by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Countless educations, endless gratitude and an infinite outpouring of love might best describe the impact Unbound has had on almost one million sponsored children and older individuals living in poverty around the world over the life of the organization. The Kansas City, Kansas-based charity provides financial aid and other assistance to children, youth and elders in 19 countries throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia.
This year, Unbound reached a new milestone, having distributed $2 billion in funds for programs that help families overcome the challenges of poverty. The organization was founded 40 years ago by five individuals guided and inspired by the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Today, Unbound continues to operate on those core values. According to Unbound community outreach director Tara Hefner, the charity has even gained the support and individual sponsorship of Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
“Forty years [after inception], we continue to follow our founding values, including being grounded in a theological base, recognizing the dignity of each person, facilitating respectful relationships, and exhibiting integrity and accountability,” Hefner said. “For sponsors, Unbound offers a concrete and viable way to live out their faith as they walk in spirit with their sponsored friends on their journey out of poverty. Sponsors build relationships of support, understanding and respect through letters, photographs and prayer.”
One of Unbound’s key distinctions is its child sponsorships. Such sponsorships provide economic support that empowers youth and their families with the tools they need to achieve self-sufficiency.
According to Hefner, child sponsorships typically come in the form of direct cash transfers to help families in need achieve goals they set for themselves. Local staff members work with families of sponsored children on how to best use their benefits, which often go to support a child’s education.
It was the idea of helping a child get an education that first drew Rachael Wohletz to Unbound 16 years ago. The Good Shepherd, Shawnee, parishioner learned about Unbound while attending Mass one Sunday. The Unbound speaker asked parishioners if they could give up the equivalent of the cost of one meal each week to sponsor a child.
“At the time, I was eating out five to six times per week, and that’s when I decided to sponsor my first child, Oscar from El Salvador,” Wohletz said. “It was so powerful to make a difference with so little effort.”
While there are other child-sponsorship charities, Wohletz said Unbound made an impression on her because such a high percentage of what she gives goes to the family of the child she sponsors. And she is the first to admit she gets more than she gives when considering the letters, pictures and messages she receives from the children she sponsors.
“In almost every letter I receive, my children tell me they are praying for me. And yet, they are the ones who are in need,” she said. “They are full of hope and inspiration. That can choke a person up.”
Once Oscar completed his education, Wohletz continued to sponsor other children.
However, sponsors can choose to help an older individual, known as an “elder” in Unbound’s programming, as well. Elders enrich younger generations by sharing wisdom, storytelling and organizing activities like community gardens, Hefner said.
The needs of elders living in poverty are different than those for families with children and youth, however. Unbound’s program is personalized to meet their unique needs, so sponsored elders may live their final years in dignity.
“Elder sponsorship breaks the cycle of isolation and provides steady support to older adults living in poverty. Sponsorship provides direct cash assistance and resources for needs like nutrition, medical care and housing,” Hefner said. “According to a survey of sponsored and nonsponsored older adults, elders in Unbound experience less loneliness and social isolation, a lower incidence of hunger and greater access to health care. Many sponsored elders enjoy the health benefits and camaraderie of exercise classes, cultural dance and handicrafts.”
Like other nonprofit organizations, Unbound was challenged by COVID-19 and had to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic. As such, Unbound focused on raising funds specifically to help families in dire need because of the pandemic.
In 2020, the organization sent an additional $2.4 million to those who were already receiving assistance and in need of pandemic relief.
“Natural disasters, health crises and other unexpected setbacks in developing countries take a disproportionate toll on people living in poverty, often destroying any headway families have made in improving their situations,” Hefner said. “Restrictions on public gatherings and commerce were devastating for the 61 percent of people in the world who, according to the United Nations, earn their living in the informal economy.”
The beauty of its sponsorship model, Hefner said, is that it’s designed to help before, during and after a crisis.
“Families in the Unbound sponsorship program live with the same risks as others on the margins, but they have resources that help them be resilient,” she said.
Access to parishes also impacted Unbound. In a normal year, Hefner said, Unbound is welcomed by 450-500 priests to share the Unbound message with their parishes. During the height of the pandemic, that number was reduced to just over 200 visits in 2020.
Regardless of the number of parishes Unbound visits each year and the families it helps, there’s no denying the impact the organization has on its individual sponsors, like Wohletz.
“I know I am blessed financially and I am grateful that Unbound provides me an opportunity to pay it forward,” Wohletz said. “I know that Unbound is using my sponsorship to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Unbound helps make families’ dreams come true
Jeaneth and Pinky are two individuals who have been helped by Unbound sponsorships.
Jeaneth, from Quito, Ecuador, earned a bachelor’s degree in educational sciences with a minor in natural and environmental sciences, biology and chemistry from the Central University of Ecuador, while realizing her dream of becoming a teacher.
Pinky lives near Bhagalpur, in India, and recently completed a nursing internship — an accomplishment that likely would not have been possible without support from Unbound. Her family’s financial situation was dire when she was growing up. At the time she was first sponsored, her father had to travel to Mumbai — more than 40 hours away by car — to find work, and her mother did not have a job. Pinky’s sponsorship came when the family needed it most. She made her dream of becoming a nurse a reality through hard work, perseverance and support from her sponsor.