Updated: September 18, 2009 at 12:00 am
Wess Stafford could be a rising star among evangelical leaders, filling his days with speaking engagements and guest appearances on TV talk shows.
He could be driving a luxury car, living in a mansion and coasting on his achievements as CEO and president of Colorado Springs-based Compassion International.
He wants none of it.
His life is all about helping poverty-stricken kids in the world through the faith-based organization he’s run for 16 years.
“I think I got this job because I care more than anybody else,” Stafford says.
Under his leadership, Compassion International has become a highly respected faith-based organization that employs 2,500 people worldwide. It has amassed 537,000 sponsors who pay $38 a month to help a child in one of the 25 countries in which it operates.
While the recession bites into most nonprofit budgets, Compassion’s budget for 2009 increased by $43 million from 2008, to $412 million. In fiscal 2010, the budget jumped again to $460 million.
And in June, Compassion reached a milestone of having 1 million children in its program, and Stafford predicts that number will double in five years.
Charity Navigator, which monitors the operations and spending of U.S.-based nonprofits, has given Compassion its highest ratings for fiscal responsibility for eight consecutive years.
“Our job is to be beyond reproach,” Stafford said.
A humble leader
Stafford and his wife, Donna, live a quiet, frugal life on a 35-acre ranch in Black Forest, where he likes nothing more than to mend fences, dig drainage ditches and perform other outdoor duties — a respite from the long hours and frequent travel he puts in for Compassion.
The couple own one car, a 1995 Subaru with 180,000 miles, and a 25-year-old Honda motorcycle. A large chunk of Stafford’s salary — listed by Charity Navigator as $206,673 in 2008 — is given away, Donna said. Some of the money goes toward the eight children the Staffords sponsor. Some goes to other programs within Compassion, and some goes to other missionaries and nonprofit groups, she said.
While in the field in remote villages, Stafford blends in with other Compassion workers, said Mark Hanlon, senior vice president of Compassion International USA, the marketing and fundraising arm of the organization.
“He likes to see how long he can mingle with people before they realize he is president and CEO of Compassion,” Hanlon said. “He is very down to earth.”
But beneath the friendly and engaging exterior, Stafford has a broken heart. “I am never more than 10 seconds away from tears,” he said.
The heartache began thousands of miles away from his birthplace, Chicago.
From age 6 to 15 he lived in Nielle, a sweltering shanty town in the Ivory Coast of Africa where his parents were missionaries. There, he lived among families enduring brutal poverty, an experience that helped foster his lifelong commitment to help needy children.
But something else he rarely speaks of also informed his passion: For nine months of the year in Africa, Stafford attended a Christian boarding school where he was verbally, physical and sexually abused.
Two years after the family left Africa and returned to the U.S., Stafford — a confused teenager with low self-esteem and deep emotional pain — attended a Christian event in Colorado. He listened to a pastor talk about forgiveness, and chose to forgive those who abused him. After that, his life began to change, though to this day Stafford sometimes wells up when talking about his past.
Stafford went on to earn communications degrees from three Christian institutions, including Moody Bible Institute, and a doctorate in education from Michigan State University.
He joined Compassion in 1977 as a relief worker in Haiti. Two years later, he married Donna and soon after started a family, raising two daughters. In 1993, at age 44, he became president and CEO of Compassion.
“He’s legit,” said Mark Yeadon, senior vice president of Compassion’s international program. ““He is one of those wounded heroes that God is using, and it’s bearing fruit.”
For decades, Stafford never spoke publicly of the abuse because, as he said in speech in Chicago last month, he didn’t want “to apologize on God’s behalf for allowing this to happen to me, a vulnerable little boy.”
He broke his silence in 2005 with the publication of his book, “Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most,” co-written with Dean Merrill. Writing it, he said, helped him see God’s overarching plan for his life.
“I realize now it was orchestrated,” Stafford said. “I needed the broken heart of the village, but I also needed (the suffering at the school) because poverty and abuse speak the very same message to a child’s heart — the message to give up, that nobody cares for you.”
This summer, Stafford spoke candidly for the first time about his life in talks at Woodmen Valley Chapel, where the Staffords are members, and the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, a faith-based event in Chicago attended by 8,000 church leaders and simulcast to 60,000 others at churches across the country.
Many in attendance were in tears after the talks, and since then Stafford has been bombarded with speaking requests, Hanlon said.
But Stafford is reluctant to accept, preferring to spend his time helping needy children. In spite of Compassion’s success, he knows hundreds of millions of children suffer every day. That keeps him humble and driven.
“I am living the life I was called to live,” Stafford said, “and I will continue to do so until I am interrupted by heaven.”
Call the writer at 636-0367. To read more of Barna’s interview with Stafford, go to “The Pulpit” blog at www.thepulpit.freedomblogging.com.