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Separated by years and oceans, pen pals reconnect

A Southland woman and the Zambian boy she sponsored kept in touch for eight years. When the charity group that matched them moved on, their communication was severed — but their bond was not.

April 29, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Laurie Tragen-Boykoff hugs Nicky Mutoka upon his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport -- their first in-person meeting. Mutoka’s wife, Ketty, joins him on the trip.
Laurie Tragen-Boykoff hugs Nicky Mutoka upon his arrival at Los Angeles… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Laurie Tragen-Boykoff rocks on her feet, holding on to a large sign, her hands trembling. The international arrivals ramp at LAX is empty, but that only fuels her anticipation. She's waited 25 years for this.

On the sign is a blown-up black-and-white photograph of a somber-faced boy. His name is Nicky Mutoka. Below, in large black letters, the Agoura Hills social worker has written: "NICKY!!! I'M LAURIE." She lifts the sign, her face disappearing behind it. But she is smiling.

In 1987, she began what she saw as a most unlikely pen pal correspondence. Laurie, then 30, was watching television one day and was unexpectedly moved by a plea from actress Sally Struthers in a donor campaign for Christian Children's Fund, a relief group providing assistance to children in developing countries.

For $21 a month, she could pay for a child's education, make sure he or she always had enough to eat and get regular progress reports.

Soon she was matched up with Nicky, an 8-year-old from Zambia. But she decided she wouldn't merely send the monthly check. Instead, they also would write to each other. She insisted on it. Their connection would be her "mitzvah" — a kindness to another.

For eight years, they traded letters. Every month or so, Laurie sent letters and photographs of her husband, Terry, and her growing family, first a son, Loren, and later a daughter, Megan. Nicky also sent snapshots, one showing him with his brothers and father on the small piece of land his family farmed in rural Zambia. Another showed his sister and mother.

His letters sometimes were decorated by drawings with lines and colors that made them unmistakably a child's — one of his grandfather's thatched-hut village and another of a giraffe munching leaves from a tree.

Laurie carefully placed each correspondence in a growing manila folder on her nightstand.

She urged Nicky to do well in school and promised that, no matter what, she would stay in touch. Nicky promised the same. "I know that God knows the day when we are going to greet each other ... not in letters," he wrote. The manila folder was 3 inches thick when they lost contact.

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Deciding its work there was done, Christian Children's Fund pulled out of Nicky's village and moved on to another. Because its rules prevented addresses from being exchanged, the letters stopped. And that was that.

The charity, now known as Child Fund International, has never allowed sponsors to connect directly with the children, said Cynthia Price, a spokeswoman. Even today, in a digital world, sponsors are asked not to connect via the Internet. All correspondence goes through Child Fund.

The policies protect both sides, Price said. Sponsors can fall prey to scams in third-world countries, and children can become unsuspecting targets of pedophiles. Donors who want to know more about the boy or girl they sponsor have to do it the old-fashioned way — by becoming pen pals.

"We want to ensure that information written to a child is appropriate," Price said.

As the years passed and even as the ways of communicating changed, Laurie was resigned to not hearing from her friend. She didn't use Facebook, didn't like it. She didn't tweet. She still calls herself "technically deficient" with zero interest in the world of social media.

Laurie kept busy with events at her temple and with her work helping mentally and developmentally disabled adults. Life moved on. Her daughter Megan went to college and son Loren was dabbling in website design. The family moved from Encino to a large two-story home in Agoura Hills.

But she still thought of Nicky whenever she glanced at the manila folder still at her bedside. She couldn't bring herself to get rid of it. Nicky never stopped thinking of her, either.

Zambia is a country of stunning natural beauty but widespread poverty. His family scratched out a living growing corn, nuts and sweet potatoes in the tropical savanna surrounding Lusaka, the country's capital. He remembers how Laurie's letters and checks were eagerly awaited each month.

The money sent him to school and bought food and a few luxuries such as soap. It helped pay for doctor visits and medicine for his father, who had crippling arthritis. Of five siblings, Nicky was the most academically gifted. He was determined to finish high school, he says, even after losing his pen pal.

He was undeterred by the Children's Fund refusal to give him Laurie's address. He sent two letters to an address he thought was hers. They came back, unopened.

Still, he managed to finish high school. Determined to raise money for college, Nicky went to work. For two years, he mined copper, escaping two collapses that killed other workers. After that he worked in a margarine factory where gases from the manufacturing process were so flammable that workers could be arrested just for possessing a matchstick, he said. That was followed by a job riding a motor scooter around the busy streets of Lusaka, delivering scratch-off phone cards.

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