Maleka, an 8-year-old girl in India, might be a sex slave by now if she had not been sponsored into a Compassion International program that helps put food and clean water on her family’s table and pays for her schooling.

Kelvin in Uganda, Daniel in Bolivia and Durrell in Indonesia also have hope and a better life because they each are being sponsored for $38 a month by local Christian families.

And these children are only a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million children in 26 countries finding hope and rescue from poverty by Compassion programs.

“We felt that we could play a small part in being the hands and feet of Jesus in helping to rescue one child and keep her safe,” said Baton Rouge-area resident Donna Montagino, who along with her husband, Jeff, support Maleka and a teenage boy in Africa. The couple, members of Bethany Church and Compassion sponsors since 2004, regularly correspond with Maleka, and her return letters show “she seems to be thriving in the Compassion-supported environment.”

Mickey Ray Rayborn, of Covington, is a child advocate for Compassion who sponsors Kelvin, Daniel and three other children, and often mans Compassion display tables at area churches, conferences and concerts.

Compassion is a nondenominational ministry that is church based, Rayborn said. It is supported here by American Christians and churches, and then ministers to millions of people in developing countries through local churches there.

Rayborn’s Compassion journey began when Hurricane Katrina wiped out his New Orleans-area home and displaced his family to Houston.

“I was searching out God and asking him, ‘What would you have me do?’ and He clearly put it on my heart that, ‘Now that you understand what it’s like to be in total need, to be in poverty, I want you to help kids in poverty,’” Rayborn said. “‘Just like your child didn’t have a place to live, didn’t have clothes on his back, these kids are in the same scenario. Now I want you to be the hands and feet of Jesus and do something about it.’”

Rayborn’s son, McKay, 15, sponsors Durrell, who lives in Indonesia, with money he makes selling artwork and doing odd jobs, Rayborn said.

The Rayborn family attends Lakeshore Church in Covington, a “very mission-oriented” church, Rayborn said. More than 70 Compassion children are being sponsored by church members, and the church itself also funds “Water for Life,” a water purification system, and buys mosquito nets to help prevent the spread of malaria.

Malaria is a treatable, preventable disease, but it kills 2,000 children every day, according to Compassion.

The Lakeshore Church youth group is conducting “The Summer of Clean Water” to purchase at least 70 water filtration systems, at $79 each, for Compassion, Rayborn said.

Water-related diseases are the second-biggest killer of children worldwide, according to Compassion. Approximately 1.8 million children — about 5,000 a day — die each year from diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation.

Rayborn has been on missions trips to South and Central America, but “Haiti was the absolute worst poverty I’ve ever seen,” he said. “There are people everywhere who have very little clean water to drink and not enough food to eat in a day.”

Compassion has been in Haiti for decades and sponsors thousands of children, but thousands more are waiting for help, the ministry’s website reports.

Cletha VanWinkle, of Hammond, has been a Compassion sponsor for nearly 18 years and sponsors three children. She is leaving Saturday to visit her kids in Peru. She attends Journey Community Church in Ponchatoula, which also supports Compassion through its missions budget.

“Because Compassion is holistic child development, there is a whole lot more that affects these kids than just making sure they get a meal a day and going to school and getting the spiritual aspect,” VanWinkle said. “A lot of kids were missing school because they were sick with malaria.

“We can definitely be the hands and feet of Jesus. The Bible talks a lot about how God cares about children, and when you look at what Compassion is doing for these children, we’re hitting all the areas anybody wants for their own children — education, nutrition, hygiene, health care.

“If these children have a specific health care need, or if somebody in their family has AIDS, they’ll get medicine for that, or if they have malaria, they get care for that. Or a deformity, Compassion is going to try to take care of that,” VanWinkle said. “With the women and their babies, Compassion gets them the nutrition they need to have healthy babies. Compassion is hitting all these things we would want for our own children and doing those things in the name of Jesus.”

Financial accountability

While Compassion International is one of the world’s largest nondenominational mission groups, with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, it is also careful to keep strict bookkeeping and accurate reporting, according to Compassion’s website and local sponsors.

It consistently receives a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group, and is in Navigator’s top 1 percent of charities.

“There are no red flags that have ever come up in all the years we have been with Compassion,” Donna Montagino said.

“In 2002, I went to Brazil and met my sponsored child. Compassion’s president was on that trip as well,” VanWinkle said. “By spending the time with them and getting a chance to talk to them and hearing their stories, I could see the integrity of the people I was talking with. I came away from that knowing my money was being spent well.”

According to the Compassion website, it’s the world’s largest child development organization, committed to releasing children from spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty to enable them to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.

All of Compassion’s programs are rooted in a long-term, holistic approach to Christian principles via 6,500 international church partners caring for 1.5 million sponsored children.

The organization dates to 1952, when the Rev. Everett Swanson flew to South Korea to minister to American troops fighting in the Korean War. Swanson grew increasingly troubled by the sight of hundreds of war orphans living alone on the frigid sidewalks of Seoul, many dying of starvation, exposure and disease. Swanson raised money to support a Korean orphanage and established an organization that gave American sponsors the opportunity to help the Korean children by paying a small monthly fee to cover their food, shelter, health care and Bible-based education.

ä Internet Resources:

compassion.com