CRANBERRY TWP — When Julie and Steve Raatz moved to Cranberry Township from Minnesota's Twin Cities in 2016, they brought with them connections to the International Children's Network.
ICN is a federally registered nonprofit organization that operates out of Kent, Wash.
According to its website, ICN's mission is simple: It aims to provide a complete education for trafficked, orphaned or at-risk children around the world.
“They are in the very poorest of the neighborhoods,” Raatz said, “where the kids are in great need.”
ICN operates through child sponsorships. People donate $35 per month to support a child going to school in Peru, Liberia, India or Nepal.
Children supported by ICN learn English and have the opportunity to pursue education at the university or vocational level.
Each year, ICN chooses 20 to 30 children worldwide to tour the United States as part of the Matsiko World Orphan Choir.
Matsiko is Ugandan for “hope.”
“They perform at different locations,” Raatz said. “They just call ... and see if they can come.”
The choir offers free community performances across the United States to introduce potential donors to ICN. The performances are mostly in English and include covers from American artists. Raatz said the children also perform songs and dances from their own countries.
“You fall in love with these kids,” Raatz said. “And you sponsor them.”
In June, Matsiko visited Plains Presbyterian Church, which the Raatzes attend. Local families opened their homes to children and chaperones while they performed in venues such as The Strand Theater.
The Raatzes have hosted five choirs since becoming involved with ICN in Minnesota. Plains Presbyterian Church, according to Raatz, has proved a generous host.
“They're just absolutely wonderful, well-behaved kids,” Raatz said. “They got more sponsors (here) than they did at these big, huge mega churches.”
ICN children are Christian, Hindu and Muslim. Joining Matsiko, they learn each other's heritage and speak each other's language.
Music, Raatz believes, helps bridge the gap when the choir first forms.
“It's just that universal kind of language,” Raatz said.
Visitors from afar
Visiting goes both ways. ICN also provides opportunities for sponsors or potential sponsors to visit children in Peru, Liberia, India and Nepal.
A group from Plains Presbyterian Church visited ICN students in Ilam, Nepal from Sept. 18 to 28. The trip cost about $2,000 a person and 16 people went.
“It rained every single day,” Raatz said.
But rain didn't slow the group. They helped locals chop bamboo, build a septic system and generate sponsorship profiles for ICN.
The Raatzes met many children, but also had the chance to visit with their Nepali sponsor children — Alisha, and Susmitta and Prabina, who stayed with them when Matsiko came to the United States.
“You build a little bit of a relationship with them,” Raatz said.
While helping to develop sponsor profiles, Raatz listened as children told her stories about their lives. Many of them are “orphaned” in the sense they live with only one parent and that parent works all day. It's not uncommon for young children in Nepal to prepare themselves for school alone.
“Most of the kids only eat one meal a day,” Raatz said.
Will work for food
ICN's foremost goal is protecting orphaned and other at-risk children around the world from human trafficking. Some of the children ICN helps have been trafficked and escaped.
“Some of the stories are really, really sad,” Raatz said. “And some of them are uplifting.”
Traffickers, Raatz explained, feed off poverty.
She explained the common cycle: A trafficker will approach a family struggling to survive with an offer to take a child. The trafficker promises to house, feed and educate the child in exchange for services.
Those services become slave labor, sexual or otherwise. Many parents, according to Raatz, take the offer because they think they are helping their children.
“They don't know these kids are being treated like this,” Raatz said. “Until they come home.”
Raatz added that oftentimes the children never come home.
Breaking the cycle
Alisha graduates high school in two years. She wants to be a teacher.
When Prabina returned to Nepal after touring the United States, she had a meeting with the dean of a medical university in the capital of Kathmandu.
The dean was so impressed with Prabina's experience through ICN, he admitted her to medical school without an entrance exam.
Prabina told the Raatzes that she wants to be an eye doctor.
The first time the Raatzes hosted Matsiko in the Twin Cities, they helped their church pull together food, a pool party and a soccer game for the choir in less than a day.
One of the things Raatz wanted to know after hosting children for ICN was how they felt about leaving the United States.
An ICN official told Raatz that while the children love visiting the United States, they're always happy to return to their families. What they learn from their time abroad, they bring home.
“They're going to stay there,” Raatz said. “That's why we educate them.”
Green Hill Academy is a private school for preschool through 11th grade in the mountains of Ilam. The school educates about 300 children annually.
Of those 300, 30 live at the school full time.
Sponsors of ICN children contribute to the cost of tuition, school supplies and uniforms. ICN tries to get four sponsors per child.
When the students welcomed their Cranberry visitors in September, they greeted them in the school yard with signs.
“(They) said, 'Welcome to Ilam in 2076,' ” Raatz said.
That's when she learned Nepal uses the Vikrami — or Hindu — calendar.
The Raatzes visited Alisha and ate dinner with the father of one of the girls who stayed with them in Cranberry.
They went several places where they received “khatas” with their group. Raatz came home with four such scarves.
“It's a sign of welcoming and showing respect for you as a visitor,” Raatz said.
She said the gifts were humbling.
The surprising thing about the students Raatz met in Nepal was their joy. No matter how meager their circumstances, she saw Nepali children laughing and playing and hugging their visitors.
“You just get attached to these kids and how amazingly happy they are,” Raatz said. “They just appreciate absolutely everything that you do for them.”
The group left Nepal exhausted, according to Raatz. But also humbled.
“It kind of makes you step back and say, 'Alright. How new of a car do I need?' ” Raatz said. “Or, 'Can I sponsor one more kid?' ”
Raatz thinks at least 50 children are being sponsored by members of Plains Presbyterian Church.
“I fell in love with these kids right away,” Raatz said. “You just want to help more and more and more.”
And when the Raatzes got to the point when they couldn't help any more on their own, they encouraged others to get involved.
For information about becoming involved with ICN through Plains Presbyterian Church, call 724-538-8785.