A lot of us send checks to help the needy, and at first that was the extent of Kevin Grooms' commitment.
He decided around his 35th birthday to help someone less fortunate. He picked a charity he heard about on TV, one that seemed reputable, and mailed in $18 to sponsor a child in Honduras.
"I wanted," he said, "to get away from selfishness."
He was single, living in an apartment since moving to Charlotte in 1993, working in the box office at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. It was easy to get so caught up in his own life that he ignored the problems of the larger world around him. One small check every month might, he thought, help bring some perspective.
In exchange for that first check eight years ago, he received in the mail a photograph of a boy named Gerardo.
"They sent this package to me - I always tell people it was like a dirty little trick: They sent me a picture of the cutest little kid I've ever seen in my life," Kevin recalled. "He was well-groomed, adorable, clean and had these little doe-like eyes. I thought, 'You asked for it. You got it.'"
Kevin framed the photograph, and placed it on his bedside table. He dutifully mailed in the next check, and the next, every month for eight years, now $22 a month. He sent in additional contributions on Gerardo's birthday, at Christmas, Easter and other occasions. The money, he was told, went toward anything Gerardo needed, school supplies, medicine, clothes.
Twice a year, Kevin got thank-you notes from Gerardo, written in Spanish and translated into English. And every year, a new photograph. He watched the 9-year-old boy grow into a teenager and now a young man, 17, with the shadow of a mustache.
As the years passed, and Gerardo grew older, his letter-writing improved and his thank-yous seemed more sincere, as if they came from the heart, not from duty. Kevin felt an unexpected bond developing, the way he imagines a father and son might feel about each other.
"He began telling me about himself, and asking me about myself," Kevin said. "He told me how appreciative he was."
What will happen to him?
The more he got to know Gerardo, the more responsible Kevin felt. He had read enough about dangerous street gangs in Honduras to know that a poor, teenage boy could easily end up in a gang or worse.
More than half the population in Honduras lives in poverty, with unemployment around 30 percent and political unrest. Gerardo's mother is divorced, and supports herself and her two boys on $125 a month as a house cleaner.
Kevin discovered last year that Gerardo had, at 16, aged out of school. Worried about what would become of him, Kevin offered to pay for art lessons until he could figure out a way to get Gerardo back in school. Gerardo had often drawn pictures on the notes he sent Kevin, and Kevin thought he was talented. So Kevin sent an extra $96 a month to pay for several months of art lessons.
In the meantime, he arranged for Gerardo to enroll in a private high school in February. He now pays an extra $132 a month to cover Gerardo's tuition, supplies and clothes.
"We need to put something in that young mind," Kevin said. "I'm happy to help out."
The best day of his life
Kevin felt so invested in Gerardo after eight years of monthly checks that he wanted to meet him, to see how his contributions have helped.
That's not unusual, said Dolores Quinn Kitchin, spokeswoman for Children International, the charity that linked Kevin up with Gerardo.
"It allows you to really connect," Kitchin said. "It helps you to realize you're making a difference in a real child's life."
The Better Business Bureau says Children International meets its 20 standards for charitable accountability and includes the charity in its June 2010 "Wise Giving Report." Eighty percent of money raised, the BBB found, goes toward programs.
The charity helps poor children in 12 countries through 335,000 sponsors who send in $22 a month. The organization, Kitchin said, encourages sponsors to meet the children and helps arrange the meetings.
In January, Kevin flew to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Gerardo, his mother and younger brother were waiting for him at Children International's community center.
"It was emotional - incredible - amazing - all those feel-good adjectives that you could dream of," Kevin said. "It was like a culmination of all our correspondence over the years.... He's older now. He's glad he has my support. He was so grateful."
Kevin told Gerardo he would take him to lunch wherever he wanted. Kevin hoped to eat authentic Honduran food. Gerardo chose Pizza Hut.
"January 26 was the best day of my 43 years of life," Kevin said. "It was just great to see how I've helped change someone's life for the better. If he had not had that help, I have to wonder what would have happened."
Haunted by Honduras
They spent the day together, accompanied by a representative of Children International, and Kevin visited the family's home in a rural area outside San Pedro Sula.
Kevin said the family lives in a one-room house with two beds and a hot plate. Gerardo's mother, he said, told him she rents the place for $37 a month.
Back in Charlotte, Kevin was haunted by the image of them crowded into that one room without a refrigerator, a proper stove or running water. Kevin called Children International and discovered that he could have a house that size built for around $7,000.
If Gerardo's mother didn't have to pay rent, Kevin figured, she could afford a refrigerator and a stove.
It's one thing to send $22 a month to help a young man in another country. But $7,000 to build his family a house?
Kitchin, the charity's spokeswoman, said she isn't surprised.
"It's a natural inclination," she said, "for people who want to sponsor a child, who really do want to make a difference in the life of a poor child, to feel responsible. They've taken them so far, so why not even farther?"
One sponsor paid for a new community center in Zambia, she said. One for a latrine for a family of 10 in Ecuador. Another for a water pump in India.
A new home for Gerardo
Kevin doesn't have that kind of money. He would need help. So he built a Web page, www.firstgiving.com/gerardos house and he's raised more than $8,240.
He's never done anything like this before, and he's surprised at how personal he feels about the project.
"I send him a Hallmark card every couple of weeks," Kevin said. "I tell him, 'I believe in you. Keep it up.' I just hope the experience has been empowering for him more than anything."
It's been empowering for Kevin. He wanted to help someone else, and helping Gerardo has become the most meaningful part of his own life.