By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Formerly called Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, Unbound was founded by lay Catholics in 1981 and works with more than 300,000 children, youth and elderly of all faiths in more than 20 countries, including Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
When Father William Martin retired more than 17 years ago as an Air Force chaplain, he was looking to work on a project that embraced the mission of the Church. He had witnessed representatives from Unbound visit air bases where he had been stationed and liked what Unbound stood for as a charity.
“I liked the fact that it does something directly and quickly and efficiently,” said Father Martin. “It’s the real mission of the Church, the concern for the poor and social justice; Unbound does it very well.”
Traveling almost every weekend from where he lives in Vermont to parishes and other organizations to look for new sponsors, a recent trip over the summer brought him to Martha’s Vineyard to visit his good friend, Father Michael Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish.
“We’ve been friends for years, partly because we share an interest in aviation,” explained Father Martin. “I normally call Father Nagle directly. I’ve been there [Martha’s Vineyard] several times over these 17 years. Having one parish and three distinct churches, sometimes I’d go to one or another. I preach at all the Masses at a location and invite people to sponsor a child.”
Headquartered in Kansas City, Kan., Unbound has more than 266,000 sponsors throughout the United States and it strives to spread its message of connecting people across economic, cultural, geographical and religious divides to live in solidarity and work towards a greater good. More than 93 percent of all money spent goes to program support, and Unbound has an A-plus rating from Charity Watch and says it meets the BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s 20 rigorous standards for charity accountability.
Through a monthly contribution of $30 per month, an individual sponsor in the United States can help provide education, food, health care and livelihood opportunities for a child or elderly individual. From there, letters and photos are exchanged, and group awareness trips and individual visits can be arranged for sponsors who want to meet those sponsored-friends in person.
After explaining what Unbound is, the response from the parishioners on Martha’s Vineyard was typical of many of the parishes Father Martin has attended: “The response is good. They like the idea of corresponding with their person. They like the idea of joining one of our trips to visit the country and see the child or aging person. They like to know that we are efficient; that a high percentage of what we collect goes into the program that is located right where the child or elderly person is.”
The broad range of benefits for those on the receiving end of the sponsorship is strategically targeting those families who need it most: “Our people on the ground [in the countries] know these families,” said Father Martin, himself a sponsor. “They’ve pinpointed these families who need the help, who will accept the help and will cooperate with the program.”
Elizabeth Alex, director of Community Outreach and Media Relations for Unbound, said her parents sponsored a little girl in Guatemala for years. When Alex decided to leave her job as a news anchor for an NBC news affiliate in Kansas City to begin her “second act” in life, she knew that she could parlay her love for international work into being part of the Unbound ministry.
“I love helping tell stories of people who worked to get themselves out of poverty; that was inviting me, and I loved the organization,” said Alex. “I loved the wonder of it; we can all make a difference.”
Her parents had kept every letter and photo of the little girl they had sponsored, and when Alex began working for Unbound, she was given those letters; “She [the little girl] changed so rapidly through the years. She was a teen-ager when she left the program,” said Alex. “It was cute because in every photo she was holding a duck or a chicken, and I definitely got a sense of her life, hopes and dreams. They’re so similar of what we have in our country, but they just don’t have the opportunity.”
Thirty dollars a month may not seem like a lot of money to help sustain a family, but it’s budgeted in such a way that each dollar is stretched to its limit to make the program succeed; “It’s such a cliché phrase: ‘It’s a hand-up, not a hand-out.’ That’s really what it is, though; it’s supporting them and their own dreams,” said Alex, adding that sponsors get more than they give, that the gratitude of the children and elderly is “a gift.”
The correspondence between sponsors and sponsored friends is a hallmark of Unbound; “We want that one-on-one relationship because everybody benefits that way,” said Alex. “To have an American from somewhere say ‘I believe in you’ is a powerful statement. And to get a letter from a little girl in Guatemala thanking them for believing in her is equally powerful.”
That love for international work has blended well with her instinct as a news reporter; Alex can often be found in the field, doing work and meeting families to highlight their personal stories. “I was in Peru last summer and visited this sort of shanty town, and these are people who don’t have enough,” said Alex. “They don’t have enough to purchase a home or even rent an apartment. They build these small, little shanties on a big series of hills. You have to walk so high to get to the little home. There’s no plumbing so you have to walk pretty far to get to latrine or running water.
“I went to many homes but in one in particular, the mom and dad sold juice to people in the market place. They made a few dollars a week. In the summer they would sell ice cream to make a few extra dollars, but they just couldn’t sustain their family.”
Alex was welcomed into their home. One of the two children was being sponsored through Unbound, and as Alex looked over the family’s living situation, she found a man without bitterness and “wanting to make the best for his family,” she said, adding that the man didn’t begrudge anyone else, and that he told her he just wanted opportunities for his children so that they would not have to work as hard as he and his wife did.
“That struck me,” recalled Alex. “He had no anger or felt that life had dealt him an unfair hand, he was just focused on his children and giving the best he could as a dad. They didn’t seem to measure success in life in the things they had.”
Also unique to the Unbound program is that along with sponsoring individual’s nutrition, health care and educational needs, micro-loans are offered for those looking to generate a more stable income. Children can be sponsored right through college — attending school is a mandatory requirement for sponsored children — and parents are required to be part of a community group.
“They won’t always need us,” said Alex. “Many of them, when they get on their feet, are the first ones to say they’re good, now go help someone else in my community.”
And while the U.S. has families living in poverty, government-run programs are not a given in other countries: “For us to imagine the poverty that these people live in, the biggest poverty is the inability to be able to turn to anyone else for help,” said Father Martin. “No one in their country is able to help, or willing to help, and so it’s the Catholic Church connection that help. We help everyone of any faith, but it’s an action of Catholic charity.”