Picture a sea plane landing on a remote island, miles of deserted beach with white sand, and authentic food served from a local resident. Sounds like a perfect place for a relaxing vacation, doesn’t it?

In reality, the 8 mile long island had no electricity or running water and 50% of the population had Aids. We couldn’t go in the lake because of a dangerous parasite. The food was certainly authentic, but prepared by a man who picked up wood for his stove, wiped his runny nose and handled our salad without giving a thought to washing his hands.

Welcome to Bugala Island, one of the Seesee Islands on Lake Victoria in Uganda. Our 12 year old daughter was a spokeschild for Childcare Worldwide, a relief agency that gets Americans to sponsor children living in Africa, India and Mexico. They sent us to visit their programs so Sondra had a clear picture of the children she could help. We flew to Nairobi on Christmas Day and somehow Santa even delivered a stocking to Sondra on the airplane. When pampered Americans hear about the poverty in developing countries, we say, “How sad”, and have little idea how severe the poverty is. Upon arriving by sea plane to Bugalla Island, we saw an island with no stores, no health care facilities and no sign of modern day society. Pre-schoolers carried five gallon plastic jugs on their back for three miles to get water.

Arriving at the group home sponsored by Childcare Worldwide, we met 150 children, all fascinated with these crazy Americans coming for a visit. We brought an assortment of craft supplies and distributed construction paper and markers to the kids. “Go ahead and color a picture”, we said. They all understood English, so we couldn’t figure out why they didn’t color. Then it hit us. They had never seen markers and didn’t know how to take the caps off to color.

The biggest culture shock came when we were busy setting out gifts we brought. We unwrapped school supplies, T-shirts, toothbrushes, etc. I had a wad of wrapping paper and some old plastic bags so I looked for a wastebasket. I looked and looked…until once again I realized they didn’t have wastebaskets. Nothing was wasted. Beans and rice came in large cloth sacks. There was no shrink wrap or excess packaging in anything they needed. Naturally I felt guilty at the large garbage can our family of three manages to fill weekly.

Sondra sponsors a girl her age named Annette. We brought Annette some craft supplies, socks and other gifts. I handed Annette a package of four underpants. She touched the package and asked, “What is this?” I told her they were underpants (with cute unicorns of course) and unwrapped them for her. She ignored them but took the torn plastic bag. She crinkled it and looked through the clear plastic. Here was a 12 year old girl that had never seen a plastic bag.

We had a heart wrenching experience when we went down a jungle path to pick up a 10-year-old boy named Eric. His father had died, and his mother was dying from Aids. Months earlier, she went to Childcare Worldwide and asked for a sponsor for Eric. She didn’t have food and couldn’t afford to send him to school.  After several months, someone in the United States did sponsor him, which meant he could go live in a group home and get the care he needs. We went with the staff from Childcare to bring him to the children’s home where he would live until he was 18 and could go to trade school. His mother was so weak she could hardly hold her tiny lethargic baby. Childcare staff spoke gently with the mother, assuring her Eric would be safe with three meals a day and a chance to go to school. I started walking away, not able to watch his mother say goodbye to her son.  He brought nothing with him. Not a change of clothing, no toys…nothing. He simply came with us as we walked a tiny trail in the jungle to our car. We also knew it was probably the last time he would see his mother before she died.

Travel is a high priority for our family. We’ve been fortunate to travel to Europe numerous times, Peru, Mexico, the entire United States and now of course, Africa. The sights and sounds of that trip have affected us all. Sondra recently collected 10,000 pencils and 5,000 toothbrushes for the kids she met living in extreme poverty. We sponsor three children in Africa so they have a chance to get an education and break the cycle of poverty. Travel has given us the chance to see first hand the devastating effects of Aids and lack of education. Because of our travel experiences we also know it’s possible for Americans living comfortable lives to make a difference in the lives of children in developing countries.

To sponsor a child through childcare worldwide, go online at www.childcareworldwide.org. Childcare only spends 4% of its budget on administration. The rest goes directly to helping the children.