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Olivia's story, part 1

By Marilee Pierce Dunker
Jun 10, 2014
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Marilee first met Olivia, her sponsored child, in 2003. The following photos chronicle Marilee's trip to Olivia's village in Zambia.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Driving into Olivia's grandfather's village.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
The whole village came out to meet me.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Olivia was overwhelmed with the attention, but she loved the stuffed cow I brought her.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Olivia's grandfather, Ensende, was raising 16 grandchildren.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Olivia (in red skirt) with her sister and three brothers.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Everywhere our camera crew went, we drew a crowd.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Olivia had me on her "refrigerator."
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Olivia and friends singing, "I call God on the phone and He always answers!"
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
My first World Vision camera crew, Kim and Lisa.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
God bless the miracle that is Olivia.

In last week’s God Space I mentioned that I recently returned to Sinazongwe, Zambia, to spend time with Olivia, an orphan who lost her parents to AIDS. My husband and I began sponsoring her in 2003. 

It was a meaningful trip for many reasons, as Olivia is now married and the mother of a precocious 5-year-old, appropriately named Talent. 

The first time I visited Olivia, in 2003, we made a video entitled “The Miracle of Sponsorship” — and over the next 10 years, Olivia’s story was instrumental in motivating countless donors to sponsor children like her. 

When she decided to marry a few years ago, Olivia left World Vision’s sponsorship program, and we might have lost touch. But on a trip to Sinazongwe, a World Vision friend saw Olivia and her son and sent me a photo. 

My husband and I took one look at Talent’s little face and said, “That’s our grandson! Why can’t we sponsor him?” And so the miracle of sponsorship continues to bless Olivia’s family and mine.

Now we are watching Talent grow up, it occurs to me that God has given us a unique opportunity to see the ongoing difference that sponsorship makes — not only in the child’s life, but in the extended family and the community at large. 

So last November, I returned to Sinazongwe to spend four days with Olivia, her husband, Clever, and Talent. It was an amazing and life-changing experience as I walked and talked and laughed and cried with the amazing young woman whom I once called “the miracle that is Olivia.”

Before I share about Olivia’s life today, let me take you back to where our story began. The following is taken from my journal and is dated January 8, 2003.

I met Olivia today. My first impression was how small she is for 10. She isn’t much taller than Vinnie (my 6-year-old grandson). My next thought was how solemn her expression was, but then life has not been kind to this stoic little girl. Olivia’s parents both died from AIDS when she was 2. 

Her village is located in a dusty, drought-impacted area with only patches of green and a few barren trees. She lives in a small, two-room house built with clay bricks, and sleeps with her sister on a mattress in a room the size of my closet. It is hot and musty. 

Yet Olivia is blessed. She has a grandfather who obviously loves her, and one sister and three brothers who make her world rich with family. Her grandfather is also caring for 11 other children left behind by the sons and daughters he has lost to AIDS — sixteen children in all!

I was told that Olivia’s day begins at 5 a.m., when she makes the first of several trips to the water well World Vision has provided for her village. Olivia invited me to walk with her to draw water, and I watched the tiny girl struggle to carry the five-gallon bucket back to her house. 

My first thought was that this was no job for a small child. But as I watched the fresh, clean water gush from the spout, I couldn’t help thinking of the women I had met who walk miles every day in the hot sun to fill their containers with filthy, disease-ridden water. And I realized that Olivia and her village have been given a precious, life-giving gift in the simple, old-fashioned hand-pump — a gift made possible in part by the small check Bob and I write every month.  

Then it was time to sit and get acquainted. We were immediately surrounded by at least 30 village children, all eager to see what I had brought. Olivia was understandably shy, finding the cameras and attention focused on her to be overwhelming. I did not see a real smile until I pulled out the stuffed cow I had brought her and made it “moo.” 

As I had hoped, the cow made her laugh, and I began to feel her relax. I continued to pull the small gifts I had brought out of my bag: coloring books, crayons, pencils, and erasers. Every small offering produced excited murmurs from the crowd, as though I had produced treasures of great value. 

While Olivia examined her gifts, I asked her grandfather about the difference my sponsorship had made in Olivia’s life. He thought a moment, and then explained that Olivia had not been able to take her final exams last year to allow her to graduate from first to second grade. The reason was that he could not afford the paper exam book the school required. For want of a piece of paper, this bright little girl had not been allowed to continue her education! But now, because of our sponsorship, Olivia has everything she needs for school, and her grandfather was proud to report that she was doing very well!

Finally, I showed Olivia pictures of my family. I explained that I had her picture on my refrigerator and that every day I prayed for her. The words were no sooner out of my mouth when I realized that Olivia had never seen a refrigerator and her blank look left me feeling a bit foolish. But I hoped she understood that I was trying to tell her that she was part of our family now and that we loved her. 

Before we left, Olivia and her sister offered to sing us a song. The girls giggled a bit as they worked up their courage, reminding me of my own little granddaughter when she performs for me in my living room. But when they finally began to sing, their clear, strong voices blew me away. I couldn’t understand the words, but the obvious joy they felt had us all smiling and tapping our feet.

“What are they singing?” I asked our World Vision interpreter. 

“I call God on the telephone, and He always answers,” he replied with a grin.

I felt the tears come even as I had to laugh. What an amazing message from the heart of this little girl who had so little.

Two days later, we came back to say goodbye. When we arrived, Olivia ran into her house to get one of the coloring books I had brought her, so she could give me a picture as a keepsake. I followed her inside, standing for a second to let my eyes adjust to the dim light. 

As I looked around, my eyes fell on a single picture frame hung upon the naked earthen wall. It was a collage of fading family pictures. I saw Olivia’s parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters.  And there, right in the middle, was the picture of my family. Olivia had us on her refrigerator! 

As it came time to say our last goodbyes, I looked into the face of this little girl whom God had placed so uniquely in my family and in my heart, and I wondered what plans He had for her life. I found myself asking the age-old question we adults always ask the young. “What do you want to be when you grow up, Olivia?”

I had asked the question many times before and thought I knew what her answer would be. Most children living in extreme poverty have dreams of becoming doctors or teachers or nurses, because these are the people who most positively impact their lives. 

But Olivia didn’t answer right away. Instead she looked down, seeming hesitant to speak. Then, in a small voice, she said, “I want to work for World Vision.”

To be continued…

Marilee serves World Vision, the organization her father, Bob Pierce, founded in 1950. Like him, she travels the world, witnessing and fulfilling God’s mandate to care for the poor. Request Marilee to speak.