Bob Hentzen walks to help poor children across Latin America

Bob Hentzen is walking nearly 8,000 miles across Latin America to find sponsors for needy kids and the elderly.

Mayela Lopez/AFP/Newscom
President of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging Bob Hentzen completes a portion of his 16-month walk near Cartago, Costa Rica. The CFCA sponsors more than 300,000 needy children and elderly around the world. Mr. Hentzen’s walk aims to recruit sponsors for an additional 8,000.

Bob Hentzen has 7,000 miles behind him and has about 600 left to go. He began walking 18 months ago in Guatemala and is now making his way across the desert of northern Chile toward Valparaíso on the Pacific coast.

Mr. Hentzen heads the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA), a Kansas City-based nonprofit group that sponsors more than 300,000 needy children and elderly people from diverse religious backgrounds around the world. Sponsors, mainly living in the United States, provide food, education, and health care to people living in some of the world's poorest communities.

The walk began in December 2009 when Hentzen set out with his wife, Cristina, to cross much of Central and South America on foot. His goal is to raise awareness of children living in poverty and recruit sponsors for an additional 8,000 children.

This isn't the first time Hentzen has hit the road. In 1996 he walked from Kansas City to Guatemala in eight months. He's lived in Guatemala ever since.

Beyond material assistance CFCA offers something else: hope. "One of the things we can give to these families is this idea: This is a hopeful situation, a powerful worldwide movement, and I belong to it. And I can make changes," Hentzen says.

On a Sunday in El Alto, Bolivia, a city of about 1 million, Hentzen and Cristina receive a hero's welcome at a church. Many families in El Alto live on less than $200 a month. CFCA sponsors close to 1,500 children and elderly people across the city.

The Ventura Alarcon family received Hentzen into their simple home. Three of the family's 10 children have been sponsored by CFCA.

Alicia Ventura Alarcon is 25 years old. When she was a small child in the 1980s her father lost his job at a rural mine and the family moved to El Alto in search of a way to survive. For a year they lived in a tent on what was then the outskirts of the growing city. The $30 per month a sponsor pays made a huge difference not just to Ms. Ventura, but to the entire family.

Hentzen, a wiry, suntanned man with a shock of frizzy hair kept tamed under a baseball cap, sits in the family's living room listening to her story.

"There were so many of us, and we had nothing," Ventura says. "We didn't know the taste of meat; we ate yellow flour with grease and water." She opens a book where she has saved photographs and letters from the people who have sponsored her for more than 15 years. Today she is finishing a bachelor's degree in social work.

For the Ventura Alarcon family, the food provided by a CFCA sponsorship means that the children could work less outside the home. School supplies, uniforms, and shoes purchased by the program mean the children could go to school ready to learn.

In addition, mothers of sponsored children meet every week to learn skills such as how to cook nutritious meals and how to make handicrafts to sell. Sponsored children meet every Friday night at the church to talk about school, family, and the challenges they face in a city where youth crime and alcoholism are rampant.

Today CFCA works in 22 countries. But in 1981 it was just an idea cooked up by a single family. Hentzen was born on a Kansas farm. Later the family moved to Kansas City. After his mother's death, the 12 siblings gathered and decided to start a nonprofit that would honor their parents.

Hentzen, who had worked as a teacher in Latin America for years, accepted the challenge. "We didn't know what we were getting into," he says.

Visits from sponsors to meet the families they help are a big part of the CFCA experience. "It means that we are serious about the human relationship," Hentzen says. "We are there saying 'Look, we don't pretend to be perfect, and we don't pretend that these families are perfect.' "

Getting close proved to be an extraordinary experience for Rich Swan and his family, who sponsored a girl in Guatemala after hearing about CFCA at a meeting at their church in Denver.

In 2003, Mr. Swan, his wife, and two teenage children got on a plane, wondering what they would find in Guatemala. "It was one of the best things my family has ever done," Swan says.

The family was surprised to see how far the money they gave to CFCA could go and was warmed by the bond they formed with the child they sponsored. The trip influenced the course of his children's lives.

"My son, who did not want to go, is now living and working in Guatemala," he says. The family now sponsors five children abroad and has made seven visits.

Hentzen expects to end his walk in June. Along the route local staff and sponsored families walk with him, providing cold drinks on sweltering days and hot coffee on freezing nights, sharing their stories.

From the steaming jungles of Central America to the chilly high-altitude Chilean desert, it has been a rugged path.

"Sure it's hard, but people are very loving," Hentzen says. "Down deep we all crave love; we all need it. And I feel as though I am personally one of the most fortunate people."

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Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated Mr. Hentzen's location in the photo caption.

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