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She was the reason I traveled to Ecuador. Now, here was the moment I was going to finally meet the young girl whom I had been writing to for almost five years, whose picture on my bookmark I had prayed over, who had asked me frequently, “Will you come visit me?”

They were calling our names one at a time and I tried to stay focused. I did not want to be put on the spot, to be called in front of all those people. I could not look to my side, as other sponsors became emotional. I could not look at the woman in front of me, who had been a sponsor to a girl for seventeen years and was finally meeting her face-to-face. I could not look beyond the doorway that led to the meeting room where a sea of faces sat at multiple tables, each one waiting to meet their sponsor.

I was called third, and I quickly stepped through the door and tried to look over all the faces to where my girl was seated. She was standing up smiling shyly, but her mother was waving enthusiastically and I knew where I needed to go. I walked toward her table and I immediately forgot about all the other people in the room, whether or not they were watching, and tried to overcome my nerves by sheer willpower. Xiomara, the almost thirteen year old girl I have wrote letters to for years, stood almost at my height, smiled and hugged me, then sat across the table from me. Her mother sat between her and her tutor, the translator to my right. We all introduced ourselves and then Xiomara’s tutor offered to switch seats so Xiomara could sit next to me. She seemed a little reluctant but agreed. We both sat there, trying to think of what to say. Not being one that is very good at small talk, I looked at my translator for help.

Awkward questions and answers ensued, with simple responses. I learned that this was her first time in the city, and with a city as large as Quito I imagine it was all so overwhelming.  The people at Compassion had created a party setting; we danced and had our faces painted and she even convinced me to go on the stage and do the dancing with her. In front of everyone. But it was what she wanted so I went up there and flailed my arms like a chicken, rode an imaginary bike, and did all sorts of silly dances. Her smile was so bright.

The food came and all three of them sat there, seeming unsure as to how to proceed. I joked and told them I thought the dinner was too fancy, to which they grinned and said, “Yes, we don’t want to eat it, it is so pretty.”  After dinner she said she was bored. Initially I was crushed, but through some further translation I learned she had never been away from her many brothers and sisters and friends and it was more that she was unsure how to act/missing them. We went to the fun photo booth and took pictures, which made her smile again. The night quickly passed and then it was time to say good-bye until morning.

The next day we met at a nice country club on the edge of Quito. We put on our sunscreen and bug spray, waiting for the kids and their families. Xiomara’s mother again welcomed me with a huge grin and an even bigger hug; her tutor hugged and pecked me on the cheek hello. Xiomara gave me a side hug, quick and then stepped away. With the aid of the translator I told her of the things we could do and her eyes lit up when she heard about the pool. She said she only ever swam in a river and could not wait to get in the pool. So after a quiet snack where conversations were still forced we went to the pool.

It was like she came alive. She laughed and squealed and splashed and laughed some more. She wanted to race me, wanted me to drag her on the float, wanted to go down the slide with her hands in the air screaming and then begged me to do the same. She talked about her home and her family and swimming in the river and how she never wanted to leave the pool. She laughed at our caps we had to wear in the water and how funny our heads looked. She touched my arm and laughed again at how pale I was compared to her deep brown skin, pointing at my burning shoulders. She scolded me like an old mother, telling me to put more sunscreen on as we were “closer to the sun” in the higher elevation.

Paddle boating was next and the pedals turned with a jerky motion that required quite a bit of effort. When we got around the loop she asked to go again and I forced my numb and burning legs to go around once more. We raced another boat and her competitive side shone through.

Lunch and then gifts. She became reserved once more, but as she opened her gifts she hugged me many times. And then she said she was going to draw me a picture with her new colored pencils and paper. So we sat in the sun and she drew while her mother joked and laughed with us and intermittently joined others in a game of Frisbee, which is not common there. She drew me a picture of Quito, and I watched her quiet focus and learned of the award she won in school for her artwork.

Before we knew it, it was time to say good-bye. We prayed for each other, took a group photo, and gave one last hug. She tried to play it cool, averting her eyes but hugging me tightly and saying she hoped I came back soon. Then her mother embraced me, the joyful, joking woman now reduced to tears as she emphatically grabbed my hand and said, “Please don’t ever stop praying for Xiomara. Please, please don’t ever stop. Thank you for all that you do.”

The sky rumbled and threatened to rip open and pour its contents down on us, but we lingered a moment more before they were ushered to their bus. I held my new picture in my hand, smiling at the childlike innocence of a city portrayed there.  I got on the bus designated for the sponsors, sat next to my friend and we exchanged bits of stories here and there of what we had done that day and then grew quiet as we allowed the day to process and settle in our minds and hearts.

Nine days we had waited to meet our sponsors. Nine days the country of Ecuador weaved stories and lessons and beautiful people into our hearts and lives. Meeting our children at the end of the trip was the crowning moment, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Even now, two months later, my heart longs to return and I plan to keep my promise to Xiomara and see her again. And while I wait, I keep the memories of her smile and laughter close to my heart, and pray for her always, just as I promised her mother.

*If you are interested in sponsoring a child, please visit http://www.compassion.com