I stood at the foot of the old wooden steps and slowly moved my flashlight around the room, illuminating vast piles of decade-old trash. The discarded clothes, tools and other trifles sat in the cavernous basement, slowly decaying in several inches of water. For a couple of seconds, I wished I had stayed home in the suburbs instead of devoting a week of my summer to chaperoning this junior-high mission trip. The feeling passed, however, when I reminded myself of the bedridden widow upstairs who was depending on us. Without our help, the foundation of her house would wash away. Luckily for her and many others, the Pittsburgh Project specializes in serving the citizens of our most distressed neighborhoods.
The Pittsburgh Project is a community development organization founded by Presbyterian minister Saleem Ghubril. During the summer it organizes camps where suburban students spend a week repairing homes for the poor and elderly. I attended the Project twice during middle school and returned last summer as a student leader.
Together we removed a dump truck full of trash from the widow's flooded basement and installed a new drainage system that funneled water away from her house to prevent further flooding and erosion.
The most meaningful aspect of the experience was observing the middle-school students arrive at the same epiphany I reached during my first mission trip. They saw the desperate circumstances and deplorable conditions that afflict some inner-city people, and they realized that these people lack the resources to help themselves; they depend entirely on the generosity of others.
At the beginning of the project, most of the students in my group seemed frustrated because they were giving up a week of their summer. Once they realized our homeowner's difficult position, their attitudes changed to compassionate generosity. Spending hours in a humid basement suddenly became bearable because each knew he or she was making a difference in an elderly woman's life.
On our final night in the converted school that served as the project's headquarters, Saleem talked to us about his experiences in the inner-city. He recounted some of the hardships he experienced during his 15 years living next door to the "most deadly street corner in the city." He told us about friends' funerals and expressed outrage at the troubling messages the media preaches to children. He also reminded us that while we would soon return to warm beds in our safe suburban communities, our brothers and sisters remained lost in the hopelessness of despair. Poverty condemns society's disadvantaged citizens to a daily struggle to survive.
However, Saleem also informed us that organizations like the Pittsburgh Project make a difference. His stories of the remarkable transformation in his community profoundly affected all of us. In 15 years on the city's north side, Saleem Ghubril and his organization have touched the lives of people of all ages, races and social positions. His ministry has allowed countless individuals to realize that all humanity possesses the responsibility to show compassion and selflessly serve those in need.
United States Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm observed, "Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth." As the result of my experiences at the Pittsburgh Project and other mission trips, I acquired a unique perspective on poverty and community service. My eyes are open to the desperate circumstances endured by our nation's poor, that have shown me that the most important value any person can demonstrate is a desire to serve those in need. While poverty can never be eliminated, what matters is that each accepts responsibility to make a difference. By compassionately donating both time and talent toward helping the helpless, citizens can have a meaningful and lasting effect on countless lives.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.