We were sitting in a circle, filled with energy from the exciting end to the week, but dreading the morning when we would part ways. It was then that one girl stood up and read us a letter. It was a letter of appreciation for our support, but also a story—her story. She spoke of losing her mother to breast cancer and her family’s disintegration in the ensuing grief. A second girl stood up, and another. One read a poem expressing her struggle with social anxiety. Another shared the pain she was experiencing from her parents’ divorce. One after another, girls shared their stories, their pain, their struggles. But, I didn’t. I empathized, but couldn’t truly relate. I had never experienced anything like what I heard that evening and as their stories ran through my head, I realized how little I knew about the struggles of those around me.
Through this experience, I have come to understand privilege is so much more than wealth. In fact, it is not even necessarily dependent on gender, race, or sexuality. My privilege comes from never experiencing a loved one’s death. It comes from speaking English where it is the primary language spoken. It is being raised by happily married parents and caring grandparents. However, I also learned that growing up privileged should not elicit guilt. Differences in opportunity are inevitable, so it is the way these disparities are approached that matters. One can either choose to feel guilty without taking action or focus on paying opportunity forward. Years of hard work by my parents and grandparents gave me the ability to pursue my education and passions. I now have the means to pay this forward by helping those in need.
The most powerful way one can create change isn’t through any one action, but instead is creating an altruistic lifestyle. I can improve the world by continually thinking, How can I help? It is true I have always worked hard to help others, whether by dedicating Saturdays to the Houston Food Bank or coaching special needs children. I have by no means been unaware of the struggles of others. However, before this eye-opening experience, I hadn’t comprehended the value of contributing to the lives of people I interact with daily. I perceived disadvantaged people as separate from my community, failing to realize I was surrounded by people fighting personal battles. Making a difference doesn’t necessarily mean helping people halfway across the world; alleviating the struggles of people in my community can be just as significant.
I witnessed the importance of supporting one’s community firsthand when Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey this past August. When our house flooded, dozens of people offered us support, a place to stay, and help rebuilding our home. In turn, once we were able to evacuate, we sorted clothes and packaged food to be distributed to others in need. I heard about emergency workers risking their lives and shopkeepers opening their businesses as shelters. It was inspiring to see my city come together to support one another, people offering assistance even as they dealt with their own issues.
Growing with opportunity has given me the means to use my advantages to better the lives of people in my community. While volunteering is a wonderful act I am by no means discrediting, and while it is essential to educate oneself about global issues, it is just as crucial to stay aware of the people around you. I discovered a simple conversation can have just as great an impact as spending two hours building a house. A smile or greeting can mean as much as donating to orphans overseas. While I may not be experiencing a major struggle, I can use that fortune to aid those who are facing extreme adversity. With this realization, I am determined to use my privilege to help those around me each and every day.