Unbound Sponsors 65,000 Elderly Around The World In Last 35 Years

It’s a staple of late-night television advertising. Charitable organizations asking people to send a regular monetary donation to improve a child’s life through access to education. And as noble a pursuit as that is, it has largely overlooked an entire segment of the most destitute in developing nations. An organization called Unbound realized this need while serving children in the 1980s, and has, to date, assisted more than 65,000 elderly around the world since the inception of its Elder Program 35 years ago.

Tom Slattery (right) meets Francesca for the first time in the Philippines in 2015. She was 103.

(Photo courtesy of Unbound)

Born in 1981 as the Christian Foundation for Children (CFC), which focused on helping children living in poverty, Unbound is today the only organization in the United States that offers sponsorships for adults over age 60 as well as children to overcome obstacles of poverty.

Unbound’s Elder Program was birthed from the realization by the organization’s founders that the often isolated and abandoned elders in the communities where they worked sorely needed help as well.

From left, Unbound Co-Founder Bob Hentzen; staff members Linda Miller and Dee Chestnut; and Co-Founder Jerry Tolle.)

(Photo courtesy of Unbound)

While most people are familiar with child sponsorship, which typically takes the form of individual sponsors sending money to help children, Unbound’s Elder Program connects adults over 60 living in extreme poverty and isolation across 18 countries in the developing world with sponsors in the United States.

In 2015, the U.N. projected that by 2050, 80 percent of the world’s senior population—an estimated 1.7 billion people 60 and older—will live in less developed regions. Today there are more than 30,000 elders across Latin America, Africa and Asia who are sponsored through Unbound.

One goal of the Elder Program is to break the cycle of isolation, said Melissa Velazquez, International Program Director at Unbound. “We frequently see two dynamics play out: either their kids move to the city for more opportunity, or the elder will move themselves out of the home so as not to be a burden,” she said. “As more and more countries in the developed world like the U.S. and UK are looking to address the loneliness epidemic, there may be some great lessons they could they learn from elders in the developing world about what community and connectedness can look like.”

Velazquez said many of the people who choose to sponsor elders in the developing world are older than 60 themselves and facing similar challenges of loneliness and isolation. “Sponsors are able to communicate with their sponsored friend by exchanging letters and photos,” she said “The bonds that grow between these groups of older adults has been incredible to witness. Sponsors have shared powerful stories with us about what being able to write to an elder has meant to them, whether it’s accompanying them through a personal fight with cancer or coping with the loss of a family member.”

Tom Slattery is one such sponsor. It was just happenstance that the then 49-year-old IBM executive and his wife attended a mass where a priest was speaking about Unbound. The couple was visiting the church, and ironically so was the priest.

Slattery’s wife chose to sponsor a child, but he wandered over to another table. On it there were folders describing hundreds of older individuals who needed just as much help as the children. It was that day in 1996 that Slattery was introduced through a photo and an unassuming paper folder to an old woman who lived in a hut in the Philipines. Francesca was 84 at the time. And she would change his life forever.

“The joke was on me. I took her folder and I thought I’d have her maybe three or four years,” Slattery said. “But she lived to be 105.”

It was during those two decades that Slattery corresponded with Francesca. The two sent photos and letters back and forth, first via a social worker and then Francesca’s grandchildren.

Over time, their letters went from being superficial and somewhat awkward to more personal and treasured correspondence. Slattery told Francisca when his mom was ill and her family prayed for her. And when his mom passed away, Slattery sent Francisca one of her rosaries.

Francisca told Slattery about the rice and the new dress she received because of his support. She spoke of her vegetable garden and the hardships she faced, like the typhoon that hit her eastern coastal community in the Legazpi area of the Philippines.

He recalled getting to meet her when he joined one of Unbound’s awareness trips to the Philippines in 2015. “She lived in a shack with nothing. She had not electricity or running water,” Slattery said. “And there she was smiling and happy, singing a song. It was incredible.”

When the hut was destroyed by the typhoon, Francesca was forced to move in with her son. And still she asked for nothing, Slattery said. So when an Unbound staffer told him that rebuilding her hut would only cost a few hundred dollars, Slattery didn’t hesitate. “I’m not a saint, but oh my God, I wrote a check. That’s all it took to give her a new home.”

Slattery said his rewards have been far greater than anything he has given. When his wife was dying with cancer, and he retired to stay at her bedside—“five years of hell,” he called it—Francesca and her family never stopped praying.

“It’s amazing how much I have gotten back,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be that way, but it was.”

In fact, it was just after his wife died that Slattery decided to go on the trip to meet Francesca. As he was running out the door to get to the airport, he grabbed the small blanket that had warmed his wife after her chemo treatments, and stuck it in his carry on. “When I met Francesca, she was sitting in a lawnchair, and I asked her, ‘How are you?’ She said, ‘I’m cold.’ It was 90 degrees there and she was cold just like my wife had been after chemotherapy in Georgia.” Slattery gave the blanket to Francesca. “I thought, ‘Why did I pack it?’ I think it was because the Holy Spirit touched me before I left. We had so many prayers, so many tears in it.”

Slattery recalled stepping into Francisca’s bamboo and nipa hut with her vegetable garden out back, a rice field out front and the Mayon Volcano in the distance. He remembers seeing the rosary he had given her when his mother passed away, and another one he had given her when his wife passed away. He also saw the photos of his family and the letters he had written to her. Her grandchildren told him they read the letters to her over and over.

Francesca died two years later.

Today Slattery, now 72, sponsors a seminarian and another elderly lady named Marina, both in the Philippines.

He said he trusts Unbound implicitly. “When I first started researching the program, I realized they spent more on people and doing things for them than any other program I’d seen. It is very much on the up and up. And I became more and more enthused about it. They’ve created a community of compassion. Why couldn’t you come up with $30 a month to help someone.”

Slattery said we could all take a few lessons from Unbound about how we treat the elders among us. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve started to warehouse our elderly,” he said. “I ran errands today and passed three nursing homes and two others being constructed. We need to get back to where we are looking after one another. I’m afraid the elderly are being left aside. We have to recognize the contributions they’ve made and capture the history that they’ve lived. I take my hat off to this organization because they are doing that.”

As Unbound is celebrates the 35th year of its elder program, the organization recognizes the challenges of social isolation and loneliness that Unbound elders face and the similarities to those of older adults in the U.S.

According to a recent new report by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), loneliness is a massive threat to public health, especially seniors. And it’s coming about just as elderly populations around the world are reaching their highest numbers in history.

“Unbound found that connectedness is key when addressing this loneliness epidemic–pairing elders with neighbors and friends in their local communities, as well as a supporter from around the world who knows their story and encourages them,” Velazquez said. “Unbound also works with 280,000 children around the world, and local staff continue to share how fostering inter-generational connections between the families and elders has been deeply impactful and beneficial for everyone involved.”

Velazquez said elders in Unbound experience less loneliness and social isolation, a lower incidence of hunger and greater access to health care. She said Unbound staff interviewed 300 elders sponsored at least two years and 300 who are on the waiting list to be sponsored. All were selected at random. “A key finding was that sponsored elders experience a lower sense of emptiness, less frequent feelings of rejection and fewer moments of missing people being around.”

The survey also found that sponsored elders worry less about having enough food and have greater choice in what they eat compared with those in the non-sponsored group.

Because of poverty, abandonment and isolation, “elders are some of the most marginalized members of our human family,” Unbound’s president and CEO, Scott Wasserman, said in a statement. “Unbound sponsorship manifests the inherent dignity of elders. Our sponsorship program brings them from the margins into the center, as full partners in a community of compassion.”

Besides financial support and gaining a friend in another part of the world to correspond with, elders benefit from being part of a local Unbound community of sponsored children and youth, families and staff, Velazquez said. Social workers also play a vital role in accompanying elders through challenges related to health, isolation and neglect, she said.

Velazquez said each of the Unbound offices in the 18 countries throughout the world has its own specific approach, but one common theme is rebuilding community, forming groups of elders who take part in group activities along with traditional methods of support like nutrition or medical care. One example is a group of elders living in the mountains of Colombia who, as part of a program on dreams, said their dream was to see the ocean for the first time.

So Unbound figured out a way to raise the funds to take the elders to see the ocean. “A lot of them gave thanks to God in front of the ocean,” Velazquez said. “They enjoyed it as if it was the last thing they would ever experience in their lives. For them it was inconceivable, unthinkable that this dream would come true.  We are very happy to listen to our elders, to learn from them and to walk with them to achieve what they aim for. At Unbound we’ve found that elders do have a lot to contribute—and we’ve found that not only is there a need, but there is also potential. At Unbound, no matter how old you are, the invitation is to continue dreaming.”

Unbound’s Elder Program started in August of 1984 with Adan Cruz from Colombia, who was the first of the organization’s sponsored elders. Today the program looks different, but the goal of compassion for others hasn’t changed. Just as with the sponsored children and youth, many of the more than 32,000 sponsored elders participating with Unbound now have the option of using personalized bank accounts to access and use their monthly benefits in ways that work best for them.

“Today Unbound elders are benefiting from regular economic support from their sponsors, but also from setting goals, planning local events, and many entering the banking system for the first time and even self-organizing for social and emotional support,” Velazquez said.

And in 35 years, Unbound has, like Slattery, gotten back much more than its given. “They are a source of wisdom, insight and inspiration,” Velazquez said. “Unbound’s elders also serve as a testament to the power of community and the stabilizing effect a monthly contribution can have on someone’s life.”

Slattery says he imagines he will sponsor an elderly person through Unbound as long as he lives, even if he lives as long as Francesca. “Well, I’ve already received 105 years’ worth of benefits,” he said.

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