BY MICHAEL WALTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Laura Walker is flying to Ethiopia for a sort of family reunion Sunday night.
She has not met the man she is going to see there, or his mother. But after exchanging letters and emails with Eyob Mengistu for 14 years, Laura Walker said she feels like she knows him very well.
Walker and her family sponsored Mengistu through the nonprofit organization Compassion International since he was seven years old.
Now Walker has her chance to meet Mengistu, 21, and his mother in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. She will travel to the African city for a six-day trip with other Compassion International sponsors. The travelers will spend the majority of the trip visiting children at several Compassion International-affiliated churches in the region. Walker will also spend one day with Mengistu and his mother, who will travel to Addis Ababa from their home in the central Ethiopian city of Adama, also known as Nazreth.
"I've wanted to see (Mengistu) for years," Laura Walker said. "I hope I can see him smile. A smile and a few hugs, that's my hope."
The sponsorship started after Walker married her husband Clary Walker. The couple, who own the Traverse City business NuFloor, wanted to become foster parents. But then Laura Walker became pregnant with the couple's first child, Clary Walker Jr.
The foster agency would not place a child in the Walkers' home while Laura was expecting, so the idea of taking in a child fell by the wayside.
Clary Walker Jr. was born with a rare heart condition so severe the boy had to be quarantined for two years, Laura Walker said. She and Clary Walker decided to sponsor a young boy through Compassion International during this time.
"So he would grow up with our son," Laura Walker said.
The Walkers pledged the $38 required by Compassion International to Mengistu each month since then. The family has also exchanged translated letters and emails with Mengistu four times a year since the sponsorship started.
"I'm sure we missed a few in there but he never did," Laura Walker said.
Laura Walker said she decided to keep up a steady correspondence with Mengistu the first time she saw a picture of the young boy.
"It was that moment. He was a real person," Laura Walker said. "It was just a bonding in that moment."
Although she is the only member of her family flying to Addis Ababa, she is bringing a suitcase full of things for Mengistu and his mother on behalf of the whole Walker family.
"Everyone is contributing to the trip. I'm just the one who gets to go," Laura Walker said.
The gifts in the suitcase include fun things like candy and a soccer ball, but Laura Walker is bringing more practical gifts, too.
Laura Walker said Mengistu, who recently graduated from school, has been praying for a job in recent letters, so she is bringing along new shoes, khaki pants, a dress shirt and a belt.
Such faith-based generosity always played a central role in the how the Walkers live their lives, Laura Walker said. The rest of the family has joked about what this could mean when Laura Walker returns from her trip.
"My husband told the kids they are going to have to nail everything down when I get back so I don't give it all away," Laura Walker said.