In October 1985, we answered a magazine ad for a program that invited us to become “foster parents” for a needy child in the Third World. You’ve seen these ads a thousand times. Out of place among models for Chanel and Armani, a wide-eyed, dark-skinned, barefoot child stares out at you. This one touched our guilt and compassion, just as the advertiser had intended.
For twenty-two dollars a month, Foster Parents Plan–since renamed Childreach–told us we could help feed, clothe, house, school, and provide medical care for a child suffering in poverty. Twenty-two dollars a month. We easily spent twice that much eating out on a Friday night. For that small amount, they said, we “could break the cycle of poverty for one small child.”
We asked for a child from Colombia because Cecilia, as a Colombian journalist, was well familiar with the misery of the majority of her country’s children. Because she also knew of the incompetence and corruption of many Third World charitable organizations, we chose Foster Parents, an American organiization, instead of one based in Colombia. Our decision to help support a needy child came over the protests of Cecilia’s mother in Bogota, who thought we would be wasting our money on a child we would never know, with an organization whose operations we couldn’t corroborate.
Our child arrived in a neat, well-organized packet that promised we would trade many letters with her through the course of our relationship. There were several photographs of a sweet-faced, timid girl with black hair and black eyes, wearing a cotton dress several sizes too small for her bony frame. According to her case history, Martha Isabel Perez, twelve, was well-tempered and friendly, and dreamed of becoming a nurse. She and her family lived in a shack next to a river near Tulua, a city of 160,000 in the agricultural heartland two hours north of Cali.
“You are about to begin a journey that will touch the lives of Martha Isabel Perez and her family,” wrote Kenneth H. Phillips, Foster Parents’ executive director, in a letter welcoming us to the program. “Your sponsorship is the gift of a lifetime of hope for Martha Isabel Perez and her family.”
Martha’s father, Nicholas, had met her mother, Ofelia, thirteen years earlier. At that time he was sixty-six years old, an illiterate fisherman; she was thirty-two and had a young son, Jorge. In the early 1970s the three of them made a home together in the remote village of Los Estrechos, along the Cauca River. Like the twenty-five other families living there, they were squatters, with no legal claim to the land their shack was built on.
Their mud, bamboo, and clay house, like those of their neighbors, had no running water, no electricity, no sewage system. The roof leaked. Bushes to the side of the house served as a bathroom. Nicholas and his neighbors fished the river at night, filling their boats in less than an hour. What they didn’t sell they fed to their families.
Together, Nicholas and Ofelia had seven children. Three died of assorted illnesses, and another was stolen at age one and a half as he wandered on the dirt road that connected their isolated village with civilization. Ofelia lost an eye in a bus accident.
Foster Parents brought its social workers, development specialists, and engineers to Tulua in 1985 and signed up sixteen enthusiastic families in the Perezes’ neighborhood. Begun in 1937, the organization was the brainchild of a British journalist who had been horrified by the plight of the child victims of the Spanish Civil War. By the 1980s, Foster Parents had grown into the largest nonsectarian program of its kind in the world, matching hundreds of thousands of children in twenty-seven underdeveloped countries with foster families.
Although Foster Parents originally just spread handouts that made the recipients dependent rather than independent, it had evolved over time and was trying to teach communities to pull together and stay united. It aimed to develop an infrastructure that would allow the community to advance when Foster Parents moved on to other needy areas.
By the time Foster Parents introduced us to the Perezes, Nicholas was an ornery seventy-eight-year-old, increasingly crippled by asthma. Sharing a single bedroom with him and Ofelia were her son, Jorge Eliecer, 17, and their daughters Martha, 12, Maria Libia, 11, and Maria Mariana, 8.
Our first letter from the Tulua field office told us that Foster Parents’ goals for Los Estrechos were to bring clean drinking water, electricity, sewage, and land titles to the residents. The Perezes participated in everything the program offered. They always attended the frequent neighborhood meetings and sometimes even hosted them.
Here, we are in a very bad situation. There is no money to buy notebooks for the two of us in school. Our house is in very bad condition and we don’t have money to improve it even a little. We don’t know what to do. This area is very poor. There is nothing. There is no health clinic. There is nothing. . . . My father feels very sick and passes the night sitting up in bed because he can’t breathe and can’t sleep, and because of that, he can’t work and doesn’t fish. . . . I am doing very well in school… and want to continue my studies and I am very grateful for all you give me. Forgive my brother’s spelling.
–Martha Isabel Perez
Nicholas’s illness had worsened and the family’s income was plummeting. Jorge quit school and began fishing to support the family. One of Foster Parents’ evaluations found that Martha’s school performance had deteriorated. The family could no longer pay for her books, uniform, or school materials.
Martha’s letters alarmed us. We wrote to Foster Parents’ national office and asked whether the Perezes were getting any special aid to help deal with their crisis. “We feel certain that the letters received mentioning the family’s severe economic situation are merely an attempt in personal correspondence and are not meant to make you uncomfortable or to solicit additional funds. . . . ” they answered. “We have sent a memo to our field director in Tulua asking to have Martha receive help with her letter-writing. . . . Our programs are designed to help enrolled families improve the quality of their lives both now and over the long term.”
A month later, in November, the field office sent an annual “progress report” signed by an unnamed “social promoter” (the program’s term for social worker). He had met with Martha’s mother, Ofelia, and observed “the progress experienced by her family.” Although the social promoter noted that their house was “in need of repair,” a later letter from a senior representative at Foster Parents’ Rhode Island headquarters assured us that Martha and Mariana were getting school supplies, uniforms, and shoes. The family was even helping in an effort to build a community center. Our sense was that despite Martha’s gloomy letters, things finally were happening for the Perezes and their neighborhood.
My father has been sick and so we had to take him to the doctor. Christmas was not very happy for us because we did not have new clothes to wear. My brother is the only one who can work. . . . He is a fisherman but all the fish he gets are for us to eat because there are not enough to sell. . . . The fish are very bad because a factory in Cali called Carton Colombia throws poison in the Cauca River that kills all the big and little fish. We have been selling everything we have, the animals and a bed. . . .
–Martha Isabel Perez
Martha was doing well in school and now writing her letters herself. A progress report from a social worker praised her as “very active and intelligent.” Her great wish, he wrote, was to complete her studies.
The Perez house was still in bad condition and lacked basic services. Foster Parents could not help the Perezes make repairs or improvements until they gained a title for their land, and the chance of getting that title was small because the structure was too close to the river and in danger of being flooded. Despite these setbacks, a social worker assured us that the Perez family was still eager to better itself and very active in the program.
But when Nicholas died in June 1988, the family began to unravel. They barely had enough to eat. Ofelia wanted to sell the shack and move to another town, but without a land title, she had nothing to sell. Besides, who would buy there anyway?
Martha quit going to school because they couldn’t afford it. An elderly neighbor offered to put her through school if she would go to live with him, but she turned him down.
Then she met Albeiro Grisales, a twenty-two-year-old who owned a small grocery store in a neighboring town. He came courting, always with fruit or other food in hand. Martha, fourteen, fell in love with him and began arguing with her mother and siblings, who repeatedly warned that she was too young to become involved.
Our field office in Colombia has notified us that your foster child, Martha Isabel Perez, has recently married and is no longer eligible for the Foster Parents Plan program. Martha and her family sincerely appreciate your friendship and concern. They have benefited from many programs and services through Foster Parents Plan and they are grateful for your help during their time of need. I hope that you will consider sponsoring a new foster child now that Martha is no longer enrolled… .
–Leland Brenneman, director, Foster Parents Services
We were stunned by the news. Our emotional link with Martha seemed to have been cut, coldly, neither by her nor by us. Cecilia wrote a widely reprinted newspaper column criticizing the program. In it, she lamented that neither we nor the program had succeeded in freeing Martha from her misery.
We wrote a letter to Brenneman, enclosing a copy of Cecilia’s piece and asking for more information about Martha’s expulsion and whereabouts. We also asked that they assign us Martha’s sister rather than a child from another region.
“We can only speculate what happened in Martha’s life to cause the events that occurred,” Brenneman answered. “For whatever reason, it appears that we failed to help her break out of a cycle of poverty that probably has prevailed for many generations in her family. As any organization, we have many success stories, but we also run into many situations where our intervention has not been sufficient.”
The program offered to forward our letters to Martha and sent us an evaluation that recounted the benefits the Perezes had received. The
list included school supplies, a literacy course for Ofelia, the construction of the community center, health programs, and the “constant support of their social worker.”
“I’m sure you will be pleased with the information,” the report concluded.
Also, after considering our complaints, Foster Parents assigned us Maria Mariana, Martha’s ten-year-old sister. The accompanying photos showed another timid girl with big, black eyes, also wearing a light cotton dress too small for her. Her dream, according to the latest social worker, was to be a teacher.
The case history read just like the one four years earlier, when Martha had been assigned to us. The same decrepit house, the same two beds, the same few kitchen utensils. Mariana had not had basic vaccinations. “The main desire of Mariana and her family,” we were told, “is to improve their living conditions.”
We felt as if Foster Parents had thrown us back in time. We wondered if it would be a chance for the program, and for us, to correct history.
Even as we began a correspondence with Mariana, we kept in contact with Martha, who, shortly after moving in with Albeiro, became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Albeiro Jr. She was fifteen years old.
I got your letter and I want to thank you. . . . I must tell you that after having a baby I got very sick and that I don’t have money for drugs. My husband doesn’t always have a job because the economic situation here is really bad. I know I have to resign myself because this is my destiny. . . .
I hope you can help me this time as you have always done. . . .
–Martha Isabel Perez
Foster Parents’ international manual hedges on the issue of family planning, saying that the organization “will become as involved as is legally, psychologically, and culturally possible in each society, always being sensitive to local and government views.” In Colombia, Foster Parents’ sex-education efforts were torpedoed after criticism from Catholic church leaders.
“We don’t do family planning,” said Beatriz de Nogales, the program’s director in Tulua. “We have pretty much stayed away from it. . . . I would say that 30 percent of our girls get pregnant at a very young age.”
Martha’s husband, Albeiro, whom she had described in one letter as a young man “with no vices,” became addicted to smoking basuco, a particularly toxic Colombian derivative of cocaine. Martha returned to her mother’s shack with their baby son, but in time was convinced to go back to Albeiro. She shortly became pregnant with a second son, Victor Alfonso. Albeiro tried to straighten out but eventually returned to basuco and began beating Martha. She returned to her mother again in early 1991, this time with two boys in tow.
Things went no better for the rest of the family. Mariana finished fifth grade and, lacking tuition to go on to high school, became the fourth Perez child to drop out of school. Ofelia says she pleaded with their Foster Parents worker to help Mariana stay in school. He answered that the program would not cover all the costs, in keeping with its philosophy of discouraging full dependency. “I would have had to pay seven dollars for registration,” Ofelia explained later, “and another five dollars every month. Where was I going to get five dollars a month?”
We were informed by the Foster Parents field office that Mariana had tired of school and left for a job. Although her letters were far colder than Martha’s, she wrote us in October 1991: “We are bad. I am doing the best I can.” She went to three cities looking for work before returning home and getting a job on a tobacco plantation, where she separated leaves from 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Making $5.44 a week, she was the family’s main source of income after Jorge moved out to live with a girlfriend.
In the spring of 1992 we wrote again to the main office asking for special help for the Perezes. Foster Parents answered in June. It said Mariana had no interest in returning to school, but confirmed that the family was “experiencing a difficult time.”
Foster Parents’ neighborhood meetings had stopped long ago. The community center that Foster Parents had proudly pointed to as its main achievement in the area was torn down by local officials to make way for the construction of a highway.
Foster Parents is in the process of phasing out its program there and plans to move to Cartagena in 1996. De Nogales and several of her staff now concede that Foster Parents failed in the Perezes’ neighborhood. Though they claim they are securing land titles for the residents, the homes still have neither water nor electricity. “The sector is difficult,” said Ever Cortes, the area’s supervisor. “There is no school there. . . . For transportation, clothes, they just don’t have the money.”
Yet in November 1992, we’d received a progress report from the Perezes’ social worker: “This year, your foster family has benefited from health, environmental, and housing infrastructure programs sponsored by [Foster Parents]. Also, your foster child has received direct benefits from our housing improvement program through legalization of land owner-ship. . . . Your foster family lives in their own house. . . . The results have been highly positive now that [Foster Parents] has helped them to improve their community situation. . . .”
The road from Tulua to Los Estrechos is lined on one side by Colombia’s dramatic, craggy cordillera (a branch of the Andes mountain range), and on the other by the Cauca River and emerald fields of passion fruit and sugar cane.
As I drive along in a rented Chevrolet, I feel like Santa Claus, my bag stuffed with small toys, gifts and jewelry that Cecilia–who has remained in Bogota with her family–bought for me to deliver.
What am I expecting? Cliches. I feel as if I know nothing of the Perezes after seven years of letters.
I have no address. Where some shacks sit next to the river, I ask two road workers the name of the neighborhood. “This is Los Estrechos,” one answers. Farther on, I stop at a lean-to where several women are hanging out clothes–rags, really–to dry. I ask for Ofelia Perez. “Are you the padrino [foster father]?” one asks quickly, although no one knows I am here and the Perezes are not expecting me. She points me down the street.
A few shacks later, Ofelia emerges from a friend’s house. I immediately recognize her from her picture–the dent in her face that was once her eye is even more striking than in the photos. Her toothless jaw drops in amazement when I identify myself. She takes my hand and pumps it in both of hers. Martha’s two boys cling to her side. Albeiro, three and a half, is wearing blue shorts and a filthy pink t-shirt. His face is full of scabs. Victor Alfonso, two and a half, also wears a dirty shirt and shorts. Both are barefoot and immediately friendly.
I ask for Martha. “She almost never comes here,” Ofelia tells me. “She hasn’t been here for a month. She’s working in Tulua, but we don’t know where, or where she lives. She left the boys here.” My heart sinks. I have come all this way and it seems I won’t meet her.
We enter the house about which I have read so much. It is worse than I imagined: two rooms–a kitchen and a bedroom–over a concrete and mud floor; peeling green paint over bamboo and mud walls; a warped plank ceiling under a tin roof. It is dark, despite the hour, and stiflingly hot. A rotting smell from the river comes in through the back door and is nauseating. There is dust everywhere.
Ofelia offers me a low stool and sits on the edge of Mariana’s bed. She lifts the corner of the mattress to uncover a flattened pile of all the letters, pictures, and children’s books that Cecilia and I have sent over the years. The two boys grab Animal Babies. She yells and pushes them away. “Look what they’ve done,” she complains to me. “They ripped the cover.”
Her hands are cracked, her fingernails black. She is wearing a faded dress with a blue and yellow flower pattern. Her dark brown hair is pulled back in a tight bun. She is nervous and talkative.
I ask what happened to Martha.
“Martha is loca, muy loca,” she answers with a disgusted wave. “She goes from one place to another. She likes to move around. She likes to dance, to talk.”
Why didn’t she continue school?
“In part, because her father died. . . . When she was a girl, she was very good at studying. She always got up on her own and never missed a day, even if she were sick. She wanted to be a nurse or to work in an office. She wanted to graduate from high school. Jorge, too, wanted to study, to have a better job than working in the sun. But they had no one to help them.”
Later, Jorge comes in. He is twenty-four years old, about my height, thin as a rail, wiry, with muscular arms. Black rubber sandals flap on his feet. He is bare-chested and wears blue nylon shorts and a red baseball cap. He speaks only when asked questions.
“I have little contact with Martha,” he tells me. “It’s hard for me. I have to support my mother.” He wants me to see the house where he lives and we walk down the road.
When we return to his mother’s house, Mariana is back home. She is fourteen going on twenty-five. She’s shaking, literally, when I come in, jumping, giggling, unable to talk coherently. “I’m so nervous,” she says.
“I always thought that you might come to visit,” her mother says, smiling. “Mariana always said, ‘Why would they ever come here, to this ugly place?'”
After Mariana calms down and we’ve chatted for a while, I ask her to help me find Martha. She shrugs. “I think it’s a waste of time.” But she agrees to come along.
The next day, we drive to Tulua and cruise from slum to slum, following leads given us by Martha’s former neighbors. After several hours, an old woman with a white eye patch points the way. “I saw her twenty days ago,” she yells. “She was living at a flower shop next to the place that has a red umbrella, right on the plaza.”
At dusk, we find the flower shop–actually a boarding house–off the main plaza. We look down a long, dark corridor where a plump young woman is holding a baby and looking at us suspiciously. Mariana sees her first. “There’s Martha’s baby,” she says.
“What baby?” I ask, startled.
Mariana doesn’t answer because just then Martha recognizes her sister and coldly asks what she wants. “Te presento nuestro padrino,” Mariana says, sarcastically formal. “I’d like you to meet our foster father.”
Martha lets out a whoop, comes tearing down the hall, knocks me into the wall with a huge bear hug, and smothers me in kisses.
At first it’s hard to believe that this is the girl from the pictures. Her face is plain and heavy. She looks like she could be that girl’s mother or older sister. She walks me into the dining area, insists I sit down, and stands next to me, cradling my head. I’m a little put off by the physical contact, but deeply touched at the same time.
I also feel like Humbert Humbert, finding Lolita as a washed-up housewife, her promise long lost.
I must leave to take Mariana and a friend who came with us back home. I make plans for dinner with Martha later. On the drive back to Los Estrechos, it’s dark and Mariana and her friend ride in the back. They sing one off-key song after another and then ask me to sing for them. I answer with a Paul Simon song, equally off-key. In the sky, the clouds have broken and a fingernail-sliver of a moon shines through.
Later, I pick Martha up for dinner at my hotel. She is wearing slacks that are too small for her, a white blouse, black pumps, make-up. She holds my hand tightly or wraps my arm around her shoulder the entire walk. I find it impossible to read her expression, which is always passive, flat.
At the restaurant, she picks at her steak. She sees the gold chain and Jewish star around my neck. “Give me this?” she asks, taking the chain in her hand. I laugh and say no, it was an anniversary gift from Cecilia. She asks again, and I find myself feeling resentful that I am being asked to give more and guilty that what we already have given has amounted to nothing in the larger context of her life.
Where does one draw the line? From time to time over the years we sent extra money to the family. Before I leave, I will divide another two hundred dollars between Martha, Mariana, and Ofelia. That money will, no doubt, help with their immediate needs but do nothing for their future. But then, what success has Foster Parents, with its program of building independence, had with this family?
Over dinner, Martha fills in the gaps in her story.
Months after she left Albeiro for the second time, he rode into Los Estrechos on a motorcycle, looking for her. He stayed with her family for three months before disappearing permanently. He left her pregnant with their third son, Harold. She stayed with her mother and sisters for a while and worked picking passion fruit.
“Things have gone very badly for me,” she says. “I left my mother’s house and took the three boys with me. I worked for an old couple in Tulua. But they were bad, didn’t pay me. So I left.”
She took a bus back to her mother’s, dropped off her two older boys, and returned to Tulua with the baby.
There Martha met Ana Acevedo, the thirty-two-year-old woman she lives with now. A mother of two girls, Ana is heavy-set, intelligent, and funny. Their rooming house off the plaza has a shared bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, and living area. People come in and out and all cluck over Harold. I later realize that Ana and the other two boarders do not know that Martha has two other children.
“I met her in the plaza,” Ana tells me later. “She needed help. She was working for a family until ten o’clock every night. The baby was alone all day with a bottle of sugar water. He was bald, horribly malnourished, and he had a huge tumor under his arm.”
Although she, too, had nothing, Ana took Martha under her wing. She convinced two doctors to operate on Harold for free, saving his life. “I told Martha that I couldn’t pay her, but that she could live with us,” Ana tells me. “She is very helpful and works hard.” Martha and Ana make tortillas and sell them in the street.
“I get fed up once in a while,” Martha tells me. “Sometimes I feel like I want to go home. I miss my boys. But I am ashamed to go because I have nothing to take them. And Mariana and I fight a lot.”
I feel uncomfortable getting too personal, but over breakfast the next morning I ask why she let herself have three children by age nineteen. “I knew nothing about planning,” she answers. “I knew nothing about how to have sex without having kids.”
“Ana has told me how. With a pill or a shot.”
And what does she see for her future, the future that we and Foster Parents had hoped to remake for her?
“I think about a lot of things. But when you don’t have anything you have to resign yourself. I don’t have the money to study. If I did, I would become a nurse.”
With Harold on her lap, she rides with me to her mother’s house, where I stop on my way to catch a plane in Cali. When we get to the house the reception is friendly but tense. “Ay,” says Mariana, taking a long look at her sister. “Look how fat she is.”
Martha seems not to notice. She is hugging and kissing her older boys, whom she hasn’t seen in over a month. They can’t get enough of her, staying close throughout the visit. Mariana cuddles Harold in her arms as Ofelia watches smiling. The two sisters laugh and drape arms around each other as I take a picture.
Martha insists on accompanying me to Cali. Before we get into the car, Ofelia shakes my hand and Mariana offers me a kiss. As we drive away from the house, Martha’s three boys wave good-bye. Their nineteen- year-old mother sits in silence beside me. I think of my interview a few days earlier with Mari Ladi Londono, a feminist leader and friend who runs a center for poor women in Cali.
“A girl who has children,” she told me, “closes all her roads to study, to progress, to work. The hope is almost completely lost of escaping this poverty.”
When we joined Foster Parents’ crusade to beat poverty, we fell into the typically American trap of faith in simplicity. Like other antipoverty programs, it sold us the illusion that “saving a life” is an easy thing to do, that doing good is as painless as writing a check for twenty-two dollars in the comfort of our living room. “For the cost of a morning coffee break, you can break the cycle of poverty for one small child,” one of the ads had read. “You’ll be amazed at the difference you can make.”
A similar program called Children International takes marketing an amazing step further, advertising Third World children for “no money down.” They’ll send you a case history with no obligation to buy–if the kid doesn’t appeal to you, just send him or her back.
Many who work in these programs know that they may be promising more than they’ll be able to deliver. “It’s quite a common situation,” said Paul Bode, the director of Foster Parents’ Cali office. “In this kind of work you can’t assure a 100 percent, not a 90 percent, not an 80 percent success rate.”
Behind the marketing, we believe that Childreach has the best intentions, and, in fact, is doing a lot of good in the world. It can legitimately point to many achievements, even in towns near the Perezes: successful programs in health, education, and home building; current and former foster children whom Childreach has helped make it to better lives.
But we won’t continue with Childreach once they pull out of Tulua and Mariana is no longer involved. We are disappointed and have been misled by the program’s regular assurances that things were better than they actually were. Over our eight years in Childreach, we did everything it said we could and more. We took an active interest, mailed extra money, sent gifts, harassed officials to make them pay more attention to our family. We even gave the program a second chance with a second Perez child. Next time, we will look for another way to do a little good.
In Cali, I offer Martha a lift to the bus station. She leans against me and I put my arm around her. She is quiet. At the bus station she kisses me on the cheek and gets out. She takes my hand through the window and then walks off. She looks back once and waves. I have no idea what she’s thinking.
I know that I will never see her again. I am leaving her behind. What lingers is the echo of the question with which she had often interrupted conversation during our two brief days together:
“When are you going to take me with you?”
Cecilia Rodriguez is a Colombian freelance journalist and columnist who writes on Latin American affairs for U.S. and Latin publications. David Schrieberg is Mexico Bureau Chief for the Sacramento Bee and will be a 1993-1994 Knight Fellow at Stanford University.