By: Willow Welter   |   Posted: May 09, 2017

After her husband dies, a young widow finds help keeping her sons healthy and safe.

Safe Haven

After her husband dies, a young widow finds help keeping her sons healthy and safe.

Written by Willow Welter
Photography by Chuck Bigger
Boys playing in the street while mom works

Elly’s sons play with a friend near the snack stand she runs to earn an income.

The 30-year-old widow sits on the clean tile floor of her studio apartment sewing tiny beads onto a black dress. Her youngest son naps on the family mattress next to her, while his brother watches their mom work. For her meticulous beadwork — one of two jobs she works to sustain her family — she earns $1 per outfit.

Elly Agus Setianingsih recently moved to this new apartment complex in Indonesia with her sons Tegar, 10, and Steven, 4. The newly built complex, across the street from a hotel for Bali tourists, is more expensive than their last home, and Elly lost one source of income when she moved here — collecting discarded items to trade for cash at a recycling plant. The landlord doesn’t want tubs of recyclables piling up on the tidy property. But moving here was worth it to Elly, especially after her husband died of kidney failure in 2015, because it’s safer than their previous neighborhood. There they shared a bathroom down the street with several neighbors, and there was no safe play area for the boys.

“The main reason I moved here, though it’s more expensive, is so the children can have an ease of access to the bathroom anytime they want,” Elly says, “compared to the old house, where they were too scared to go to the bathroom.”

Son helping mom as she sews for work

Tegar holds beads for his mom, who sews them onto clothing to earn money.


The new place has a private indoor bathroom, a small balcony and supportive neighbors in nearby units. Artwork by Tegar and Steven hangs on the walls next to a photo of their late father, Gusti. The photo reminds them of Gusti’s life, which might have been saved had the family had more money. Elly took Gusti to a private hospital when he became ill. Doctors there said they could perform an operation that might save his life, but it would cost about $10,000. Since Elly and Gusti could never afford that, they went to a less expensive public hospital, where Gusti died after three weeks of dialysis treatment.

The boys and their mom are slowly getting used to life without Gusti in their new apartment. Down a staircase is an outdoor open area where the boys can play soccer. But although the new apartment is nicer than his last home, Tegar spends a lot of his free time at his Compassion center.

“Tegar enjoys being at their child development center more than here,” Elly says. At the nearby center, he plays, learns and joins in drawing competitions. His mom says she’s happy to let him spend his after-school hours there under the supervision of caring adults including Erlik Susilawati, coordinator of Compassion’s program there. It’s a place where Tegar and Steven can just be kids in a safe environment.


In the absence of her husband, Elly needs all the help she can get. At the church-run Compassion center where Tegar and Steven love to go, Erlik is like a second parent to the children.

“The church [has] become an open church,” Erlik says. “We open the door, let the children play.”

Many kids in the community are often left alone because their parents work long hours, Erlik says. This puts children in danger of being trafficked. A bus terminal in the area is known to attract drug dealers, prostitutes and gamblers. But at Compassion centers around the world, caring adults who run the sponsorship program commit to knowing, loving and protecting every sponsored child.

Compassion Program Coordinator, Erlik, embracing Rehana

Compassion program coordinator Erlik Susilawati is raising three children who needed loving homes, including 12-year-old Rehana.


Erlik’s commitment to children doesn’t stop when she leaves the church. She and her husband don’t have their own biological children, but they have taken in three kids who had been abandoned or neglected. Her motivation to care for children stems from her own childhood without parents — she grew up in an orphanage. But life there wasn’t all bad, she says. “I grew up there learning about Jesus and accepting Him as my savior and experiencing His love. I want other people to experience the same thing as me.”

The sponsored children who come to the church center enjoy food, tutoring, Scripture lessons, playtime and personal attention. Vocational training gives them skills necessary for stable jobs as adults, Erlik says. “We try to find the children’s interests at an early age here. For those who like to cook, those children will be taught more cooking skills at the project. For those who like teaching, we will [help them] learn to teach more.”

Erlik says parents of sponsored children trust that when their children are at the church, they are safe. In a community where poverty makes children even more vulnerable, the church-run Compassion center is a haven. This is a huge relief for parents who can’t be home with their children as much as they’d like to because they’re working to keep their families alive.


For mothers like Elly, Erlik and the church help lessen the stress of life in poverty. Elly is still paying down debt incurred during her husband’s futile dialysis treatment. In addition to sewing beads and sequins on clothes for a local tailor, the widow sells coffee, toiletries and snacks from a stand she sets up outside the nearby hotel. How much she earns varies depending on the frequency and fullness of a tourist bus that stops at the hotel.

Mom and her two sons laying on the family bed

Steven, 4, naps on the mattress he shares with his brother, Tegar, and mother, Elly.


Her expenses, however, leave nothing for school fees, books and medicine, so Compassion helps cover those costs. “It’s really helped me to be in the program,” Elly says. But “it’s still hard for me as a single mom.”

Recently, Steven got sick with a lymph node infection. Compassion covered the cost of his doctor visit and medicine. “I know that if my children get sick, I will receive help,” says his mom.

It’s one less thing for the widow to worry about. The support of the boys’ sponsors and the steady presence of Erlik and other caring adults at their church center ease the burden that Gusti’s death placed on the family.