The bottom line
The Compassion Experience is an interactive traveling exhibit — which you can see in Renton this weekend, Nov. 10–13, 2017 — that takes visitors through the true stories of children living in developing countries. Sponsored by Compassion International, a Christian charity organization that provides care for impoverished children through sponsorship, the experience attempts to show firsthand the life of kids in poverty. If your family doesn't mind the overtly Christian messages (and a soft sell to sponsor a child), it is a moving, educational experience appropriate for kids around age 5 or older.
What it was like
At the event I attended at Christian Faith Center in Federal Way last September, three stories/exhibits were featured: a girl in the Philippines, a girl in Uganda and a boy from the Dominican Republic. Within each exhibit, visitors walk through five rooms while listening to the narrative of the child’s life through headphones attached to an iPod. We saw living quarters, bedrooms, markets and other scenes; each room is outfitted with furniture, mats on the floor for sleeping, cooking implements, fake food on plates, children's toys, etc.
The spaces are cramped, and the walls look as if they are made of exposed brick or mud depending on the country; posters in the country’s language add to the scene. In the last room of each exhibit, visitors hear about the child’s life today, as an adult — after being sponsored as a child. Pictures depicting weddings, graduations and meetings with sponsors hang on the wall. You are then directed to watch a short video on an iPod, where the adult speaks about what it meant to be lifted out of the extreme poverty of their childhood.
Compassion International claims that this experience lets viewers journey to another country without ever setting foot on a plane by experiencing this event, and I found that to be true. The sound of a child’s voice telling the story of living in poverty is very moving. The scenes are artfully composed, and touches like crumpled candy bar wrappers and newspapers from the country you are learning about add authenticity.
The scenes are somewhat interactive: The two boys I walked through with enjoyed sitting at the desks, paging through books and touching items on display. Christianity is a theme: God and Jesus are mentioned frequently and some Bible verses are quoted. The kids telling the stories say that knowing that God loved them and had a plan for them gave them hope and self-confidence.
At the end, you emerge into a room in which you can choose a child to sponsor. I didn’t experience any pressure to sign up.
I spoke with Tara Martel, who attended a Compassion Experience several months ago with her kids, ages 10, 7, 5 and 3. “I was very touched, and my kids were completely enthralled,” Martel said. She said her children were surprised that people lived in such small spaces and had so little. Their family followed up on the experience by watching YouTube videos focusing on Third World poverty and how some kids, especially girls, don’t even get to go to school.
My family is Christian, so we didn't mind the religious overtones. But I was curious how non-Christians might feel. I asked two mothers who brought their boys, ages 5 and 6, to the Compassion Experience in Federal Way as an educational outing. Neither woman considers themselves religious, but weren’t overly bothered by the frequent mention of God in the exhibit.
“I thought the narrative was a little heavy-handed as far as religion,” Gillian said. “But only as far as the stories, I thought the focus of the Compassion project was okay.”
“It’s good for kids to see what other kids go through,” Ana said. “And if it helps for those kids to believe in something to get them to where they need to be, that’s okay,” she added.
Overall, I found the experience to be both moving and educational. The immersive nature of the exhibit was an effective way to see how people live day to day in extreme poverty.
Is the experience right for my family?
As noted earlier, Compassion International is an openly Christian organization and each child’s story contains references to their faith. However, religion isn’t “pushed” — it is part of the story.
Although the organization bills this as a family-friendly experience and appropriate for all ages, it does include hard truths of what these kids have been through. In one of the stories, a girl talks about a whole class of children being kidnapped by rebels in Uganda and about hiding from the soldiers. Her mother also died of AIDS. In another exhibit, a child talked about his father’s alcoholism and domestic violence. Sensitive kids could be disturbed by some aspects of the stories. When I brought two of my kids, ages 8 and 12, they both cried.
Be prepared to want to sign up as a sponsor — my family did. It has been a good experience for us: Our kids enjoy writing and receiving letters from the child we sponsor. (Sponsoring costs $38 a month.)
Compassion International, the world's largest Christian child development organization, is rated “A” by Charity Watch and given 4 out of 5 stars by Charity Navigator.
If you go ...
The event is free. Although reservations are not required, making an online, timed reservation will get you in more quickly. Each story takes about 20 minutes, so if you would like to do all three, allow at least 1.5–2 hours. They only let a few people in at a time, so you may wait in line.
Friday–Monday, Nov. 10–13, 2017:
King of Kings Lutheran Church