We are the Brasile family from Hamden, Connecticut: Thomas and Esther. We have two daughters, Larissa and Leah. We believe in the ministry of Compassion International. This story is written by Esther.
Music and art are very important parts of our lives and household. Phil Keaggy is a musician we try to see in concert when we can. Phil has been a strong advocate for Compassion for many years
In 1993, Larissa was 9 years old and Leah was 5 years old. The four of us were at a Phil Keaggy concert when we decided to take another Compassion Child Packet. We chose the photo of a lovely little girl, from the Philippines, named Michelle.
As we began to correspond with Michelle, we learned she had a mom, dad and two brothers. She could write and express herself very well in English.
Immediately, we also saw how privileged we were to have a relationship with a godly young lady who was older than Larissa and Leah. Michelle was someone they could look to as an example even though she was far away.
Michelle’s photo was proudly displayed among our family photos, reminding us to pray for her. The most significant truth that was expressed in all of Michelle’s letters was her passionate desire to please and glorify God in all she did.
On a more human level, we had an immediate connection with Michelle through our love for the arts. Michelle told us she was learning sacred dance and was using that skill to glorify God during worship services. She was also learning how to play the tambourine.
I always thought of this when I brought Larissa and Leah to their dance lessons. I reminded them that Michelle was also a dancer. This artistic connection carried over through our lives as Tom played guitar in church, as Larissa, Leah and I sang in the choir, and as Larissa and Leah refined their writing and drawing skills.
I am a professional calligrapher and printmaker, so this common interest was fun. We also told Michelle about Tom being Larissa’s and Leah’s soccer coach, about Larissa’s and Leah’s mission trip, and mentioned my Dad’s promotion to heaven.
Michelle wrote to us about her culture and heritage and we shared some of ours. I remember feeling encouraged, humbled and convicted to learn simply through letters that Michelle was obviously taking advantage of every opportunity that God gave her. She was not going to give up. This gave us a serious sense of responsibility toward her.
Tom describes his part in sponsoring Michelle as “shoveling coal,” as though helping to propel a great steamer toward its destination. We knew that we were helping to provide the support Michelle needed to go as far as she could go in Christ in this world – and go far she did!.
Our family is the proud sponsor of Michelle Sheba Tolentino.
Considering the subject of perseverance: No matter where we live or under what circumstances, we all need to learn to persevere and not give up. Using the information available to us about Michelle and the Philippines, I remember using my imagination as I read Michelle’s letters. I wondered what her everyday struggles were.
Being a teenager in a poverty-stricken area was enough to know that she would have to overcome hopelessness, feelings of insignificance and worthlessness. Poverty is Satan’s tool, and this is his work. As I recognized Michelle’s overcoming trust in Jesus, it caused me to want to keep fighting the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12).
For us specifically, fighting the good fight meant to continue being a witness in the public schools, at work and to family. Also, to be the best spouse and parents we could be, and to keep praying and not give up.
My struggle with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis became a struggle for the whole family at times. Limitations, hospitalizations, rehabilitation, surgeries and medicines have required patience and perseverance from us all.
Also in this journey, we all had dreams of becoming something. Could Tom move on to something else that God has made him for? Could Larissa fulfill her dream of becoming an interior designer? Could I earn a steady income as a visual artist? What is ahead for Leah as she grows?
One day we received a letter from Michelle. It was from her heart as usual but it brought more joy than any other. Here is what she wrote:
“I want to share with you how, where and when did I come to know Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.
“It happened during our Cadet Camp in Los Banas, Laguna, May 28, 1987. I was 7 years old when one of the speakers in our camp taught us about salvation that Christ died on the cross of Calvary, buried and after three days He rose from the dead for the redemption of our sins.
“Then the pastor ask, if we want to accept Jesus in our lives. I immediately responded to the altar call. I go to the the altar and pray together with the pastor and after that great encounter with the Lord, I feel that all my burdens are lifted up.
“When we go home, my parents, especially my brother were surprised in that great change in my life.
“Before I used to hate my brother because he always caught the attention of my parents. But now that I have Christ in my life, He teaches me to love my brother as I am loved by him. I thank him because he always reminds me to be a good servant of Him.”
Wow! Could we really come alongside her and have a part in all this? Once again Michelle’s words were clear. Michelle was becoming what we prayed our daughters would also become.
Letters went back and forth until 1999 when we were informed that our regular sponsorship of Michelle was over because she had finished high school. She was at the top of her class, which gave her the honor of being selected for the Leadership Development Program (LDP). This meant that Michelle would go to college with Compassion’s help.
They stated that out of the young people who graduate from the sponsorship program, less than one-half of 1 percent are selected for LDP. Even though Michelle was in this new program, Compassion encouraged us to continue to write to her and we could also financially support the LDP.
So off went Michelle to the University of Santos Tomas to pursue a degree in Communication Arts. During these years we learned that Michelle was president of her class, a dance teacher, a performing dancer and held positions in a theater guild.
The year 2002 came and Michelle graduated. Once again, through a letter, Compassion thanked us for our sponsorship and told us that Michelle now had the tools to succeed. It was an interesting idea that we helped equip a little bird to leave the nest, yet she was never in our literal nest, and we never met her face to face.
We were happy-sad. “We’ll meet in heaven one day,” we thought.
So, off went Michelle, Larissa and Leah to change their worlds. Larissa went to college to graduate as an interior designer. This is what she always wanted to do.
Leah discovered that God gave her a beautiful singing voice. She began to develop it with voice lessons.
Yet God wasn’t done with our relationship with Michelle.
In September 2007, five years after our sponsorship ended, we received a phone call fromat Compassion. Ken told us that Michelle was in the U.S. speaking in churches and conventions on behalf of Compassion. He called her a “Compassion Superstar!”
Michelle was telling her story as a Compassion child alumna to encourage sponsorships and bring awareness to the plight of children. We were told she wanted so much to meet us and would not give up in letting Compassion know.
This news came in God’s time because I was feeling weary and asked God to show me some fruit from something we were planting. God answered my prayer.
Michelle was scheduled to speak in Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving weekend, and Ken wanted us to come. He was hatching a plan! Our visit was to be a surprise to Michelle.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 25, 2007, we entered the doors of Glad Tidings Assembly of God to meet our precious Michelle.
We sat toward the back of the church and listened as Michelle told her story. We heard things that I only imagined years ago, and we cried.
Michelle spoke of being told she was ugly as a child. She spoke of being shattered when her father left their home. She spoke of hurtful words, an uncertain future and feelings of worthlessness.
We also saw pictures of ourselves on the big screens. Michelle expressed deep thanks to us as her sponsors. She said that we made it possible for her to walk in her dreams. She spoke about the life changing thought that God loves her and how he healed her heart so she could forgive her father.
Also on the screens was a photo of Michelle’s Compassion sponsored child, Andrew.
Michelle spoke beautifully and from her heart just like in her letters. When she was finished, the pastor said he had a surprise for her.
Michelle thought they were going to recognize her birthday because it was in three days. Instead he told her that her sponsors were there.
He called us up to the platform. Michelle began to cry, we began to cry as we walked nervously up the middle aisle. I will never forget how Leah was holding onto my arm so tightly as we walked. I’m not sure if it was for her benefit or mine.
Tom and Leah allowed me to hug Michelle first. I told her how proud I was of her. We each told her the same thing.
Tom read Michelle’s salvation letter to the congregation. I believe they were touched. We went to Sunday dinner with Michelle and Mark Pellingra from Compassion. Michelle stayed in Leah’s hotel room that night, then on Monday we went to Hershey’s Chocolate World. What fun!
Michelle needed to speak in a few more arenas, so it was goodbye until Dec. 3, 2007, when Michelle was able to come and spend some time with us at our house. We decorated our Christmas tree, and Larissa showed Michelle around the city of New Haven.
One of Michelle’s dreams was to see a Broadway show. Compassion made that happen! On Dec. 5 we rode the train to New York City and saw Mary Poppins. Michelle wished for it to snow while we were there, and God made that happen! We have the photos to prove it. Then Michelle went back to Colorado Springs.
Michelle asked for our prayers concerning her desire to attend Moody Bible Institute in the fall of 2008. She had applied for a scholarship through Compassion. She was selected for this honor and came to Chicago.
In August 2008, Leah became engaged to her godly guy, Jonathan. They were planning a Jan. 10, 2009, wedding.
Leah knew her wedding wouldn’t be complete without her sister, Michelle, as a bridesmaid. So, on my birthday, Jan. 3, 2009, Michelle flew to Connecticut for Leah’s wedding.
We all looked beautiful on Jan. 10, especially the bride. How amazing to see Larissa our daughter, and Michelle our daughter, walk down the aisle in Leah’s and Jonathan’s wedding. Michelle met her extended family of grandmothers, aunts and uncles. It was a great day!
Michelle really is a daughter and a sister to us. She is part of our family and always will be. We had honest conversations and lots of silly jokes. Michelle witnessed our strengths and our weaknesses, yet she still loves us.
What a great story for ordinary people like us. God can use you to change the life of a child, too. The truth is that you will feel like you get more than you give.
Watch a short video of Michelle speaking about the value of Compassion’s programs in her life.