In the living room of Joe Orr’s north end Halifax home is a collection of photographs, portraits mostly. Some are old, some more recent. Several of the people pictured here have passed away. At 43, Orr’s lost far too many loved ones already. Others live outside of Halifax, or in different provinces, or halfway around the world.
There’s a picture of the Pope. Several of Orr’s two-year-old dog Apollo. In one photo Orr appears with his close friend Bill Stewart. The picture, published in a daily newspaper, shows Orr helping his friend from a wheelchair during a Remembrance Day ceremony. Stewart passed away last year at 92.
On another shelf is a picture of Lester. His big, brown eyes stare directly forward. His ears stick out a bit. He has short, dark hair and the strained, awkward grin of an 11-year-old posing for a school photograph.
Lester Emanuel Navarijo Escobar, now 13, is Orr’s sponsor child. They’ve never met in person. But until early last year, when Lester’s letters suddenly stopped arriving, they’d kept up an ongoing correspondence since 1998, when Orr first signed on with one those “just a dollar a day” Christian aid organizations often advertised on television.
The sign-up process was straightforward. Orr went to the organization’s website and, within moments, was face-to-face with Lester’s photo and short biography. According to the bio, Lester had been abandoned by his parents, recent emigrants to the United States. That was something that Orr, himself an orphan, could relate to.
“Call it timing, or whatever you want to call it, but this kid happened to be going through a set of circumstances that I was personally able to relate to,” Orr recalls. “It was an arrow-through-the-heart sort of scenario. And it was one of those things where I felt compelled to do what I could to help this child’s circumstances.”
Lester lives in Guatemala, in a port town called Champerico, on the Pacific coast, just south of the border with Mexico. Champerico’s flat and hot. The temperature averages 32 degrees. Most of the town’s 10,000 inhabitants are poor. Unemployment is high. There’s a small fishing industry, but otherwise there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. The few jobs that are available pay poorly—maybe $20 a week, $100 a month, says Eugene Sergerie, a Quebecer who coordinates the child sponsorship program there. Simply put, that’s just not enough to live on. Sergerie says about 46 percent of Champerico’s children are malnourished.
Lester was eight or nine when Orr first spotted his photograph online. Upon emigrating to the States, Lester’s parents left he and his two sisters (one of whom is mentally challenged) in the care of their aunt. But with Orr’s help, Lester was able to attend a local experimental school, where he studied Spanish, math, science, English, computers, music and art.
Orr has saved the report cards, together with several years worth of letters and cards. They all start the same way: “Querido Padrino” (Dear Godfather), penned in Lester’s careful handwriting. The correspondence is touching. It’s clear that Lester put care into these small works of scholarship. On one card Lester drew an impressive pen and oil pastel rendition of Winnie the Pooh. The message below reads: “Dear Godfather, I hope that you and your brother are both healthy. I hope that you’re well and that you protect your family, and I hope that soon you can write and speak Spanish. Thanks for helping with my studies.”
Lester couldn’t have known to what extent Orr had been trying, and unable, to protect his family. By the time their correspondence began, Orr had already lost both of his parents. More recently doctors diagnosed his sister with cancer. She died six moths later. Orr didn’t want to burden Lester with stories of his own traumas. He figured the young Guatemalan had enough to worry about. But when Orr’s brother was also diagnosed with cancer, he took the rare step of confiding in his sponsor child.
Lester responded with a homemade angel he’d crafted out of Styrofoam and construction paper. In the center of the angel Lester pasted a picture of himself. The angel was meant to look after Orr and remind him that someone loved him, wrote Lester. Orr bawled his eyes out. The angel still hangs on his kitchen wall.
“The two of us, for different reasons, and unbelievably different circumstances, were at the same place in our lives,” says Orr. “He needed a godfather as much as I needed a godson.”
And then, inexplicably, Lester’s letters stopped arriving. Orr was concerned. Eventually he contacted the sponsorship organization, which told him Lester’s school marks had suffered. He’d been dropped from the program. A few weeks later a package showed up at Orr’s house. In it were photos and a profile of new sponsor child. Orr was incensed. “What about Lester?” he wrote in big black letters across the package, which he promptly sent back to Guatemala. That was about a year ago. He never heard from Lester or the organization again.
I met Joe Orr last September, on the Halifax Common, where we both walk our dogs. We’d bump into each other there from time to time, chit chat a bit. Once I mentioned I’d spent some time in Latin America.“Did you ever by any chance go to Guatemala?” he asked me. It was November, the day of that first, slushy snowstorm.
“Yeah, why?” I asked.“Oh, nothing.”“No, what is it?” I urged.That’s when he told me about Lester.It wasn’t too difficult to track Lester down. A Canadian friend who’s been working in Guatemala City for several years sent me a phone number for the mayor’s office in Champerico. A secretary there gave me a number for the experimental school. A man at the school told me to call back after New Year’s—all of the teachers were on holiday.
In January I tried again. This time someone gave me Lester’s phone number. I called. A young woman answered. I asked to speak to Lester. “One moment,” she said. “Lester, it’s your godfather,” she yelled in the background, mistaking me for Orr. Lester was shy on the phone. We talked for just a minute. I hung up and called Orr.
A few days later Orr left a message on my answering machine. “I’m on top of the world today buddy,” he blurted out. Earlier that day, with the help of a Spanish neighbour, Orr had spent an hour and a half on the phone with Lester and his family.
“I think my heart skipped about four beats, just to hear his voice,” he later said. “I’d never heard his voice. In all the time I’ve been involved in his life, I’ve never heard his voice.”
Lester sounds well. His aunt, Floridalma, says he’s once again attending the experimental school. He’s healthy. His parents are still in California. They call from time to time.
The circumstances of Lester’s removal from the sponsorship program remain unclear. Lester says he lost his scholarship because he hadn’t attended church. But the organization told Floridalma that Orr was no longer able to sponsor Lester.
A day or two after their phone call, Orr wired Lester’s family $150 dollars. The money arrived safe and sound. Hearing from Orr was a huge surprise, says Floridalma. “It’s a miracle from God.” She says she’s already spent some of the money on school uniforms for the children and has sent a card to Orr explaining exactly how she plans to spend the rest. She also promises that Lester will write soon. He’s just waiting for some photographs to be developed, so he can send Orr a new picture.