BLOOMINGTON -- Alex Mutagubya grew up in poverty in Uganda but his future was shaped by a partnership between a Normal-based support group for mothers and an international relief agency.
Mutagubya shared his story with participants of the Hearts At Home National Conference this weekend at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center. The 27-year-old is completing a master's degree at an Oregon divinity school, thanks to the support of Compassion International and its relationship with Hearts at Home.
"Having a sponsor changed the direction of my life. As a child I was struggling to eat and to live. My family was abandoned by my father and my mother's relatives. I am what I am today because someone sponsored me," said Mutagubya. He plans to return to Uganda and help train community leaders.
Hearts at Home is a Christian organization founded by Jill Savage of Normal that offers support to mothers through conferences, books and other resources. More than 4,700 attendees were in Normal this weekend to hear speakers and attend workshops focusing on the challenges and rewards of parenting and relationships.
Compassion International and many other vendor booths showed off programs, books and other materials designed to support motherhood.
The international organization was pleased that more than 60 children were sponsored Saturday by Hearts at Home attendees who completed pledges to send $38 a month to support a child.
Natalie Kanaby, of West Lafayette, Ind., and her family sponsor two children and she signed up for a third Saturday that will be a joint sponsorship with her church.
"My children get so excited when we receive letters from them," said Kanaby.
Megan Kaeb of Normal made the trip to El Salvador to meet the teenage daughter her family has helped for 11 years.
"It was pretty surreal. She's this girl I've written to all these years and her picture is on our refrigerator. She gets to go to school, have at least one meal a day and has medical care because of the support," said Kaeb, who serves as director of publishing for Hearts at Home.
The Compassion International partnership is one of several outreach programs Hearts at Home has initiated far beyond its Central Illinois headquarters. International conferences are planned this year in Austria, the Netherlands and Hungary, and a North Central Conference will be held in Rochester, Minn.
Mothers around the world face similar challenges, said Brenda Paccamonti, chief resource officer for Hearts at Home, who makes annual trips to the overseas conferences.
"Every mother -- no matter what country or culture -- struggles with the same things. The core issues of motherhood are the same and that includes being undervalued as a mother, finding balance and dealing with anger," said Paccamonti.
Closer to home, Kay Aubuchon, of Foristell, Mo., attended the conference with several friends. The mother of three children ages 19, 16 and 10 has been coming to the event for more than a decade and enjoys the chance to learn how other women cope with the challenges of motherhood.
"It's nice to be valued and know you're not alone in this," said Aubuchon, who traveled to Normal with seven other women.
Annette Tway, mother of two, from Marion, Ohio, was looking forward to the respite from her active family.
"I came to get refreshed and gear up to go home with a new perspective on how to be a happy mom, not a frazzled mom," said Tway.