Why my trip to Cartagena was heartbreaking yet absolutely life-changing

Meet Dana and her grandmother, Beatriz. I met Dana (6) the first day I visited one of CI's community centers in Cartagena, Colombia, as an employee of TOMS on one of our Giving Trips. She followed me around the center all day — from the time our eyes met when we arrived until she ran after the van when we left.

But that isn't the special part. Dana never said a word. She was just always there. If I didn't see her, I'd keep working, then look up and there she'd be, smiling and giggling. While I nearly "killed myself" playing soccer, I saw her little face in the distance giggling from the swings on the edge of the soccer field. The whole time I was fitting her for shoes, she just sat quietly. No words. Just smiles and happiness.

It was so refreshing to see and experience. She has a beautiful spirit despite being in so much need. It moved me to the point that I went to the director of the center and asked if I could sponsor one of the children.

After three days of working with CI in multiple locations, all of my worries about “if my money would actually go to help the kids” were put to rest! I not only met children who were in the program, but I met grown women who had been through the program and came back to help. I also met children who were waiting for a sponsor — just hoping to reap the benefits the other children were enjoying.

In my mind, I had no other choice at that moment than to sponsor a child. I felt I needed to help at least one, as much as I wanted to just pack them all up and bring them home with me. The director assured me that I could (sponsor, that is!), and said she would follow up with me in terms of what I needed to do to make that happen. I continued on with my day, thinking I'd get an email in a week or so showing me the child I sponsored and asking for my payment info.

TOMS staff and sponsored kids goof around after participating in a Sports for Development activity.

Boy was I wrong! While we were getting ready to pack up and head back to the hotel, Rosalba Ortiz Pedroza, sponsorship relations manager and one of our contacts who had been with us for the whole time in Cartagena asked me: “Would you like to meet the child you will be sponsoring?” I, of course, responded with, “Yes, yes!”

She took me outside and there was Dana and that beautiful smile I had seen all day, sitting with her mom. It was her! She was mine. Well, not mine fully, but mine to help. Her mother said “thank you” to me so much I literally had to stop her by just hugging her so tightly. We all cried. All three of us just had a “moment.” It was amazing!

So many people who sponsor children may not get to meet the children until they are older, if they get to meet them at all. I felt completely and totally honored. It made it that much more special that I am able to help this beautiful angel who decided she wanted to follow around the funny-looking American all day.

Are you hoping to visit your sponsored child? Here's everything you need to know about visiting.

Brooklynn Martin is the headquarters office assistant at TOMS in Santa Monica, California.

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