Voices Against Indifference Initiative

The Jeffrey Sachs Project: Environment, Poverty and Healthcare on a Global Scale

September 2002 - April  2003

First Place Essay

“World Hunger and Poverty”

by Sarah Stockton Howell

North Mecklenburg High School, Grade 10

Hunger, Poverty. Homelessness. These are all the words we have heard time and time again. We are told over and over how important it is to give to the needy, to help those less fortunate than we. But what can a young American do on a personal level? Everyone in this nation, especially the youth, has an ethical obligation to show compassion to others, and there are many ways in which we can do so.

As a member of a church with multiple mission projects and as an IB student, I have performed my share of community service projects. From a very young age, I was taught to give to the poor, so I obligingly gave money to programs like Habitat for Humanity that my church was involved with. It was not until the summer after seventh grade that I got a true taste of poverty.

Our youth group makes a big deal out of our summer mission trips; they are huge events. Growing up I had looked up to all the older youth and had counted down the years until I would be old enough to be a part of this outreach. As our middle school group piled into the vans and headed for Chattanooga, TN, I didn’t know what I was in for much more than a trip. During that week, I came face-to-face with poverty in shelters, churches, and just along the streets. It was a powerful experience for me and left me feeling like there was something more I needed to do than to just toss a few coins in a collection plate; I had become personally involved with service and, as uncomfortable as some of the situations had been, I loved it. The next year’s trip was to Washington, DC, and we worked even more closely with the homeless this time. Every time we returned from a trip, we were excited about service and jumped at every opportunity to help out. These amazing experiences helped me to break out of the American comfort zone. In our country, we often think that if we throw enough money at a problem like poverty, then it will just go away. But after putting a face on homelessness, after speaking with Sunshine and Billy and Vincent, money was not enough anymore.

Mission trips, whether with a religious group or any other organizations, are great ways for young Americans to step out of their bubbles and [come to] understand the needy that is all around us; but all too often ignored. Most of the time we don’t dare to touch poverty with a ten-foot pole; fear of poverty is a fear deeply imbedded in the American ideal, in the quest for the American dream. But until we allow ourselves to be a little uncomfortable, until we take that step that may seem extreme, we will never come in touch with true humanity. Sure, some of our experiences were scary; homeless people don’t look a thing like our neighbors with the beach house. But once we were able to get past the obstacle of physical appearance, we got to know people who had amazing souls. Sunshine, a woman from Chattanooga I mentioned before, had a terrible cold when we met her at the shelter. However, she lived up to her nickname and was pleasant and cheerful, speaking to all of us youth. When we prepared to leave, she gathered us in a close-knit circle, grasped our hands, and began to pray…for us. She thanked God for us and prayed that we would live long, happy lives. Having lived my life in which my nightly prayers begin “Dear God, I pray for the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the homeless,” I was caught completely off balance by the greatness of this frail woman’s heart. We then saw that she was not the impoverished one among us.

So now you may be thinking, aw, how sweet of those kids to give a week of their summer to help the poor. Actually, I dare not give myself credit for donating my time and energy I see it as a moral and ethical obligation for every young American to lend a hand in some way, shape or form. Now, I am by no means saying that someone who has never come in contact with poverty should hop on the plane with is when we travel to Tijuana, Mexico this summer; there are plenty of projects close to home that can get a person physically and emotionally involved with the poor in his or her area. One of my favorite community service activities is Room in the Inn. Directed by Charlotte Urban Ministries, this program links churches and communities across Mecklenburg County. Each night from November to March, several churches host a group of about 12 homeless men and women who have been screened through the ministry. Groups of volunteers set up cots and prepare a meal, but the best part is watching movies and talking to the people who become our guests for a night. I have also cooked and served meals at the Fifth Street Shelter of Statesville; one of the best times was when our entire youth group set up a lavish Italian “restaurant,” complete with spaghetti and Pavarotti playing in the background. Working closely with the poor is an important step in dispelling the image of a homeless person as a lazy bum. One of the men I met in Chattanooga was working two jobs and still could not make ends meet, having to come to the shelter for meals. The homeless are just like us except that they have a greater appreciation for everything that they have, since they have so little.       

No one can tackle world poverty as a whole; Jesus himself said that the poor would be with us always. However, that is no reason not to help out. If one person’s life is improved for one instant, it is worth it. If you can’t give money, show that you care about them as human beings and not just as raggedy figures by the side of the road. My various trips across the globe have given me a broader appreciation for what constitutes happiness and wealth. When the Beatles said, “Money can’t buy me love,” they were right. Sometimes I feel like there is nothing I can do when I am faced with the enormity of the problem of world hunger and poverty, but when one eye twinkles as I stretch out a helping hand, I realize that my efforts are not all in vain. Only when young people are exposed to the other extreme can they appreciate or even lose zeal for the decadence of our middle and upper class society. As Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “There is enough to feed everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.”