On a hot July Saturday in Miller Place, N.Y., Kara Patrovic, 15, watched as cars filled the Applebee's parking lot. She knew three things -- it was 95 degrees; she and her friends had a lot of cars to wash; and everyone in line was there to help her raise money to visit her sponsored child in Bolivia.
"I've sponsored Mijael since I was in the fourth grade," she says. "So I've always wanted to meet him. My parents said I could if I raised enough money, so I knew what I had to do."
Kara sponsors Mijael through ChildFund International. At age 9, she asked her father if she could help one of the children she had seen on the commercials. "He did some research and looked at a bunch of organizations and said I should go with ChildFund," she says. "When we went on the website, I knew I wanted a little boy between the ages of 1 and 5. So when I saw Mijael, I don't know, I just knew I wanted to sponsor him."
Mijael, 6 months old at the time, was one of countless children living below the poverty line in Bolivia -- a country where six of every 10 children have unmet basic needs. Mijael lived in a one-room home with his mother, father and grandparents. Kara, recognizing her own blessings, wanted to share with Mijael and his family.
"I think it's important to give," she says. "No matter how bad you think you have it, there is always someone else who has it much worse than you. Yeah, it makes you feel good when you buy something for yourself, but the best feeling in the word is when you help change someone else's life. It makes your heart feel good."
For six years, Kara communicated with Mijael and his family through pictures and letters. At first the notes were penned by Mijael's mother, but in a few years Mijael learned to spell and write. "He would tell me he loved soccer; I play soccer too," she says. "I got pictures every year and watched him grow."
In January, Kara decided she wanted to meet the family behind the letters. She set her sights on a trip to Bolivia by summer and hoped her community would be willing to help. Kara reached out to her priest first, who allowed her to put a letter in the church bulletin. "I was shocked when people whom I had never met sent me checks of like $200," she says. "I was really inspired by so many people wanting to help."
Kara kept her eye on the costs of flights, hotels and other travel expenses. She set her fundraising goal at $5,600 and aimed to have enough left over to help Mijael's community.
"I asked ChildFund Bolivia if I could bring gifts for him and his friends," she says. "They said I could, but that there were 50 children who came to the community center! It was my goal to bring each child something."
For months, Kara collected donations to make that happen. She held a fundraiser at a local Wendy's, where she received 15 percent of the evening's revenue. And after the carwash, she hosted a yard sale of items donated by community members. "I just want to thank my community a lot for responding so much because they got me there," Kara says.
Alongside her fundraising, Kara refereed soccer games, mowed lawns and babysat to earn money. In the end, she accrued $6,400. In just six months, Kara had raised more than enough to travel and, in August, she embarked on a 23-hour trip to Bolivia with her father. Despite the cramped flights and adjusting to the high altitude, Kara remained excited to meet her "little brother" Mijael.
"When he walked in the room and I realized it was him, I was really happy," she says. "I gave him a big hug and he gave me a big hug and a kiss. It didn't feel real. I had done all this work to get there and I was finally there. It was like a dream."
Kara spent 10 days in Bolivia, meeting Mijael's parents and friends, while learning more about his community. She was able to deliver clothes and toys to 55 children at the ChildFund-supported center.
"It definitely made me rethink everything we have here," she says. "The kids really didn't have many toys. They were using paper to make toys but were so happy with what they had. I realized you don't have to buy things to make you happy because that happiness is only temporary."
As the visit ended, Kara gave Mijael a T-shirt she had made especially for her trip to Bolivia. On the front it read, Kara2Mijael, and on the back was a list of all the people who had helped her visit him.
"I told him to look at how many people cared about him," she says. "I showed him and his family how many people were willing to give."
From Kara2Mijael: The Gift of Giving
This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y,United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday - which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 - is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to www.givingtuesday.org to learn more and get involved.