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‘Another world:’ the Compassion Experience comes to Salisbury

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Not all children in the world have it easy.

For young Jey, growing up in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya, life is hard. Jey doesn’t know who his father is, and his mother sells drugs and makes changaa — the Kenyan version of moonshine that is sometimes flavored with chemicals or battery acid — to put food on the table. Jey begs and picks pockets; at the age of 9, he was thrown in prison.

“It’s hard to imagine things getting worse,” he says, “but hard to imagine them getting better.”

It’s a haunting story, but not one without hope. This weekend, visitors can hear Jey’s story — and that of Yannely, a young girl in the Dominican Republic — told in their own words at the Compassion Experience.

Run by Compassion International, a Christian nonprofit group whose mission is to aid children in developing countries, and hosted by Life Church in Salisbury, the program is designed to help people see what it’s like to grow up in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the world.

“It’s a neat experience that lots of people just don’t get,” said Cathy Stutler, the local organizer. “It’s neat to walk through another world without leaving Salisbury.”

Visitors wear headphones and carry an iPod as they walk through a replica of Jey or Yannely’s home and the child narrates the story.

Jey’s story shows his mother’s mud-walled house and the barrel she uses to brew changaa; his dark and cramped prison cell; and, eventually, a brightly colored schoolroom.

“It’s a very emotional story,” Stutler said.

While each child experiences hardship, both found their way into a Compassion International care center. There, they received food, medical care and an education. They also had the opportunity to be sponsored by a family abroad — which afforded them more opportunities. They also become pen pals with their sponsors.

Each child overcomes the fate that was “written” for them. Jey becomes a Christian DJ and shares hope with thousands, starting his music career on the same corner where he once begged.

“Our stories are only written by God,” he tells listeners.

“The spirit of the room when they come out of there is more, ‘What can I do?’” Stutler said.

At the end of the program, guests are presented the opportunity to sponsor a child of their own.

“So when they leave, it’s just a happy feeling,” Stutler said.

Stutler, a member of Life Church, said she had the opportunity to attend Compassion Experience several years ago. She brought it to Salisbury with the help of Life Church Pastor Chris Shelton.

According to Shelton, about 150 Life Church members already sponsor a child. His hope is that by the time the program closes Monday evening, that number will be 300.

But the experience is open to more than the church’s congregation. People travel from out of town to hear the children’s stories.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” said Will Moore of Lexington.

Moore said it was “amazing” to hear about the struggles of growing up in a developing country firsthand from someone who experienced it.

Wayne Hunt, also of Lexington, has gone on mission trips to Honduras. Hesaid Yannely’s story reminded him of things he’d seen there.

“It seemed very real,” he said.

Despite knowing what to expect, it still tugged on his heart strings, he said. He was touched by the “message of home one kid can carry through their life.”

“It’s still very emotional,” he said.

Stutler said 3,118 people made a reservation to walk through the Compassion Experience. Walk-ins are also welcome.

“This isn’t for our church; this is for our community,” Shelton said.

Compassion Experience is located in the parking lot of Life Church, 708 Jake Alexander Blvd. W. Programs will run through Monday evening at these times:

  • 10 a.m.-5:40 p.m. Saturday.
  • 11 a.m.-6:40 p.m. Sunday.
  • Noon-7:40 p.m. Monday

Child-friendly versions of Jey’s story are available.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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