Among the rows of snow scenes, Santa and robin pictures on Sue Tinney’s mantelpiece is a Christmas card from a boy she has never met.
It’s a very special card and inside the greetings are notably different from the printed festive wishes and confident hand-written messages sent by family and friends.
The boy has drawn a figure sitting on a mule, written a few seasonal words, pencilled sums to show off what he has been learning at school and, more curiously, drawn a picture of a T-shirt.
‘I think that’s what it is,’ says Sue, smiling at the card. ‘We sent him an Olympics T-shirt so I think that drawing is probably his way of saying thank you.’
The card has come from 13-year-old Laurent who lives in Senegal, West Africa. He has had to miss quite a bit of school to help out on the family farm because his uncle has been ill. But the sums he writes each year now involve bigger numbers.
His pictures have become more detailed and this is the first time the French-speaking boy has written a greeting – Joyeux Noel, which means Happy Christmas.
Sue and her husband Sam sponsor Laurent through overseas aid charity World Vision. The couple donate a regular sum which contributes to development programmes in his rural home.
They send Christmas and birthday cards, letters and small gifts and receive letters, school reports, cards and other news.
Laurent’s notes are written by an adult but they are his words. He says he loves Christmas because the people in the village get together and cook the best meals.
But life in rural West Africa can be very basic and often the most fundamental needs, like food, water and health care, cannot be taken for granted.
Laurent lives in a mud hut with a corrugated roof. His family and the community around him are mainly farmers and grow millet, beans and ground nuts,
The sponsorship money is used for the community which nominates a child to represent them. Sue and Sam, who live in Havant, have heard their donations have contributed to a vaccination programme for children and improvements to Laurent’s school building.
There has also been a programme to provide everyone with mosquito nets, as malaria remains one of the world’s biggest killers, and the community has a new health centre.
‘One of the charity’s priorities is to address the problems of disease so that’s things like mosquito nets and safe, clean drinking water,’ says Sam.
Laurent has a very different existence from the life enjoyed by the Havant grandparents, but he and Sam have something in common.
‘We’re both Man United fans,’ says Sam. ‘He loves them and I belong to the fan’s club so we send him posters, pictures and calendars and things.
‘He’s always so grateful, I think that’s what you really notice when you do this. We’re only allowed to send small gifts but we know they mean a lot to him.
‘We’re very materialistic in this country and this puts a different perspective on things. There are a lot of people who would rather have clean water than a big car in the drive.’
The couple have sponsored another child and their experiences have led to Sue, 66, becoming an ambassador for the charity.
She has recently finished her training and will now be giving talks, encouraging others to think about sponsorship or supporting World Vision in some other way. She says: ‘I know from our experience how rewarding child sponsorship can be so I wanted to spread the word.
‘I thought as an ambassador I could help even more and make that little bit more of a difference. A lot of people haven’t heard of World Vision or don’t know much about the charity. But it does as much work as Oxfam and Save The Children.’
World Vision is a Christian charity but works with children and communities of all denominations and religions. Similarly, it’s not necessary to be a Christian to sponsor a child or support the organisation’s work.
Like the other big aid charities, it also sends skilled workers and relief in the aftermath of disasters.
The charity helps more than 100 million people in more than 100 countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Niger, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.
From the mid-1990s Senegal enjoyed a decade as one of the best performing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.
But the global crisis has taken its toll and a population that imports all of its oil and wheat and 80 per cent of its rice is still recovering from the steep rise in fuel and food prices.
Today the UN Human Development Index rates Senegal in the lowest eight per cent, and more than half of the population are living on less than £1.25 a day.
Child sponsor support is helping thousands of families across the central and southern regions to build a better future for their children.
Much of World Vision’s work is focusing on improving health care and ensuring access to safe, clean water.
Sue points out that it costs very little to make a difference to a child’s life.
‘We heard about it on the radio and got in touch with World Vision straight away. I think what really grabbed my attention was that it’s just 75p a day.
‘I know people have been struggling in the recession but it really isn’t very much money. You pay £2 for a cup of coffee and this is much less.’
She shows some pictures of Laurent and smiles as she looks through the letters, cards and school reports.Helping in this way is really nice because you know where your money is going and hear about the work they’re doing.
‘It’s very personal. Receiving the thank you cards is lovely. He asks about our lives too. It helps you put things in perspective. You can be worrying about something trivial and think, hang on a minute, I’m actually very lucky.’
In her role as an ambassador for World Vision, Sue Tinney will be giving talks to churches, schools and other community groups.
She is setting up appointments and invites groups interested in finding out more about the charity to get in touch.
The aim of her work is to promote the organ-isation and gather more support from people who would like to sponsor a child.
Another way to help is to buy a charity gift. The service is available throughout the year.
The idea is to make a donation towards a specific programme on someone’s behalf and then give them a World Vision card. Gift options include a mosquito net (£7), a goat (£19) and an apprenticeship for a child (£80).
To contact Sue for a talk, e-mail email@example.com.
To see the range of gifts, visit musthavegifts.org or call (0845) 600 6446.
World Vision is the world’s largest overseas aid charity and works in some of the poorest countries on the planet.
The charity brings hope to children and communities by linking donors and those in need through child sponsorship.
World Vision runs area development programmes, working with communities on projects that focus on health, water and sanitation, education and agriculture.
It also sends funds and skilled assistance to disaster zones.
Another area of the charity’s work is advocacy – speaking out against injustice and the abuse of human rights. World Vision works with policymakers to address the causes of poverty, inequality and suffering.
Visit worldvision.org.uk or call (01908) 841010.