It all started with a shopping trip. Mary-Alice Vuicic was at the mall with her then six-year-old daughter Danika when they came across a kiosk promoting World Vision. Vuicic had donated to the organization before, but it had recently popped into her mind again because she’d been thinking about how she could make the concept of giving back more real for her daughter. She thought sponsoring a child could be a way to bring bigger issues to life for Danika, and suddenly there was an opportunity to test that theory.
“They had this poster board with all these children, and they were looking for sponsors. So, my daughter was able to look at all the pictures and read the profiles. She definitely wanted to sponsor a girl, and she chose Sumeya, a girl in Kenya who was the same age as her,” Vuicic says.
That was almost four years ago, and Danika’s interest in Sumeya’s life hasn’t waned. “We’ve learned more about her and what her life is like. And it was really neat just to see Danika’s interest and her engagement, and how much she wanted to learn more,” Vuicic says. “I think sponsoring Sumeya helped give her greater empathy and greater awareness that everybody has different circumstances. She’s definitely more aware that not everybody has the same benefits or access to the same things that she does.”
That’s a sign of doing something right, according to Mary Gordon, a social entrepreneur, educator, author, child advocate and parenting expert who founded Roots of Empathy, an empathy education program for school-aged children.
“If you think of empathy as two pieces, one would be cognitive empathy—that’s perspective-taking [the act of perceiving a situation from a viewpoint other than your own]. It’s a cognitive process where you’re telling your child that there are kids who suffer. On the other hand, there’s affective empathy, which is when a child is with her mother, sees what her mother does, feels what her mother does, hears her mother talk to others about what she does,” Gordon says, explaining that just telling children they should help others isn’t as effective as showing them that it’s something you care about too. “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”
In fact, according to Gordon, you don’t need to teach kids empathy or reward them for caring for others. You just need to show them it’s something you value and encourage their natural instincts. She points to a study where researchers tested toddlers’ natural altruism by hanging clothes to dry on a clothesline, then pretending they dropped a clothes peg and couldn’t reach it. In every case, the baby toddled over to help. The takeaway? Kids are primed to be empathetic, good people. All parents have to do is encourage them.
That’s something Vuicic realized, too. As she learned more about Sumeya’s life, Danika very quickly saw the differences between their experiences, with no prompting from mom and dad. “There was some information about the village that Sumeya lived in and her family situation; if I remember correctly, at the time, she had not started school because she had to care for siblings at home,” Vuicic says. “And Danika was quite taken aback because she had been going to school for a couple of years at that point and really enjoyed it. That opened the door for more discussion.”
Danika’s understanding of Sumeya’s life has evolved as she’s grown. At first, she asked a lot of questions about the little things: does she have a mommy and daddy? What does she eat? What kinds of games does she play? But now, she’s ready for more complicated questions. Vuicic and her husband have long understood that investing in girls’ and women’s health and education can uplift their families and entire communities.
According to the UN, increasing girls’ access to education leads to economic empowerment for women and inclusive economic growth—two critical pieces towards achieving its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It’s why World Vision is calling on Canadians to get 1,000 girls sponsored by International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11. Sponsorship ensures access to food, water, health care, education and protection for girls, who are more likely to experience the more adverse effects of poverty.
Today, Danika’s being engaged in more age-appropriate conversations. “She’s learning what being able to go to school for a longer period of time can mean for Sumeya in her lifetime,” Vuicic says. “She also understands what helping Sumeya buy a goat or a cow can mean for her family, and how it can turn into an ongoing source of food. So, the conversation is definitely progressing.”
But Vuicic and her husband are careful to pair these difficult truths with brainstorming sessions on how they, and Danika, can help.
“I think it’s important that we strike the right tone. We [don’t want Danika] to get drawn down into the depressing parts of this. So, we talk about how we can take action and what things we have the power to change, or at least influence,” she explains. And that’s not just about money. When the family learned that writing to sponsored children encourages them to stay in school, Danika jumped at the chance to start corresponding with Sumeya.
We talk about how we can take action and what things we have the power to change, or at least influence
In fact, Vuicic says Danika continues to be really engaged in how the family can help and support their sponsored child—and other kids around the world. Last year, the family decided to make a donation to World Vision that would be distributed to the areas of impact they prioritized. So, Danika researched the different regions of the world and what was most needed in each one, then picked the areas she wanted the family’s donation to support. And she’s not done yet. The family plans to sponsor more children from different areas of the world, so Danika will be building on her research this summer.
“I want her to have a greater understanding of the different human conditions around the world and to know that, almost by an accident of birth, we were lucky enough to be born in nations with societal wealth, so we have a responsibility to make sure we all have equal opportunity,” Vuicic says. “I want her to feel a sense of personal power, that she can make positive change in the world.”
Be a part of change. Become a sponsor and help World Vision meet its goal of supporting 1,000 more girls by the International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11.