Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Life Lessons on Making a Difference: A Journey from Mid-Coast Maine to Bogotá, Colombia

During my first 17 years growing up in Mid-Coast Maine, I seldom thought about how fortunate I was to live here. I knew, in theory at least, that my friends and I were lucky to have enough to eat, access to an excellent education system, and a network of caring community members eager to meet our needs. Still, the concepts of poverty, violence, and hungry children were little more than vague and intangible abstractions, images used by adults to stop the incessant complaining of teenagers. For as long as I can remember, though, the notion of community and public service has been of utmost importance in Camden, and throughout high school, I embraced this value by looking for different ways of giving back to others; but it was not until my final year at CHRHS that I began to recognize the unique opportunity I have been given to make a difference in the lives of others.

When a friend unexpectedly encouraged me to go to El Salvador with her and a group of parishioners from Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church I never imagined the radical shift it would cause in my world view and life purpose. The first day I arrived in El Salvador, traveling by bus from the airport to the village of San Ramon, my perspective of the world quite literally turned upside down. As I watched out the window at the children begging for money in the streets, the plywood and aluminum shacks that stretched to the horizon, the men and women walking the yellow line of chaotic intersections trying to sell whatever the could, I saw an image so distant from my own privileged, sheltered life, that it seemed almost surreal. I could not fathom how such poverty and struggle could exist in a world so full of wealth and opportunity. I am still not sure. The feeling I had in El Salvador came from somewhere beyond, and perhaps, deep within me. I’m not sure whether to call it divine, supernatural, or transcendental, but whatever the adjective, it has guided the last five years of my life.

After traveling more, and visiting other Latin American countries, the struggle of the community of San Ramon in El Salvador has become a symbol of the plight of exploited people everywhere. Today, most of my work is focused in Colombia, because it is there that I seem to have been placed and appear to make the greatest contribution, yet I always feel that I carry a part of El Salvador with me wherever I go.
During the last five years, I have worked with orphans in Uruguay, studied law in Mexican Universities, lived with displaced children in rural Colombia, volunteered with deafblind people in the Capital city of Bogotá, and translated for Mexican Farmworkers in Florida. These experiences have often pushed me far beyond my comfort zone, but I am convinced that giving my time and sharing in the lives of all these people has been far more enriching to my own personal development than to those I have tried to help. I have learned some of my most important life lessons from displaced and orphaned children, and felt my moments of greatest insight and inspiration from listening to deafblind people.

When one stands face to face with even just a tiny portion of the human suffering in the world, the feeling is so overwhelming that it is tempting to suck back into our comfortable worlds, where war, genocide, poverty, and disease are little more than intangible abstractions. Working in one Colombian orphanage, the young girls would often ask me to braid their hair, but I soon came to dread the request because their hair would always fall out in clumps. This happened with most of children who had only recently arrived to foundation due to extreme malnourishment and micronutrient deficiencies. At first, I was overcome by the guilt of the privileged life I have led. Simply for having been born in the United States, to a caring and supportive family, I will never have to worry about the basic physical necessities of life. I will have access to one of the best school systems in the world, while others will dream, not of getting their PhD, but of having clean water and enough to eat, of completing grade school, of living in peace. I have struggled immensely to reconcile the privileges and opportunities I’ve been given, with the sharp inequalities and injustice of so much of the world and many times over the years, I have returned to this quote by C.S. Lewis:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” It is this philosophy, of reaching outside my comfort zone, giving more of myself, and learning as much as possible that brought me to Colombia.

Two years ago, entering my junior year at Stetson University in Florida, I had taken every class on development, poverty, and Latin America offered, and had studied abroad and completed internship programs in Mexico and Uruguay. Still, I began to feel unchallenged and restless. I felt I was falling into the habit of following the academic path laid out for me and everyone else. I feared I would graduate from college with a strong record but a narrow mind. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, to have my ideas challenged, to have things demanded of me that I was unsure I could accomplish. I withdrew from college for a semester and volunteered to live in rural Colombia a little outside of Bogotá, in a home with 100 elementary school-age boys who had been displaced by the armed conflict.
I also, quite unexpectedly, found myself working as an English translator for an organization that provides support to deafblind people, which has become one of the most enriching experiences I have had working in. When a deafblind person is not given the resources needed to learn to communicate, the most common thing is for them to become aggressive. The family, not knowing what to do, and without the available resources to seek help, often ends up abandoning the family member, tying them to pieces of furniture, or forcing them to live sedated all the time.
In the developing world, the marginalization of people as result of economic inequity is stifling, yet the injustice truly pales in comparison when one considers the marginalization that comes from the lack of a communication system and a society that is unaware and lacks the structure to teach and integrate these people. In the United States, we would consider it tragic if one our children were born with such disabilities, and this in a country with all the resources and structure in place to teach the child to communicate. Colombia and Latin America is at the very beginning of developing a social and political culture that respects the rights of disabled people. For example, it has only been in the last year that a law was passed allowing seeing-eye dogs on Bogotá’s metro system called el transmilenio. Seeing eye dogs are a luxury though which are rarely even considered within the organization because of the tremendous costs associated with them. A more realistic strategy considering the scarcity of resources in the region is to teach the people to use a walking stick.

The life experience that these people have to share is something that I have never really come across before. To be deaf and blind, and to find the peace within oneself to achieve happiness and share that with others is something that takes a depth of thought, a determination, and a level of personal reflection that we seldom realize we are capable of. Although sharing my life with people in such desperate situations is often emotional and overwhelming, it is never depressing. When we see the statistics of poverty and misery in different parts of the world, it is easy to feel helpless, but by sharing in the lives of so many individual people, I have become more and more excited every day about the tremendous capacity we all have to make a difference.