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Extending a Helping Hand Across the Globe : Charity: Thanks to PLAN International, needy children around the world have food, an education and a worthy home to call their own.

August 10, 1995|LEILA COBO-HANLON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The room is tiny, its walls unpainted, the floor a slab of uneven concrete. Windowless, doorless and furnished only with a mattress on the floor, it resembles more a dark cell than a child's room.

But it is Nassim Gregory Cabezas Angulo's very own bedroom, and somehow, somewhere, together with the precious few things he owns, the 8-year-old has managed to stash away all the letters that every few months make their slow journey from the United States all the way to this house in Cali, Colombia.

There are dozens of letters--seven years worth--dating back to when Nassim Gregory was just a year old. They speak about Christmases and snow, a perfect young couple and small blond children who will grow up far from this unpaved, muddy street and this house that up to a couple of years ago had no bathroom, a mud floor and a zinc roof that would cave in every time it rained.

But the letters, and the money they brought, have helped Nassim Gregory's family make this home much better than it used to be and given him something to look forward to.

Nassim Gregory is an international "foster child," one of 21,000 in Cali alone who has been "adopted" by a pen-pal foster parent affiliated with PLAN International, a global nonprofit agency that links close to a million needy children around the world with donors in eight countries.

It all starts with a check for $26.24, written out in a comfortable home somewhere far away. It ends with school supplies, a teacher, materials to rebuild a house or perhaps the means to feed a child here in Aguablanca, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Colombia's second-largest city.

The sponsor is one of more than 75,000 who write similar checks in the United States. The child is one of close to 100,000 sponsored by Childreach, the U.S. member agency of PLAN, which claims to be the oldest and largest non-sectarian child sponsorship organization in the country.

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You have no doubt seen the ads for Childreach and similar agencies. Typically, a sad-looking child stares pleadingly from a black and white photograph. The words below explain how, for about 70 cents a day, you can change this child's life, and provide the health, education or clothing he or she desperately needs.

It is an appealing prospect. In California, 12,000 sponsors are affiliated with Childreach, doling out monthly checks that find their way to the Childreach agency in the country where the sponsor child lives and eventually, say the agencies, to the child's community.

For Nassim Gregory and his family, that sponsorship has indeed transformed their lives.

"Thanks to PLAN, we improved our home, which was very important, because we didn't have worthy housing," says Nassim's mother, Rosario Angulo, a 44-year-old community leader who has used PLAN's support to its fullest. According to PLAN standards, a "worthy" house must have at least two bedrooms, one bathroom, electricity and plumbing. The Angulos' house had only electricity, stolen from neighboring barrios, when she and her family first moved to the area.

"When we started," she explains as she gives a tour of her small home and introduces her three children, "every time it rained, the water would come up to our waists."

It's quite different now. Although the house is little more than a hovel by U.S. standards, it now boasts three bedrooms (even if they are tiny and barely furnished). Angulo's pride and joy is a big refrigerator that sits squarely in the middle of the main room. She bought it recently with a loan from PLAN and uses it during weekends to sell sodas to the neighbors and supplement her husband's meager income as a construction worker.

Although PLAN's goal is to improve the child's environment using the monthly stipend sent by sponsors overseas, for many children, tangible proof of their donor's existence doesn't lie in essential home repairs or school supplies but in the occasional letters and photos that remind them that someone very far away thinks about them from time to time.

Nassim Gregory, letters and pictures in hand, listens quietly as his mother speaks. A sunny second-grader, he doesn't fully understand the extent of his sponsors' help. As far as he's concerned, they send him letters and sometimes pictures, and once in a while, even a gift, like the computer books he got last year. The books, in English, are useless to Nassim Gregory, who speaks only Spanish. But at least he gets something in the mail.

Several blocks away, in a house that still does not qualify as "worthy" (it lacks a bathroom and has a mud floor), 10-year-old Adriana Mendez wishes she were so lucky.

"I send him letters and pictures," she says of her sponsor of five years. "But he has never written us back. I even write him in English," she says proudly. But not even that seems to do the trick.

The lack of correspondence is a problem, especially because Childreach places significant emphasis on the relationship between child and sponsor.

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