We Need To Learn How

September 5, 2010
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By the time I reached the seventh grade I could name the fifty states, the thirteen counties, and each of the American Presidents in order. I wrote the longest essays in class, and I could read an entire book in a day. I thought I knew everything. I focused on school and getting an education, because I thought it was the only thing that would take me places in life. While it definitely helps, I now know that classroom education isn’t everything. We have a whole world to learn from.
The very same year that I considered myself to be a super-genius, I was given a life-changing opportunity that would teach me more than I ever thought possible. Like all of my 30 fellow classmates, I was given an application to the local non-profit organization, Trekkers. I cautiously filled out my application and reassured myself that if I wasn’t chosen, “It wasn’t a big deal anyway.” A few months later my name was drawn from the pool of 80 applicants. Along with nineteen other students from two different schools, I was officially a Trekker.
Since that day Trekkers has given me more opportunities than I could have ever imagined. I have bussed around the east coast on our iconic bus, and flown over 2,000 miles to explore the great unknown of Colorado. With Trekkers I’ve visited over 30 different colleges and universities, more than 40 historical sites and museums, the United States Senate, and the Tribal Council of the Southern Ute Indians. Did I also mention hiking sand dunes, being awed by Arches National Park, and exploring the historic cave swellings at Mesa Verde? Needless to say, we’ve been busy. While each of our expeditions has been unforgettable, there is one that has forever changed my life.
Our trusty bus green and white bus first brought me to Camden, New Jersey as nervous eighth grader. Being the poorest city in America, with a largely African-American population, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We had no street smarts, no experience with different ethnicities, and thanks to stereotypes, we were scared. The group was divided into teams and sent to help with an under-funded daycare center, the local “Meals on Wheels” program, or an often over-crowded soup kitchen.
Walking into the childcare center, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The yellowing floor was bowed, curling up along the edges and water leaks had left brown sagging marks along the ceiling. The classrooms were no better. My attention was immediately drawn to chipping paint and dusty residue, I remember thinking to myself, this can’t be healthy. Although I knew they were doing the best they could, the place was filthy. I spent my day trying to overlook the condition of the facility, and instead enjoying my time with the children and their teachers. The children, all toddlers within the ages of two and three, were delighted to have someone new in the room. These guys had no sense of the racial divide between us. They didn’t care what color my skin was, or where I came from. They were just happy to have someone to share their happiness and laughter with. The classroom teachers took the time to tell me a lot about the area, and the different possible backgrounds of the children. I learned that over 90% of these innocent children were living below America’s poverty line. Most of them wouldn’t have dinner that night. I learned that most of them lived with large families in cramped homes. I learned that most of these children were from families struggling with physical violence, drug addiction and alcohol abuse. And most heart-wrenching of all I learned that my presence alone might be one of the only positive experiences these kids will have to hang onto. For the first time in my life, I finally realized that I didn’t know everything. In fact, I didn’t much at all.
Over the next few years, and to this day, that experience remains in the bottom of my heart, and in the back of my mind. I’ve returned to Camden three times since, volunteering in elementary schools, soup kitchens, nursing homes and getting to know the residents of the infamous “Tent City.” Camden keeps me on my toes and never fails to teach me something new. I’ve gained the knowledge I need to share with others that there’s a whole world full of people to learn from. We have yet to discover the potential of places like Camden. While I might not know everything, there’s one thing I know for sure. We can make a difference; we just need to learn how.

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