Imagine the thrill. You’re an American teen, planting your toes into the sands of Brazil for the first time. Imagine total immersion into a culture unlike your own. Imagine returning home still holding someone’s hand across 9,000 miles.

The age-old tradition of pen pals has long sparked international friendships, but now it has become an avenue for providing aid to poor families overseas, with the added byproduct of lasting friendships.

Cameron Boyle, of New Jersey, co-founded the life-changing alliance for American and Brazilian children called CRIANSA Connection. CRIANSA not only means “child” in Portuguese, but also is the acronym for Children Realizing International Alliances Now, Socially and Academically. Since 2004, the CRIANSA pen pal program has taught middle class American youth that there is a larger world of children out there who live without material blessings, who nonetheless can offer the riches of kindness, friendship and adventure.

One hundred such alliances have been sparked and fueled by the CRIANSA Connection. Shelley Siller, from Northern Virginia, has been writing to her pen pal, Maycia, for one and a half years. Her letters are all translated through CRIANSA interpreters. What doesn’t need translating is the money that accompanies the letters.

Maycia’s family, along with the other CRIANSA households, face harsh daily economic realities living in Cumbuco Beach in the Northeast, one of the poorest regions of Brazil. American families sponsor a child with $365 to help the family with material needs, and to provide daily bus fare to a distant school for education beyond the seventh grade.

Grateful for the Siller family donation last year, Maycia, 14, wrote in a letter, “Many thanks to your family for their generosity! With the money you sent, my mother bought a new stove, blender, sofa, and used TV. I WILL be able to go to school next year! My dream is to be a model someday.”

But her biggest hope was that her friend, Shelley, would visit one day.

Shelley, 15, jumped at the invitation, and boarded a plane with her uncle in early August to leave the United States for the first time. A totally different world awaited her.

“We couldn’t believe her house,” Shelley reported. “Her family of eight shares a space the size of our living and dining room. They sleep on hammocks, with no air conditioning, yet they are so optimistic.”


Teaching Self-Reliance Through Sales of Homemade Crafts
CRIANSA helps the older children in the community of Cumbuco to raise money by creating handicrafts from recycled materials. CRIANSA’s catalog of homemade merchandise includes purses, jewelry and other crafts.

“These craft cooperatives create sustainable economic opportunities and an alternative to crime or begging,” Boyle explained.

For corporate sponsorship opportunities, to make a personal donation, or for more information, visit or write to Cameron Boyle and CRIANSA:
94 South Fullerton Ave.
Montclair, NJ 07042.

“Each evening, her dad would come in with a bag of whatever he just caught. Everyone would open it to see what dinner would be. They always fed us first, and her dad shimmied up a palm tree to get us coconuts for the coconut milk to drink.”

Siller is the first American involved in the organization to actually travel to Brazil to meet her pen pal.

During their week’s stay, Shelley’s uncle, Chris Cloud, treated Maycia’s family to things they’d never experienced, like meals out, dune buggy riding and a trip to the water park to ride the “Insano,” the world’s tallest waterslide.

“They are incredibly fun people,” remembers Shelley. “We had a blast.”

The friendships formed through CRIANSA are cherished. What if there were enough corporate donations for all the American pen pals to visit, or for these Brazilian children to travel to the U.S.? This is CRIANSA’s vision, children sharing what we all have in common universally.


  1. “We couldn’t believe her house,” Shelley reported. “Her family of 8 shares a space the size of our living and dining room. They sleep on hammocks, with no air conditioning, yet they are so optimistic.”

    Thanks Theresa. Enjoyable story about amazing people and what charities are up to.

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