.

Though they are engaging in emergency relief efforts, Compassion Bangladesh plans for a long-term focus on food security to develop sustained solutions that are contextualized to local needs. “We have started the conversation with our partners to prioritize their knowledge and ensure food security for the people in their local context with unique opportunities,” says Michael, Compassion Bangladesh’s Senior Manager for Partnership.

Michael is wearing a blue jacket and is sitting at his table working on his computer. He is working from home.

Compassion Bangladesh’s Senior Manager for Partnership, Michael, works from home, continuing to support local partners in combatting malnutrition in Bangladesh, where poverty has skyrocketed since the pandemic began.

Like with many issues, food security is one that has far-reaching effects. “Food insecurity pushes youth to leave the sponsorship program early in search of jobs to support their families. Parents migrate in search of jobs, increasing the risk of issues around child protection, abuse, trafficking and child marriage,” Christabel says.

Compassion Bangladesh is pairing emergency relief with long-term interventions, including homestead gardening, cattle breeding, agriculture and livestock training, food security training and microfinance groups.

“It excites me to think about the great opportunities and changes that the children will be able to witness when their parents are able to save small amounts from the skills that they learn from the program,” says Michael. “Ultimately, [these interventions] reflect a paradigm shift from dependency towards self- and inter-dependency in the long run.”

 

Thailand: Cultivating sustainable sources of income

In Thailand, 20-year-old Janjira is wearing a pink Karen shirt. She is outside picking coffee cherries during a school break.

Like in every country, immediate relief was the main priority of Compassion Thailand at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. Turning the corner into 2021, a renewed focus on recovery and long-term development is of equal importance.

“Last year, many families lost their jobs and income. We tried our best to help them to get through the pandemic crisis,” says Kriddanchalee, Compassion Thailand’s Senior Manager of Program Support. “This year, our goal is to see our church partners have sustainable resources and for every home to do holistic child development.”

A close-up of Janjira's hands reaching in a basket and pulling out coffee cherries.

At Baan Mae Hor Child Development Centre, this looks like coffee plantations! Whether it’s a large field or just a few plants around their home, the income the coffee beans provide families is critical. It can be the difference of a parent having to migrate to find work, or a child having to leave school early to find a job.

“The church and Compassion helping with job training for the youth is one of the answers to their needs,” says Yordruen, the centre’s director. “Since we started this activity, they are more focused on school and have dreams for their future.”

Twenty-year-old sponsored student Janjira has engaged in the coffee training with her parents. “I learned a lot about many things, especially about the coffee-making process and how to make it into a business,” she says. For Janjira, it’s something she can do to support her family as she pursues her career aspirations.

Surachai, Compassion Thailand's Manager of Partnership, is wearing a black shirt and is standing in front of a brick wall.

Surachai is Compassion Thailand’s Manager of Partnership.

“For the last year, due to COVID-19, most of our children and families have suffered from a shortage of income. The need to distribute support like food is significant,” says Surachai, Compassion Thailand’s Manager of Partnership. “But at the same time, we have been empowering families. In the long run, it will sustain their food security when faced with a crisis.”

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Africa region

Burkina Faso: Prioritizing education

In Burkina Faso, 16-year-old Abdoul is wearing a gray shirt and khaki pants. He is also wearing a black backpack. Abdoul is looking down and reading a book.

In a country where children and youth represent more than 45 per cent of the country’s population, there’s plenty to keep the director of a child development organization busy.

Dr. Issaka Kiemtore has worked for Compassion Burkina Faso since 2010 when he joined as a Health Specialist. Now, as the National Director in the midst of a global pandemic, he is concerned by the multi-faceted ways the crisis has affected children, in a country that was already struggling with extreme poverty, violence and internal displacement pre-pandemic.

Dr. Issaka Kiemtore is wearing a blue shirt with gray and black stripes and the Compassion logo on the front. He is standing in front of a brown wall with his arms crossed.

Dr. Issaka Kiemtore is the National Director of Compassion Burkina Faso.

Yet, amidst many priorities, one stands out for Dr. Issaka: “The pandemic has caused the most vulnerable children to fall behind in their education.”

That’s why his team is entering 2021 with a renewed focus on education and youth development.

“Giving one more year of education to a child means increasing their capacity to seize opportunities very significantly,” says Dr. Issaka. “If we really want the children to be thriving followers of Jesus who are influencing their world, then we need to make sure they get the education they deserve. Compassion wants to break down barriers to education.”

However, Dr. Issaka knows this priority cannot exist in a vacuum. Many other factors can affect children’s education, like housing stability and access to healthcare.

“I remember the story of a child living in a rural area,” Dr. Issaka shares. “Unfortunately, his parents were affected by floods in 2020. [In cases like this,] Compassion and the church must support not only the child but also their family, helping them find another house so they can rebuild and send the child back to school.”

Dr. Issaka and his team know that supporting housing for families is key to promoting education. The same goes for engaging in health interventions. “A child who is not healthy cannot participate in school,” he says. “Besides COVID-19, we should not lose focus on other health issues that are also critical like waterborne diseases and malaria.”

Four-year-old Achille is wearing a gray, black, and navy striped shirt and blue pants. He is standing in the doorway of his home and has a sucker in his mouth.

As he and his team juggle many competing and interrelated priorities, Dr. Issaka continues to have hope as they join God in this work: “I have hope that the young people are going to achieve the full potential that the Lord has placed in them. It is our responsibility to make sure that this comes true.”

 

Ghana: Bringing child development home

In Ghana, 5-year-old Emmanuella, wearing a white shirt, is sitting outside her home with her mother, Diamatu, wearing a black and white striped shirt and a colorfully patterned head covering.

In Ghana, the pandemic has renewed National Director Gifty Appiah’s vision to empower families and caregivers to bring Compassion’s child development program into their homes. “The question we posed was, ‘Why don’t we empower the families so that the caregivers [can] deliver holistic child ministry to the children?’ If we were doing that, when COVID struck, nothing would be missing,” Gifty shares.

These reflections came after their team felt at a loss at the outset of the pandemic. “We thought our hands were tied in the beginning,” says Benjamin, the Senior Manager for Partnership.

Thankfully, church partners were able to quickly utilize technology to reach sponsored children and their families. Now, a priority for 2021 is to further equip and empower caregivers to engage in family discipleship, bringing it into every part of their lives. “When they are on the streets, they will talk about it. When they are at home, they will talk about it. When they are eating, they will talk about it,” says Gifty.

National Director for Ghana, Gifty Appiah, is wearing a black dress and a bright pink jacket. She is sitting at a desk in front of a computer.

Gifty Appiah is the National Director of Compassion Ghana.

The strategy includes economic empowerment initiatives, as well as parenting workshops. “We will be training caregivers in effective parenting skills. When we can get that right, a lot of things will fall into place,” says Gifty.

Ultimately, the pandemic has sparked a wider vision for the reach of Compassion’s program. In not being able to gather at the church, Compassion’s ministry came alive in homes and communities. “We want to look at the wider community because the child comes from a home, [and] also from a community,” Gifty says. “[It is about] making every home a church partner: a place where we can deliver holistic ministry to the child.”

 

Rwanda: A focus on income generation

In Rwanda, Alice, the mother of two Compassion sponsored children, is wearing a colorfully patterned dress and a yellow face mask. She is sitting at a sewing machine in her shop and is sewing a dress.

As Compassion Rwanda saw many families become financially devastated in 2020, they knew what their priority needed to be in 2021: empowering caregivers to start incoming generating activities.

“We put a lot of emphasis on [relief] interventions, especially during the lockdown,” says John Nkubana, the National Director of Compassion Rwanda. “But in 2021, the area to put a lot of emphasis on is empowering caregivers to improve the livelihood of their families.”

Their hope is to see more stories like that of Alice, a young mother of twins who was registered into a Compassion Survival program in 2017. “I was selected to get training in tailoring,” Alice shares. “Tailoring has helped me start a small business.”

Alice also gained a supportive community around her. “I felt the support of fellow caregivers and Compassion staff the most during the COVID-19 restrictions. They gave me clothes to make for them so that I could earn [an income] and take care of my family. I’m thankful to God,” she says.

For John, he sees empowering caregivers with an income generating skill as a vital way to ensure children are known, loved and protected.

John Nkubana, National Director of Compassion Rwanda, is wearing a gold shirt. He is standing in front of a white wall that has a picture of beneficiary children on it.

John Nkubana is the National Director of Compassion Rwanda.

“You can never talk of child protection when a child goes home, and the father or mother can’t put food on the table, so they sleep on an empty stomach, [and] you find the parents fighting the whole night. The children fail to sleep and going to school will be hard. A child is affected socio-emotionally due to such incidents,” he explains.

In a word, John’s hopes and priorities for 2021 can be summed up as transformation. “When I see a child’s life transformed holistically, as well as that of their families and communities, I’m excited,” he says. “It keeps me awake to see the transformation in all the lives of the children.”

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Latin America region

Ecuador: Overcoming every barrier to reach the most vulnerable

In Ecuador, 11-year-old Davis is wearing traditional clothing. He is sitting in a field outside his home. There is a cow behind him.

In the Ecuadorian Andes, the pastors and staff of Compassion’s local church partners travel through the mountains on motorbikes or by foot to reach children and their families with emergency food packs. It’s a reality of serving across a country with such complex geography: from the deep Amazon jungle to the Andes mountains to the Pacific coast.

“It is a great, but achievable, challenge to ensure that children are well-fed and healthy,” says Sixto Gamboa, Compassion Ecuador’s National Director. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have put our effort into this mission.”

As the COVID-19 crisis has devastated livelihoods, Sixto’s priority is to reach the country’s most vulnerable and protect them from malnutrition. “The economic crisis that COVID-19 leaves in Ecuador, without a doubt, affects all families. However, it is children who suffer the most. Children become vulnerable due to malnutrition, lack of food and difficult access to education,” he says. “We have to reach the neediest children with food. We cannot allow our children to be affected in their health, no matter where in the country they are. We will not leave them behind.”

Pastor Sixto Gamboa is wearing a blue shirt. He is standing outside with his arms crossed and is looking out at the mountains in the background.

Sixto Gamboa is the National Director of Compassion Ecuador.

As they continue to tackle the logistical challenges of reaching the most vulnerable children, Compassion Ecuador is also looking to engage with income generation efforts in new ways.

“We need to contribute to and raise the household economy,” Sixto says. “We are already working on an economic reactivation plan through the local church. Many of our alumni are successful entrepreneurs. We want to help parents to find jobs and resources. It is a big task, but it is time to partner with other institutions and organizations to achieve our goals.”

Overall, Sixto has unwavering faith and hope as he and his team stare down the challenges ahead: “The fight is tremendous but hope and faith will not stop. Efforts to release children from poverty in the name of Jesus will never stop.”

 

El Salvador: A focus on physical and mental health

In El Salvador, 11-year-old Jhonny is sitting on the steps in front of his home and is holding a bag of food he was given by the Compassion centre. He is wearing a face mask.

The beginning of the COVID-19 crisis thrust all of us into uncertainty and sparked fear and anxiety for so many. “It is heartbreaking to see caregivers suffer psychological and emotional health problems when they are unable to provide food for their families,” says Brenda Rivas, the National Director of Compassion El Salvador.

El Salvador experienced a mental health crisis in the first weeks of the pandemic. It’s given Brenda and her team a renewed passion to address both physical needs and mental health.

“We don’t know what 2021 brings, but God knows,” says Brenda. “In 2021, Compassion El Salvador is focused on providing comprehensive health plans for minds and bodies that include education, food packs, capital for enterprising parents and mental health support.”

Brenda Rivas, Compassion El Salvador's National Director, with children from ES0793 during a child protection ceremony done to commemorate the children’s rights anniversary. Some children wore traditional dresses and others dressed as professionals according to what they want to be in the future. All of them are wearing face masks.

Branda Rivas, National Director of Compassion El Salvador, with a group of Compassion beneficiaries at a ceremony for World Children’s Day.

Their plan includes a robust network of medical professionals, pastors and community members, to ensure no one falls through the cracks.

“A network of 170 doctors in multiple specialties are available for our children and their families through phone calls, video calls or limited appointments at churches. Spiritual counselling is going to be developed through phone calls, spiritual lessons and personal visits for those that don’t have access to a phone. The centre staff and pastors will safely visit the children and their families. This will ensure that everyone will be cared for,” Brenda says.

For Brenda, it’s about adapting to meet a wide variety of needs in the face of a changed world. “We want to develop resilient churches that can adapt quickly to the new normal life in their community and respond to the specific needs of their children and families.”

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There are so many ways to support Compassion’s global programs in 2021.

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Feature photo caption: Kriddanchalee is Compassion Thailand’s Senior Manager of Program Support.

Photos and field reporting by J. Sangma (Bangladesh), Piyamary Shinoda (Thailand), Jehojakim Sangare (Burkina Faso), Rachael Cudjoe-Yevu (Ghana), Doreen Umutesi (Rwanda), Nico Benalcazar (Ecuador) and Alejandra Zuniga (El Salvador).

Written by: Alyssa Esparaz

Alyssa is Compassion Canada's Manager of Content and Public Relations, telling stories that inspire and equip the Church to live compassionate lifestyles. She is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, where she studied International Development.