Helping kids in need leads to a lifetime of personal growth

Where you grow up has a great influence on who and what you become. I grew up not far from Kansas City in a smart and caring small town. Smart because there's a university at the heart of it; parents expected a very good education for their children, and we got it. Everyone knew everyone; everyone cared for the safety and future of the children. Ensuring kids have a positive childhood, well-grounded in community and fortified by education, has an obvious connection to CI's mission.

Since I've been at CI for the better part of 30 years, I've had the extraordinary opportunity to travel the world. I've been to every country where CI works — and some we no longer work in. But I really don't have a favorite. As a photographer, I'm intentional about seeing what's similar and what's different. The variety of goods in the marketplace, mounds of colorful spices, the texture of fabric. But the people are always my favorite. What makes one person so completely unique from the next? I gotta know that. I can get lost in the deep lines of a mature woman's face — they are the map showing the route she's taken and the life she's led. The seasoned hands of an elder — hands that have undoubtedly worked hard, learned much and guided many. But with children, their whole story isn't written yet. So I almost always focus first on their eyes. Full of play, hope and wonder … or fear, pain and sadness.

Without a doubt, it is the children themselves who inspire me. In Honduras, there was a little girl with long black eyelashes framing incredible green eyes. She saw us approach from her hiding spot behind a shack, but I caught her attention and curiosity. I photographed her for several minutes before even seeing her scars. Scars. She was only 6 or 7 years old and scarred by burns that nearly killed her years before. The once playful little girl now hid so few would see her. I showed her the camera and photos. And then she knew what I knew: She was beautiful.

For 30 years, Andrea Waters has helped weave stories of global poverty awareness from behind the lens.

I sponsored her for a number of years, funding a variety of surgeries and helping her family with other assistance. She even seemed to be gaining self-confidence year after year. And then she was gone. The report said "moved." No one knew where the family went or if their circumstances somehow improved. They were just not there anymore.

And that's one of the things you learn in this line of work. It isn't about me. The realities of the poor are so incredibly difficult and hope is found in small precious doses. It's only through a long and steady climb can they escape. They need a path, tools and opportunity. They need to look up from the path and see someone else sharing their load, watching out for them. A shy green-eyed little Honduran girl shouldn't have to do it alone. So that's the thing: The kids have kept me here all these years. I'm in this for them. And I have a lot to give.

Andrea sponsored Sonia for six years before she left the program at age 13.

Andrea sponsored Sonia for six years before she left the program at age 13.

My own children have kept me here as well. I've been very honest with them about how the world works, what I've seen and how it's a requirement to be a positive force for good. They are lucky to have traveled with me to experience it firsthand, and both were devastated by the overwhelming scope of poverty. Not surprisingly, like me, they were incredibly uplifted by the kids and teens they met. Today, as adults, my children are making a positive impact on the world. They know it's a must.

The work I do has evolved over the years, but today I am the shepherd of storytellers, incredibly creative thinkers and a lot of makers. Talented people who share photos, videos and the stories of the unique individuals we serve around the world. I don't travel as much as I used to — I need the team to see it, hear it, feel it, smell it and sit in the dirt with the kids, teens, volunteers and staff. They need it to become part of their own DNA so they can better serve our contributors … but more importantly, be in it for the kids. It's a requirement.

Keep reading! Another awesome story: Why my trip to Cartagena was heartbreaking yet absolutely life-changing

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