"Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you. Then, it will be a really good day." Louie Schwartzberg
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On Meeting a Champion: Billy Graham

posted by Susan Dominikovich on , ,

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Our rigorous schedule of swimming four nights a week finished just over a month ago, after which we stopped, breathed deeply, stood still and laid low.  The children were able to play their Star Wars games outside long into the evening and we were able to have dinner together completely unrushed, at a time that suited.  It was a heavenly transition.

Lest we should get bored on our newly-empty evenings, Paul reclaimed one of his traditions which is to read a story together as a family.  We started a few years ago when the children were too young to read on their own.  Paul in his best Aslan voice read aloud the Narnia books, moving on to Anne of Green Gables and more recently The Hobbit.  In between have been various stories that we’ve happened upon, as well as weekly chapters from the Bible.  The children are now well into reading their own novels and stories, devouring Harry Potter in their stride, but still, the tradition of cuddling under the blanket all together on the couch (our Sam now preferring his own space on the bean bag) is a treasure for our family.

So once swimming stopped, Paul found a book on Madeline’s shelf called The Sweep’s Boy, by Jim Eldridge.  It belongs in the My Story series, which takes an historical event or time period and creates a fictional story around it.  Madeline loves these books, especially the My Royal Stories and can tell you pretty much all you ever wanted to know about Henry the Eighth and his wives.  I know.  We’ll stop there.

The Sweep’s Boy takes place in Victorian London, 1870.  If you’ve read any Dickens, you’ll get a good picture in your head of how this novel starts:  impoverished orphan, dirty work house, crooked house manager, bullying, abuse, malnutrition…Dickens didn’t call his novel Bleak House for nothing.  And this little story was just as bleak.  A tiny glimmer of hope arrived in the form of a chimney sweep who takes the abused boy out of the work house because he was a good climber.  That glimmer lasts only a page or two when we discover the chimney sweep is in cahoots with a thief and our hero is employed as a burglar.  Prison soon follows, then an escape, then hiding and living on the roofs of Whitechapel with all the other gangs of homeless children.

Our children were riveted but we were all pretty depressed too.  Paul and I found ourselves pointing out to them how things have changed, how lucky we are to live in 2014 New Zealand rather than 1870 London, that although this character is fictional, there were actual children who lived just like this.  Etc.  Please let this story end soon.

And then, near the end of the story, as I was trying to drift off to sleep because I just couldn’t handle any more children dying and Dickensian history lessons, when all is but lost for our little sweep’s boy who is about to be thrown off a roof, enter a real hero, a philanthropist who rescues him and the other children in his gang.  Dr Tom is a young doctor who’d come to London from Dublin in Ireland where he started a school because so many children in London couldn’t read or write and had had no education of any sort:  “It was hearing the stories the children at the ragged school told him that made him realise how many hundreds of children lived on the streets of London, so he raised money and set up a safe place for them to stay.  He set up a Home for Boys, and then later he set up a Home for Girls.” (The Sweep’s Boy, p 156)

Dr. Tom in the story is in fact historical figure Thomas Barnardo, founder of the organisation Barnardos which is still active today working for the rights and safety of children in the UK and other commonwealth countries. When I heard his name, I literally cheered out loud.  Yes!  A champion for the children!

And when I heard Paul read about Dr. Tom and how he loved and campaigned and worked tirelessly for children in Victorian London, I realised, while things are different now, they are not so different for a lot of children in New Zealand, let alone other countries in the world.  Yes, we are privileged but a lot of children are abused or neglected or turn to crime because they have no hope and no one to teach them how to succeed.

Enter another real hero, a man who understands growing up in poverty and who works tirelessly and passionately to give boys and youth a lot of hope.

At Totora Springs Easter Camp last weekend our family was privileged to meet former boxing champion Billy Graham from Naenae Boxing Academy.  His son David worked with the youth at camp and had a wee soft spot for our Sam, giving him a skipping rope in secret, and then giving one to Paul too, so they could learn to skip together.  Billy spoke to the adults and his passion and enthusiasm were infectious.  He showed us how he gained endorsements for his gym which still only existed in his dreams from fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali because "you can do these things!"  He is the ultimate motivational speaker.  And I didn’t really need motivating (healthy eating and exercise aside!).

So I tried to put myself in the shoes of a kid with no hope, meeting Billy Graham, hearing him tell me that I can do anything, “why not?” and having him teach me a skill such as boxing, and I thought…wow.  A modern day Thomas Barnardo.  He gets kids off the street, he teaches them values as well as boxing and more than anything, he makes them believe in themselves because he believes in them first. 

Naenae Boxing Academy is one institution in one suburb of one city making a huge difference.  I guess that’s what it was like for Thomas Barnardo in setting up his first school before it eventually became a world-wide organisation. 
As it turns out, one boxing academy is about to become two, as we learned recently on 3 News.  Graham has received funding from Stephen Tindall (The Warehouse) and Vodafone as well as others to set up another academy in Porirua.  In fact, the model is so successful, with the academy gaining applause and appreciation from the police and various ministries that there is now the possibility of more academies being built around the country. 

Like Thomas Barnardo before him, Billy Graham loves Jesus and takes the Biblical principal of caring for orphans and widows to heart.  He works tirelessly and passionately for those in the margins who cannot help themselves, at-risk children and youth, our modern day orphans.  And he does it with bubbling enthusiasm and energy because he is doing exactly what God has intended for him to be doing. 

I'm still cheering:  Yes!  Billy Graham was once a boxing champion, but now he is a true champion for children.

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