Compassion leader grew up among those he serves
By PAUL ASAY THE GAZETTE
The drums wept, low and loud. As a child, Wesley Stafford heard them as he lay on his cot, sweating in the West African night. He knew the drums’ language: Sometimes they warned when strangers were coming, sometimes they laughed during festivals. On some nights, the drums beat out obituaries: eulogies for children who died from snakebites, from malaria, from measles. The drums marked the passing of Stafford’s childhood friends. And, on his cot, tears would roll down his cheeks and into his ears and, with the drums still beating, he’d drift off to sleep. “It kills me when leaders of ministries who work among the poor can tell you (how many children die a day) and then get right on with the next topic,” said Stafford, the 56-year-old president of Compassion International, a relief organization that helps poverty-stricken children. “Those are not numbers. I’ve got faces. I not only know how many die — I know who dies. “You know who dies?” he asks. “The good ones die.” Stafford was the son of Conservative Baptist missionaries and was raised in the village of Niellé (pronounced Nee-el-A) in the Ivory Coast. He moved to the United States when he was 15, joined Compassion International at 27 and has been its president since 1993. It’s a job he believes he was destined for; that those childhood drums set the cadence for his life. “I was Compassion’s presidentin-training when I was, like, 5 years old,” he said. “I can see that now.
(God) let me grow up among the very kids that I now serve.” Among Colorado Springs’ Christian organizations, Compassion is the biggest. During its 2005 fiscal year, which ended last June, the nonprofit group took in $217 million, $80 million more than Focus on the Family — arguably the city’s most high-profile ministry — earned in its 2005 fiscal year. Compassion is a middleman, linking nearly 760,000 children worldwide to 450,000 sponsors. Sponsors pay $32 a month to supply a child with food, clothing, education and an understanding of Christianity. Sponsors also exchange letters with the children — the most important part of the program, according to Stafford. “Probably the single most strategic thing that can be done for a child in poverty is to let them know they are not alone,” Stafford said. The person-to-person outreach has helped make Compassion the Starbucks of the nonprofit world. Compassion’s revenue has more than quadrupled during Stafford’s presidential tenure, and its international headquarters is undergoing a $20.8 million expansion, which will nearly double the size of the 154,000-square-foot building. Construction is expected to wrap up in late summer. Because aid is funneled through churches, a few critics say Compassion makes its help contingent on Christian faith. Compassion officials respond by saying that they want to help the whole person — body, mind and spirit. They believe food is important but faith is life-changing. Compassion has largely steered clear of controversy and is regularly ranked as one of the country’s most fiscally responsible organizations. Charity Navigator gave the ministry its top ranking for the fifth straight year this spring. Stafford has a low, rolling voice and a Mister Rogers smile. Most days, he shuns the standard executive coat and tie, preferring a polo or open-collar shirt. Those who work with him say it’s hard to picture him as chief of a worldwide ministry. “He’s so down to earth,” said Eleanor Taggart, Compassion’s prayer-ministry manager who’s worked with Stafford for more than eight years. “He conveys this genuine interest in people.” Stafford’s wife, Donna, said that during one visit to Ecuador, Stafford disappeared from a tour of Compassion’s programs. “Eventually they spotted him, out on the field, playing soccer with a bunch of grinning and obviously very delighted sponsored kids,” Donna said via e-mail. “Tall and American as he is, Wess is often ‘invisible’ in projects because he is crouched down at the kids’ eye level, surrounded by a big crowd of giggling children.” Stafford’s more preacher than businessman. His discussions are expansive, more freeform poetry than annual report. And when he talks, especially about the children, he sometimes cries. “His emotions are just a quarter of an inch below the surface,” said writer Dean Merrill, who co-authored Stafford’s recently published child-advocacy book, “Too Small to Ignore.” “It’s not a schtick.” Alemu Beeftu, head of the Springs-based ministry Gospel of Glory and a longtime friend, said, “He is a visionary, a very passionate type of person. Wess is real.” Stafford’s office is filled with childhood mementos: a picture of him teaching his village friends how to read; a slingshot he made — a long, braided string with a pocket in the middle. It’s the kind of slingshot a biblical David might’ve used to slay Goliath, and a young Stafford used to kill faraway baboons, whose hands were dinnertime treats in Niellé. He said he’s still a pretty good shot. There’s a bell, too — one that sounds identical to one Stafford heard often as a boy. For nine months a year, he attended a boarding school with dozens of other missionary children, and his abusive teachers would ring a bell before they read the “bad” list — the list of students about to be beaten. “The sound churns my stomach,” he said. “To this day.” The relics remind Stafford of where he came from and why he does what he does. When he looks at the picture, he sees dead friends, many killed by disease and poverty before they reached age 18. He sees a village that, because of instability and a lack of church partners in the Ivory Coast, is still out of Compassion’s reach. “I rejoice at what this place has become,” Stafford said of Compassion. “But I am never more than 10 seconds away from tears when I consider that even if we were 10 times our size, we would still be nothing in this world of hurting children.” Stafford has been helping these children for most of his adult life. He’s worked for Compassion since 1977, first as a relief worker in Haiti. He married Donna there and left Haiti in 1981 to join Compassion’s corporate office. He earned degrees from Christian institutions Wheaton College, Biola University and the Moody Bible Institute, as well as a doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University. “I’m uniquely qualified, I think, to lead this place, but it’s not because of any great qualities of mine, but because of God’s path — God’s ordination, if you will,” Stafford said. “I’ve done what I can to prepare myself, but more than anything, God really put his hand on me when I was small and prepared me for this job.” Stafford grew up idolizing his village friends and often prayed that God would turn him black so he could be more like them. But the world around them was unforgiving. He knew pain, too: At one point, he calculated that his missionary teachers beat him an average of 17 times a week, often using a sandal soled with tire tread. Though Stafford said he “never dared question” God’s ultimate goodness, he knew that goodness was often hidden by life’s vicious whimsy. “I thought that’s how the world was,” Stafford said. “It’s cruel, and it’s harsh and children pay the highest price.” When Stafford came to the United States, he saw grocery stores loaded with food, pharmacies brimming with medicines and people who didn’t appreciate all they had. His friends, it seemed, needn’t have died. He went through what he calls “great rage” toward Americans that lasted halfway through college. But, as he learned more about the United States, he had a change of heart. “I began to realize it’s not that they don’t care,” he said. “It’s that they don’t know. If they knew, they would care, because I saw the goodness of American people — like no nation in history.” Compassion International is now involved in 24 countries, working through Christian churches to supply aid. That church connection is crucial, in Stafford’s mind: The children need the Christian message as much as food and clothing. They also need encouragement. That’s why Compassion emphasizes sponsor-to-child contact. During his tenure, Stafford and his family have sponsored 19 children, some of whom have “graduated” from Compassion’s 0-to-18-year-old program and are doctors, architects and business owners. The entire Stafford family, including his two daughters, Jenny and Katie, write letters to their sponsored children frequently, and Stafford ticks off their names like a proud grandfather. “I know their names because we pray for them every day,” he said. But Compassion’s work isn’t just a feel-good crusade. It’s strategic, Stafford says: Giving these children food, education and encouragement is actually the best way to help world stability — and to help improve the United States’ standing in it. “We don’t have the luxury of living here, (isolated) in our little blessing,” he said. “There’s a hurting world out there, and some of it doesn’t like us.” Through Compassion, Stafford hopes American children will learn to help others and foreign children will grow up appreciating U.S. generosity. Many of them, Stafford believes, can influence the direction of their country. The ministry started a leadership program to help that along, and it’s a ministry-wide hope that, one day, a Compassion “graduate” will become a national president. “They’re under construction,” Stafford said. “You don’t know who’s a president of the country in the making. You’ve got to seize every moment.” It’s a ministry goal in part because Stafford saw so much potential in his childhood friends in the Ivory Coast. When he was a child, Stafford thought his job would be to finish translating the Bible into their language, so they could go on and do great things. Few of his friends, though, ever had a chance, he said. He said he’s probably survived them all: Life expectancy in the Ivory Coast is around 45 — 11 years younger than Stafford is now. “I know that heaven is a great place, because people better than us have already gone ahead of us,” Stafford said. “And us rascals that have survived, we’ll stagger in when the trumpet sounds.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0367 or firstname.lastname@example.org COMPASSION INTERNATIONAL Compassion International is a worldwide relief organization, providing impoverished children in 24 countries with food, clothes, education and exposure to Christianity via donations and support from sponsors. Compassion works through churches in the areas it helps. Founded: 1952 In Colorado Springs since: 1980 Sponsors: 450,000 Children helped: 760,000 2005 revenue: $216.9 million 2005 expenses: $208.5 million Location: 12290 Voyager Parkway Web site: www.compassion.com
COURTESY OF COMPASSION INTERNATIONAL - The child of missionaries, Wesley Stafford, center rear, grew up in the village of Niellé, Ivory Coast, amid the poverty he now works to end.
PHOTOS BY HUNTER McRAE, THE GAZETTE - Wess Stafford, head of Compassion International, has made a career out of helping children. Part of his motivation comes from his own rocky childhood in the Ivory Coast village where his parents were missionaries. Today, Stafford’s office holds relics of his past, such as the bell above, which brings back painful memories of his childhood school. His book “Too Small to Ignore,” published last year, urges readers to cherish children.
ONLINE > In depth Quotes from Stafford about Compassion and his life. gazette.com Click on Religion