Compassion's CEO Tim Hanna shares the story behind why his family is passionate about sponsoring older teenagers, plus his top three reasons why he encourages others to do the same.

Travelling to see local church child development centres in action is always an adventure. You never know what God is going to bring your way. So, in 2017, as I piled into a bus in northern Rwanda with some other Compassion staff, I was filled with anticipation.

About the only thing that's guaranteed when driving in Rwanda is that there will be hills. Many, many hills, each bumpier than the last. In fact, Rwanda is known as the land of 1000 hills - but I'm sure I felt more than 1000 as we rattled out in the direction of Lake Burera.

Our destination was a fairly humble-looking Episcopal Church in Karuganda, a small town separated from the lake by - you guessed it - a chain of hills.

Little did I know, God would use that short visit to bring the value of sponsorship home to me all over again.

When we rolled up, children came pouring out to meet us and we were soon wrapped up in a dozen different conversations at once, laughing with the kids and local staff.

As my wife, Chris, chatted beside me with a group of older students, another girl - quieter than the others, a bit withdrawn - approached. She watched as her friends brightly shared with Chris about their studies and their sponsors.

"And you?" Chris asked the new girl, to draw her gently into the conversation. "Where are your sponsors from?"

The girl (she later told us her name was Alphonsine) hesitated. Then she told us in a low voice that her sponsors had cancelled their support some time ago, and God hadn't yet brought someone else to sponsor her.

We asked more questions about her life - she was 20 years old, lived with her parents and was getting toward the end of high school - and, as we did, we felt God stirring something new within us.

There's no doubt that sponsorship works for young children. In fact, the younger you can reach them with vital support, the better off they'll be. And I'm so grateful for every sponsor who has taken the amazing, life-changing decision to reach out to a child and help show them a hope more powerful than poverty.

But what about the older students? What about the teenagers who are learning to navigate the world, to figure out who they are, to step into greater responsibility? Don't they have a great need for support, too?

The simple answer is yes.

And as they stand at the crossroads, you, as a sponsor, can play a pivotal role in their development.

As we chatted with this softly-spoken Rwandan girl - young woman, really - God showed me that we had the opportunity to speak into her uncertainty, her sense that maybe she wasn't good enough, her fear that no one cared. I looked at Chris. She looked at me. And I knew we would sponsor Alphonsine.

There are as many reasons to sponsor a child as there are hills in Rwanda - maybe more! But these are my top three reasons why you too should consider sponsoring an older child:

1. You can have an outsized impact.

Being a teenager is tough. It's a time when you're facing lots of big decisions: What will I do after school? How can I make my mark? Add to that some of the challenges of poverty - or, as with Alphonsine, the fact that her previous sponsors had stopped their support - and it's no surprise that lots of older students feel especially vulnerable. As a sponsor, your encouragement and prayer carry a lot of weight. You can make a powerful impact at a critical moment.

2. You can connect on a deeper level.

When you're sponsoring an 18 or 19 year old with big dreams and big potential, your letter writing experience is likely to be richer than if you were sponsoring a much younger child. You might be surprised at how encouraging it is to know that a teenager on the other side of the globe (who has plenty of challenges of her own) is praying for you and the challenges you're facing in your own day to day.

3. You can give with greater flexibility.

If, like me, you're reaching - ahem - a certain stage of life, you might be wondering whether sponsoring a young child is the right thing for you. Maybe sponsoring a child is a stretch for you and you're not sure what your future financial circumstances will look like. But for Chris and me, sponsoring Alphonsine made sense. We knew she had only a short left in the program - two years at most - and we could use that time to really build her up. After that, we'll weigh things up again and discern if God is calling us to sponsor another young man or woman in a similar situation.

Later, as our bus bumped back across those many hills and I reflected on a really blessed afternoon, I had to laugh. Just hours before, I'd been oblivious to the fact that my sponsorship family was about to grow.

Even after my almost 10 years working with Compassion (and much longer in ministry) God could still surprise me with the depth of His love for His children. That includes the little ones, yes, and the teenagers, too - and even the ones who have a little more grey in our hair than we might like to recognise.

Sponsor an older student today.

Interview by Richard Miller

Photo by Ben Adams