Why Does My Sponsored Child Look So Scared?

Tell me if you can relate to this: When I first started sponsoring my Compassion child, I clung so tightly to that one picture I had of him — my one lifeline into his world.

OK, so I knew from his bio that he helps his mom wash dishes and loves art, but I would hold that little picture in my hands and examine every detail, trying to glean whatever information I could.

Young child posing for a photo.

What type of shoes is he wearing? Is that a scrape on his knee? What’s that expression on his face — fear? Indifference?! The thought even crosses my mind…is he even happy I’m sponsoring him?

I know there are other sponsors who feel the same way. We cling to those pictures, so excited to be a part of a child’s life, so when we see that these little ones look scared or stiff or even aloof, we can’t help but think “what’s going on here?!”

Photo day is a big day for children being registered at Compassion-assisted child development centers. In the morning, they put on their bestest outfit, hold their mom’s hand as they walk the dusty road to the child development center, and get ready to face the camera.

This is probably the first picture that’s ever been taken of them. Many are shy and scared of the stranger taking their picture. Many aren’t used to so much individual attention being given to them. Many don’t quite know what this sponsorship thing is all about yet.

I recently saw this photo by Edwin Estioko, Communication Specialist in the Philippines. How refreshing!

After the fear of that first picture, the child begins to loosen up. He interacts a bit with the smiling, accepting faces at the project; he makes a couple of new friends from his neighborhood. Look how relaxed and child-like this cutie is when he lets his guard down a bit!

Young boy standing on a swing.

Phew…So it’s not just me. It’s a new situation for these children, and their little cheeks will soon relax into chubby smiles.

Imagine my delight when, after cherishing the first picture of my sponsored child who looked so tentative and unsure, I received this photo of a smiling, confident young man. And maybe, just maybe, he was thinking of me.

Young boy posing for a picture.

40 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Christie June 29, 2023

    I just received my second photo of my girl in Rwanda. The first photo showed a child who looked sad and scared, maybe even hopeless – understandable considering the trauma and loss she’d been through. Then this second photo came along…. and I am so gratified to see the change in her. She looks a bit older, a bit more comfortable, a bit more confident, and perhaps, a bit more loved. Way to go, Compassion! The difference in this child is visible! I am so honored to be able to play a part in this!

    1. Kaye-Lin June 29, 2023

      This is such a blessing to hear, Christie. Thank you so much for sharing, and for making a difference in your sponsored child’s life! 💙

  2. Michelle November 27, 2013

    I have found it sad to only receive pictures of my sponsor child with a stiff expression on her face. This week I received my first picture of her with a big smile. It brought my heart great joy. It is good to know that I am not alone in my thoughts and that other sponsors would love to see a picture of their sponsor child smiling as well.

  3. Diane Nichols May 1, 2012

    I too was struck by the somber,even scared expressions on my sponsored children’s faces,then it struck me that yes they are scared and they have had such poverty in their lives that they don’t have anythiing to smile about, what a reward it is to see a later picture and they have a big smile, then sometimes in a second or 3rd picture they will have a frown or not smiling, maybe they had a bad day or they were upset about something, etc but I still have to remember that I am making a difference and that the letters the child writes with the “sad” picture usually are very cheery.

  4. Emily April 26, 2012

    This was my experience too. I just got another photograph of my child and her expression is so much happier and self assured it almost looks like a different person. It makes me feel good to know I am making a difference in someone’s life.

  5. Ruth February 9, 2012

    One of my teenage sponsor girls from Africa had an almost shocked, even terrified look in her first photo. I called it “the Lady of Shalot” look from the Tennyson poem of that name, and also from a related Agatha Christie mystery. My sponsor girl’s next photo was still rather somber but not terrified at all, which was a relief. Maybe her next one will be smiling?!

  6. Trevor & Roni February 9, 2012

    We have only been sponsoring our child since 09 and I as well have looked that photo over and over, I’d have to agree with what prairie Rose ( one of the older comments near the beginning of the page) had to say about pictures around the neighborhood, it would be nice to ask the children about their areas and pictures to bounce the questions off, but i also under stand compassion is VERY busy. I like the idea of sending a lill photo album of the pictures we recive back to the child, i hope you don’t mind but i would like to do it as well. Keep the great ideas coming

  7. Jim Coughlin December 27, 2011

    Wow I thought I was the only one who wondered why the little guy I sponsor looked so serious, and yes, even a bit scared. I guess I would be too if I were in his shoes.

  8. Jessica August 16, 2011

    This is an awesome post! Thanks! I hope one day I will be able to meet my compassion child Rafaela someday. 🙂 I’m sure she has a great smile 🙂

  9. Abigail Rogers August 1, 2011

    So true! Thanks for posting this information 🙂

  10. Jodi July 1, 2011

    I just finished making photo albums for my Compassion kids! I have taken all of the photos that Compassion has sent me each update, and scanned them into my computer and printed and laminated them, then made a photo book for each child. I am hoping not only will they treasure these books as they probably will be the only photos they ever have of themselves, but the next time the camera comes out, they know the pictures will be coming back to them and they will be all SMILES!

    1. Carol Hallifax July 15, 2011

      That is a great idea. I think that I would like to do that too. How do you keep the book thin enough to send it? How do you put it together?

  11. Jodi July 1, 2011

    I have just sent my Compassion children their pictures in a home made album. I scanned all the pictures that Compassion has sent me, and made a book for them to keep as I know they probably don’t have pictures of themselves. Not only will this be a treasure for them, but I am hoping when they see themselves, they may know that when the camera comes out next time that it will be coming back to them and they will have a BIG smile on their faces!

  12. Talisa June 30, 2011

    I LOVE this post! It completely captures how us sponsors feel. I also love the before & after pictures (if i can say that lol). It gives me hope and excitement for my sponsored children.

  13. Nicole April 29, 2011

    Thanks for posting this and drawing attention to it again. I am a newer sponsor and had the same questions. Also, the second photo I got, my little boy actually looks like an entirely different child altogether. Seriously… do the pics ever get mislabeled?

    1. Kees Boer April 30, 2011

      Hi, Nicole, yes, that has happened before. You can imagine with almost 2 million children. If a number gets mixed somewhere, that two children could be confused. If you feel this happened, just call Compassion in your country and ask them to check it out. One time, a boy’s picture changed to a girl’s picture and that was a mistake for sure, and they changed it. Another time the skin color and the looks of the little girl were very different, so I called Compassion and they contacted the center and they confirmed that it was still the same child. Incidentally, I got a letter from that child today and she addressed it. 🙂

      I have to say this, when the child’s picture gets taken, it is not the most natural environment. It’s very similar in some ways to a movie set, if you’re familiar with those. In other words, if you could see what the child sees, it is easy to see why the child might be so formal. The child might have gone through a morning registration process along with 30 other children and their parents. So, then they all walk outside to get their picture done. The family is very excited about this, so they dressed the child up as nice as possible, because this is the photo that goes to the sponsor. So, then the child is told to stand somewhere, while the photographer, someone from the project, that probably handles the mail and any other sponsor related things…. Behind the photographer is the whole group of kids and parents waiting to get their turn in getting their picture taken. So, the child is positioned there and told to stand to stand straight… and then they take the photo a few times.

      If you want to see this in a video, I put a few videos on line, that I took of some children getting registered at BO561 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Here are their links:


      or here is another one:


  14. Kees Boer February 25, 2011

    You all might enjoy this video. It is of a child in BO561 getting her picture taken. The mother is there next to the photographer and there are another bunch of children and their parents, who just had their registration done that morning.


    Oh, this particular child got already sponsored, but I’m looking for a sponsor for a little boy from that student center.


  15. Diane Green February 25, 2011

    I received my first photo several months back of my child with a hugs smile on his face – I cannot tell you how much JOY it brought me to know that I had a little part in bringing him happiness… Imagine having your photo taken for the 1st time and being hungry – after they see that you are in it for the long haul their personality truly shines in their photos… How can we get MORE photos sent to us??? Can we pay extra for them to be taken? I cannot get enough!!! =] LOVE my Yusto!

  16. Beth February 15, 2011

    Thank you so much for this post. It really does relieve me about what may be going on around them to make them look a little awkward. God Bless.

  17. Devery June 6, 2009

    I also commented to my son that our family’s sponsored child looked sad or kind of mischievious and that’s what prompted me to pick him, I have a heart for boys who find themselves in trouble because of their circumstances. My son corrected me and commmented with a lot of compassion he looks hungry. I have been trying to find out as much as I can about his life and conditions so I could know how to pray for him and this prompted me to search the internet for more information about the country and particular area where he lives and I found an excellent website that has a video cam for those who can not travel to get an idea of the place where their child lives. http://www.guardian.co.uk/katine/virtualvillage. I am glad his latter picture is like everyone said much happier. It concerns me that their are many more in his situation that are not being helped. And now I know some ways to pray for him and his country.

  18. Sarah May 9, 2009

    I love this post. I have often thought about the picture, but my son is the same way when he first meets people (reserved, cautious)….so I just assumed they had similar personalities!
    This confirms what I thought….its an unusual day for these kids, but they are probably happy! I have been to Africa, and I have never met a sad person there!

  19. Jeannie Miller May 1, 2009

    When got Elias he was 17 and orphaned in an AIDS affected area. The look on his face seemed to say “I won’t get chosen.” In the second picture he had a hint of a smile. The third, he was smiling! He just turned 19 and I received a photo update. Not only has he filled out but the smile on his softened face reveals the man he is becoming. Praise be to God for the opportunity and resources to be able to show His love to a hopeless orphan. How great is our God!

  20. Lindsay West April 30, 2009

    Thank you so much for putting up this blog post. I have felt the same way about my Phejhay, although he is smiling a tad bit in his first picture. He is such a precious little boy.

    My question is…I would love to have another picture of him but I am afraid to ask because I don’t know who pays for photographs of the children- are the families expected to provide them, or does Compassion? I don’t want to ask his family to spend money.

    Any ideas?

  21. Beverly McClafferty April 29, 2009

    This was so helpful to me! I look at the picture of my Diana and she looks frightened and a bit angry. It is great to be reminded of what the photo experience was like for them and the overall trauma of it. I look forward to a happier picture of my dear Diana from Rwanda.

  22. Jordan Castilla April 29, 2009

    This is so true! My little Natalia’s first picture was almost depressing to look at. As cute as she is, she stood emotionless in front of the camera. However, when her second picture came in the mail shortly after, I was overjoyed to see her smile. She is precious!!

  23. Suzanne Nichols April 29, 2009

    The first picture of our little boy was so adorable. He had a little smile and chubby cheeks. The second picture, my family had to just laugh at. He looks mad, which is actually pretty cute. It reminded me of my grandson scowling when he is angry. It make me wonder what was going on in his little mind. What a sweetie!

  24. Mike Stephens March 29, 2009

    Amber thanks for sharing!!! It was also great to hear Edwin’s advice when sponsors meet their sponsor child. I remember meeting Osmari in Nicaragua I was so nervous myself. I just squatted down and handed her a stuffed lion I got her as a gift b/c she is from Leon which means Lion in spanish. I can see how God doesn’t always come at me with bolts of thunder and lightning and crashing huge boulders of burning sulfur towards me, but he could!!!

  25. Chris Giovagnoni September 11, 2008


    Please upload the child development center photos you have to our Flickr group.

    I can take a look at them there.

    Be sure to clearly define what child development center is in the picture and enter a description for what the photo is showing.

  26. Kees Boer September 4, 2008

    Hi, Chris,

    I just got what you wrote there about getting photos of all the projects. I think that is such a great idea. I have some pictures of some of the projects. If you can use them let me know!


  27. Edwin Estioko May 5, 2008

    You are so right, Amber. Most of these children stand in front of the camera for the first time. Not to mention they are under the hot sun while wearing shirts and trousers they don’t usually wear just so they will look their best for their sponsors. Before their turn to be photographed, they are careful not to soil themselves so they suspend their urge to run around with friends at the center. They also don’t enjoy their friends teasing and making fun of them behind the camera man.

    The same happens during sponsor visits. Before the child and his sponsor meet for the first time, the child is so eager and happy and smiling and ready. He is excited to show a picture or a gift to his sponsor. But once he sees his sponsor for real — huge, white and with a big voice, the child crinkles.

  28. Compassion dave May 4, 2008

    Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)

    I can’t help but wonder about the expression on this kid’s face. I suspect he was scared to death, but in time had the sense he was in the safest place in all the world.

  29. Vicki Small May 4, 2008

    My first *two* photos of one of my first two children showed a very serious, possibly frowning, child. If I hadn’t met her soon after the second photo arrived, I wouldn’t have known that she is, in fact, a very happy, extremely expressive girl! In person, she jabbers, sings, flits about; in my photos of her, she nearly always poses herself in some position totally unlike any that we see in the packets.

    On my first trip to DR, during our visit to the country office, several other sponsors wanted to know why their children had looked so stiff. We were told that the kids tend to bounce around, so they’re told to stand like little soldiers. That may be true for some, but I, too, have seen that will-it-hurt? look on many faces.

    I love the idea of pic’s from each project on the website, but I sure can imagine it will be a mammoth undertaking!

  30. Chris Giovagnoni May 3, 2008

    We’re working on getting photos from every child development center that show the church and the surrounding area and help give you a better view into your child’s life. It’s slow going though. So many priorities, so little resources, so many child development centers and many of them remote … but we are on it.

  31. Ashleigh May 3, 2008

    I don’t remember Compassion’s explaining this when I first began sponsoring a child seven years ago. I’m not sure how things are done these days, but if you don’t already, I think it would be a great idea to share this information with new sponsors! It might help them better understand their children from the beginning.

  32. Prairie Rose May 3, 2008

    I’ve also analyzed my kids’ pictures to death. What they’re wearing… where did they get it? Did they already have it? Did they get it from the program? In later pics, was it something I gave them? I’ve wondered if the kids know ahead of time it’s picture day and wear their best intentionally or if they’re just there at the center and oh, guess what, we need your picture? I’ve analyzed the backgrounds to death too, especially when there’s a building or something to see… what is that building? Is it part of the center? or was the picture taken elsewhere? I’ve also wondered if the kids are told these pictures go to their sponsors, and for the new kids, does the picture get taken the first day they’re there?

    I think it’d be really awesome if all the Compassion centers could take various shots around their grounds, or even their town/city, and have those pictures online for those with kids at that center to see, i.e., when you log in and click “project information”, if those pictures were included along with the text. It’d be so nice to get a glimpse into the world our kids live in, and would make excellent fodder for conversation too, if we asked the kids about the things we see in those pictures.

    1. Vicki Small March 11, 2014

      I agree with your suggestions! How I’ve longed to see, not just “a typical project” in a country, but photos of my child’s project–for each of my children! Those photos would not be individualized for each child, but for the project, meaning each sponsor of a child in that project would see the same photos. So would it really be a huge burden?

      I anticipate a reply from someone saying that, yes, for some of the poorer projects, it would be. But even just two shots of the exterior of the building(s) and grounds would be a start.

      I think of my Tausi, in TZ, and how many times she has commented over 11 years about the beautiful garden they have at the project. I would love to see that, and I think she would be happy if I could, because she obviously feels some pride in that garden!

      Somebody? Please?

  33. Kelly @ Love Well May 3, 2008

    Great post, Amber. It’s one of those unspoken questions I bet many sponsors have, but no one wants to verbalize for fear of sounding trivial.

    1. Leigh August 13, 2011

      I’m so happy to finally see this comment–I too hated to ask about it for sounding like I only cared whether he was even grateful for my sponsorship…after 6 1/2 years of sponsorship! That isn’t at all the case, but after contacting Compassion about how I never received any word about how my financial gifts were being spent, and never received any letters expressing any gratitude for those gifts, they looked deeper into the situtation and got it resolved. Immediately I began receiving pictures of my child, José, showing the food and clothing that he has been able to purchase for himself and for his family. His letters have also become much more meaningful (sort of understandable that they weren’t in the past, since he was so young–he’s now 11). He has thanked me repeatedly for financial gifts, cards, stickers, and has finally begun to tell me a few personal details about himself and his family. For example, my last letter told about how he just celebrated his birthday in June, he thanked me for being his sponsor and that he “misses [my] letters and my love” (!) I had started only writing when I received a letter from him, since I wasn’t sure that he even liked my letters. Enclosed was also a photo of his mom and one of his younger sisters holding the new dress pants, dress shirt, and shiny new black dress shoes that he had bought with my gift. How exciting that was! So if you are someone who can’t seem to get any insight into your child’s life, I encourage you to do two things: Contact Compassion to see if they can help, and ask your child the same questions in every letter until they are answered. 🙂 Of course we are not sponsoring these children for our own benefit, but it sure is nice to see and hear how they are doing in life..and how Compassion is making a positive difference in both their earthly…and eternal lives.

  34. Beth May 3, 2008

    Thanks for this. I too am struck by the sometimes somber expressions on the faces of my sponsored children. The first picture of our first child was so somber. He looked “too old” for 7. Too serious or something. No joy at all on his little face and it just broke my heart. The next one I got, 18 months later was so starkly different. A bigger boy for sure, but his face is what really struck me. The HUGE smile on his face, his relaxed stance and the confident eyes spoke volumes. He’s written to us many times and us to him. He never fails to thank us for our sponsorship. He says he’s so grateful, but that expression said it all. I cried when I got that second photo because it said so much to me about the impact that Compassion really has on him. He is such a beautiful boy and now his outward expression matches his inward beauty.


  35. Dionna May 3, 2008

    I love this post. Thanks for the revelation and inside perspective on our “children’s” pictures!

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