Ordinary high school students came together to form the organization Spring Valley’s Call 2 Action after studying Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky (which I strongly suggest reading) with the goal of working to end the oppression of women and supporting their rights around the world. We acknowledge, however, that all people, regardless of gender, age, or race, can be and are affected by oppression and/or stricken by poverty. With that in mind, we ask you to help all those in need, no matter who they are, where they come from, or how different they are from you…
Over the summer, from June 25th to the 29th, I went with ten other teenagers to a small town on the eastern shore of Virginia called Onancock. The town, surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, is a quaint and quiet one with only about 1,500 residents. Onancock is proud of its Anglo-Native American heritage. It has no real claim-to-fame aside from a man named Francis Makemie, the “father of American Presbyterianism.” But let’s be honest, nobody but religious or historic scholars know of him. I would be willing to say the majority of people know, or have heard of, only one famous Presbyterian – John Calvin. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that it’s a pretty, coastal town of which few people have heard and even fewer have visited.
While there, 40 other teenagers and I were part of an organization to better the community through service projects. During the first half of the week, we cleaned up people’s houses and helped sort clothes for thrift stores. It was nice, but the latter half of the week was the most rewarding for me. My group of six teenagers and two other groups were in charge of a daycare program for underprivileged children. We picked up the kids, who were between the ages of three and eleven, from their homes and brought them to the daycare to play games and make crafts.
When going to pick up these children, we would pile into vans and buses and drive for about twenty to thirty minutes to the ironically named trailer parks, such as “Dreamland”, where they lived. These trailor parks were little, very crowded, impoverished enclaves in the rural countryside of northern Virginia that you could not see directly off the main road. You had to “go to the other side of the cornfield” to get to them. Seeing the conditions these children lived in – dilapidated mobile homes with an array of broken bikes and appliances in the overgrown front lawns with herds of chickens and mangy dogs running everywhere – made me, for lack of a more descriptive word, sad. But this feeling of sorrow was short-lived, for less than twenty seconds after pulling into the trailer park, you could hear the joyful laughter and see the beaming smiles of the children as they all ran up to the van. To see their warm and happy faces juxtaposed against this bleak, impoverished place took me aback. How could these children be so happy with what little they had?
The children were predominantly Hispanic. I was told by a leader of the organization that many migrant workers from Mexico and other Central American countries travel to northern Virginia this time of year to tend and harvest the summer crops, mainly tomatoes and corn. The men of the migrant families are forced to work long hours tending to crops or, if they are fortunate, get more stable jobs in local factories. While the men are away, all domestic responsibilities fall on the women of the house. They are the ones who cook, clean, do laundry, take care of the children, run errands, and whatever else needs to be done around the home.
When driving the children to the daycare, we began exchanging the typical pleasantries. We talked about our names, how old we were, what our favorite colors were, and who our favorite superheroes were. We then arrived at the daycare and divided the children into three groups depending on their ages. I was in charge of children ages six to eight. What struck me most about these kids was their premature loss of innocence which, I am sure, is fostered by the environment they live in. I am by no means saying that these kids are all going to grow up to be criminals and gang members, but I am saying that the places and environment in which these kids grow up is the breeding place for violence.
One of the most eye-opening moments for me was when the group of children and I played on a small deck that protruded over a creek. Under the deck there was what we call in South Carolina “pluff mud.” It is highly aerated mud that, when stepped in, can sink down about a foot. Kids being kids, the first thing they did was begin throwing stones into the mud and water and watch the stones splat on the ground, making a disgusting squish sound. Seeing these children engage in this innocent, childish act made me think. Did these children understand their economic condition? Did they know how difficult it would be to raise themselves on the socioeconomic ladder? Did they realize how relatively poor their living conditions were or were they content with their lives because they did not know of anything much better? Something about that act of throwing rocks into the river and watching them splash was pure and transcended our modern social hierarchy. No matter who you are or where you come from, it is fun to just throw rocks in a river. I think I had more fun throwing those rocks into the mud with the kids than I have playing any app on my iPhone or watching any movie on my plasma screen television. These kids are just kids. They possess what many of us want – youth, innocence, and the ignorant bliss of this cruel world around us. They were happy just the way they were. They did not know about genocide or sex trafficking in third world countries. All they cared about at that moment was how far they could throw a rock into the water. But what saddened me was knowing that after I played with them and they went home, they would be accosted by the harsh reality of where and how they lived, and how few opportunities they would be given to better themselves. The environment they lived in drains this innocence much too quickly.
I will never forget what one of the little girls told me. As she was getting on the van to go back home, she found a five dollar bill that someone had apparently dropped. Picking up the money, she asked one of my friends if he wanted it. Her body language indicated that she had no real desire for it. To her, it was just a little, rectangular, green piece of paper. The innocence in that act was powerful. How many people do you know would, if they found money on the ground, give it to a complete stranger who needed it less? Also on that ride back to the trailer parks, I commented to the girl sitting next to me that one of the posters looked especially colorful. She then told me that everyone where they lived had chickens, and that Mr. so-and-so was super rich because he had a million chickens. I had not realized until then that there are still places in America where people compare wealth by the number of chickens they own.
As the children left the van to return home, it saddened me. Although I like to think humans are innately more good than bad, I had no idea the type of family issues these children had to face. I just kept wishing that they would be given an opportunity to make a life for themselves. It also made me angry at myself. How can I go home to watch my TV and play Angry Birds knowing people, kids, go home to so much less? It is so easy to forget about people like this – people in your own community. It is so easy to just give a few bucks when the offering plate comes around or put your spare change into the fireman’s boots when they come up to your car. You never really see the ones you are helping. You never see just how happy they are when you give them a piggyback ride, or kick the soccer ball around with them, or engage in a heated debate analyzing the pros and cons of Batman versus Spiderman. You never really know how much a friend really means to them. So please, be active in your local charity and religious organizations. See for yourself first hand just how much good you can do. I know it sounds corny and horribly clichè, but seeing a child, and for that matter anyone, smile because of something you did or said is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
by Philip Richardson