Every so often, the universe throws a lovely curveball your direction. And, recently, those of us at CI HQ were lucky enough to catch one. The result? Sharing some “meaningful synchronicity” with an exceptional young woman: Johanny Amaya from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a former sponsored child.
It’s a tale of unlikely odds. Whether you believe in providence, serendipity or some other guiding force, we suggest you settle in somewhere comfortable; her tale takes more than a few paragraphs to tell. We promise it’s worth it. But fair warning: You might want a tissue ready — just in case.
It was a winding and improbable path that brought Johanny Amaya (26) to CI’s headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, this past spring. It included a traumatic childhood, a psychologist, devotion to an ill mother, an enthusiastic educator, a deserving scholarship, some surprising internet research, a first-ever plane ride, a small college in eastern Kansas, and a very specific goal: To visit CI’s office, meet the staff there and impress upon them and all CI supporters that their efforts in helping impoverished children matter. Not just a little. But in significant and far-reaching ways.
Johanny knew because she was the proof.
Johanny became sponsored with CI when she was 6 years old. Her mother was the sole provider for the young girl and her brother after their father abandoned them. In desperation, the three moved in with Johanny’s aunt and her family — including five other kids. Home to the 10 was a small, two-room shanty.
According to Johanny, the support from CI was enormously helpful. Several times a week, for example, CI provided breakfast. “Volunteer moms would gather us up in the community center and cook something nutritional for us,” she explains, sighing with fondness. After all, a meal in the morning meant not having to attend school on an empty stomach — a huge boost.
Johanny also valued the shoes and school supplies from CI — luxuries to most in her community. She remembers the happiness when CI kids showed up for class all wearing the same awesome new footwear, as well as the sadness for those who went barefoot or had only worn hand-me-downs.
With a twinge of melancholy, Johanny reminds us — and herself — “Not all of us had the same opportunities.”
But the care CI provided to Johanny when she most needed it stems from a deeply personal and dark time in her childhood. Hunger, fear and depression were so severe that, at the age of only 7, Johanny became suicidal.
“Going to school, I felt so different from my classmates,” she says. “I was so afraid of everything. I was not a very good student.” When she was called to the front of the class to solve problems on the chalkboard, she adds, “I’d just start crying in front of everyone. I thought I was not worthy.”
Johanny points to faint scars on her wrists. But those weren’t her only attempts at self-injury. Her mother, who suffered from several ailments, had many pills. “I would just grab many of them and hide in a corner, away from everyone, and drink a cup of water and take all of them,” she explains quietly. Hours later, in the throes of violent illness, she would be rushed by her mother to the emergency room. After multiple episodes, “She thought I just had a stomach ache or something,” Johanny adds, despite one incident leaving her in a coma.
“To this day,” she adds, “no one knows the real reason I was so sick.” No one, that is, except one person: a psychologist that Johanny credits with saving her life.
The doctor at CI’s community center recognized the signs of Johanny’s depression and arranged for her to see the mental-health professional regularly for the next five years. The support was critical in giving her the courage to face the next challenge of her young life: her mother’s continuing illness.
Although Johanny remains unclear as to an exact diagnosis, she says, “My mom became so sick she couldn’t walk.” Fourteen at the time, and with her brother away looking for work, Johanny dropped out of school to help her mother. It was around this same time, also, that she was no longer able to participate in CI’s sponsorship program. That forced period of maturity — two long and struggling years as a caregiver — created a dawning realization in Johanny: If she hadn’t been around, her mother would never have made it.
Johanny has reflected a great deal upon her life and the challenges and changes she has faced.
In retrospect, she also realized that her sessions with the psychologist had kept her alive long enough to gain the strength and emotional health necessary to turn her attention and love outward — toward her mother. And that she was paying it forward, just as her CI sponsor had done for her. “I said to myself that, from now on, my life was going to be different,” Johanny says. “And it was different. I went back to school and eventually became enrolled in college and started getting good grades. I received a scholarship (to help with high school), studying English.”
During high school, Johanny did so well in English that her instructor offered her an extra hour of private tutoring per week. Before long, the instructor had Johanny introduce each day’s topic and assist with teaching responsibilities. One day, she walked into class and discovered she wasn’t merely assisting. The educator told her, “I’m not teaching today. You are.” At first, Johanny felt so shy she didn’t think she could do it. “But he encouraged me,” she says. “He pushed me. I now consider that the push of my life. He pushed me to better things.”
Johanny ended up teaching at a bilingual school, which didn’t pay much, but it was enough to cover her educational expenses. She often went all day without eating, throughout much of high school and even while earning her undergraduate degree (reassuring her worried mother with little white lies that friends had bought her lunch). But this resilient young woman persevered — and excelled — through it all.
“It’s been really hard, but now I can smile about life,” she says. “I don’t want to die. I appreciate everything now.”
Johanny’s dedication to learning earned her one of only six scholarships awarded by the U.S. government — via the Global Undergraduate Exchange (UGRAD) program — to Honduran students to study in the U.S. for a semester. Johanny learned that her scholarship would be sending her to Kansas-based Emporia State University. So, last fall, as she searched the internet in preparation for her first trip abroad, she studied details of the area where she’d be visiting. While it had been more than 10 years since she’d seen the CI logo, when it popped up in her search results (Emporia is just a stone’s throw from CI’s headquarters in Kansas City), she experienced a profound flood of emotions. Long-dormant memories came back with the force of a giant wave.
“I instantly had a feeling of deep gratitude,” she says. “Children International was crucial for me.”
She decided then and there that she was going to find a way to visit CI’s offices during her visit to the Midwest.
During her first week in the U.S., Johanny found CI’s Facebook page and sent a private message, telling us how much the organization changed her life — and that she’d like to be in contact with us.
Soon, CI staffers were messaging with her, arranging to pick her up in Emporia and taking her on a whirlwind tour of Kansas City highlights. On a Monday morning, her excitement was unmistakable as she finally walked in the doors of CI headquarters.
Plans included some meet-and-greets with CI employees. But the once-shy young woman surprised everyone when she asked if she could share a PowerPoint presentation. Standing in front of a lunch room packed with hushed individuals, she clicked through images of her past. She showed a scarred and faded photograph of herself and two classmates. She paused and asked, “Do you see something different in this photo? One of the children isn’t wearing any shoes. But two of us had shoes because of CI.”
Several times during her presentation, she hesitated, struggling to hold back tears as she described the impact Children International had on her life. She said her past had given her a specific perspective on her future.
"I really want to help others to pursue their goals and dreams and believe in themselves,” she says. “I have a feeling that I need to help people. That's the best thing I can do is help people. And that's what I really want to do the rest of my life.” That perspective has influenced her hopes for the future: to attend graduate school, earn a doctorate and eventually start a foundation to help Honduran orphans learn English.
“They have no one,” she says, “and they have no advantages. But learning English changed my life. In Honduras, if you know English, you have real opportunities. So I really want to empower orphaned kids so they have a chance, too.”
Her wisdom didn’t end there, though. Johanny told us her motto for life:
“I know I am a result of my past, but that doesn’t mean I will always be a prisoner of that past.”
Visibly working to control her emotions, in halting sobs, Johanny summarized her presentation: “All of this happened because you saw me when I was invisible. You gave me a voice when I had none.”
Her tears weren’t the only ones flowing as she was engulfed by CI staff. Team members waited in line to hug Johanny and express their admiration for her courage and honesty.
Johanny’s words may have been addressed to CI staffers on that spring day, but she made it clear that her comments included everyone involved in the movement to eradicate poverty and change kids’ lives — including you, our supporters. (You can see clips of Johanny’s presentation to CI on our Facebook page.)
On behalf of Johanny and countless other children, we offer our deepest gratitude. Just as Johanny noted that “we” saw her, we see you, too! And we continue to be grateful for your support.
P.S. More proof of the serendipitous nature of Johanny’s visit was that her placement at Emporia State University also put her in close proximity to her brother. When Kelvin moved to the United States nearly eight years ago to find work, he made a home in Denver — just 550 miles west of Emporia. His “nearby” presence allowed Johanny to visit him and other family members who also had traveled to Colorado 20 years before. Her joyful reunion with these loved ones was just one more fateful aspect of this inspiring young woman’s journey to success.