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Poverty in the Eyes of a Teen MAG
Living in the prosperous suburbs I rarely see the "real world," and I don'tmean the MTV show, or even living as an adult. The reality I have in mind is thepoverty that roughly 16% of Americans live in. With my church's youth group, Ihave worked at homeless shelters and built homes with Habitat for Humanity, andin doing so I have seen the worst of situations. But, similarly, a five-mile runseems long - until you've run a marathon.
One chilly March afternoon, Itraveled to Chicago to volunteer at downtown shelters. Ben, our director, triedto tell us what we would see, but we couldn't begin to understand what he wastrying to explain.
Within a matter of minutes, I felt as if I were in adifferent world. Stained-glass windows turned to iron bars; apartment complexestransformed into burnt-out high-rises, even smooth roads became riddled withpotholes and broken bottles. I found myself shaking, trying to absorb theunfamiliar sights as we drove past Cabrini Green, one of the projects that isoften mentioned on the 10 o'clock news for its shootings and drugbusts.
After touring one shelter, we went to another that was, ironically,right off Lake Shore Drive, one of the wealthier areas. Here we didn't have atour, instead we were put right to work. Ben split us into groups assigned tostreet sweeping, toy sorting and clothes sorting. I was a street sweeper.Although it was early March, the afternoon air had a brisk bite to it as fourother students, a chaperone and I set our brooms to work. We were to sweep asection of an alley about 150 yards long. In my neighborhood, this would not be abig project, but there, glass and cigarette butts were pounded into the manycracks and crevasses.
When we finished, it was dinner time andresidents came into the cafeteria. Some talked to us. When one middle-aged womanasked if we were from Michigan, she looked melancholy when we told her weweren't. She explained she had come from there. All I could do was nod andlisten.
Then a little boy, who must have been seven, came up to us."I'll help ya for a dollar," he offered. We explained that we werevolunteers, but thanked him for his offer. He continued to talk to us until hismother came to get him for dinner. I couldn't help but think of my own littlebrother and how similar they were - spontaneous, fun-loving, helpful.
Poverty became personified for me at that moment. Until then, destitutepeople were just a sea of faces that I struggled to help. Now that little boy'sface is what I see when I think of poverty.
Then I went to the clothingarea for a while, where a chaperone pointed out a sight that will probably staywith me forever. There was a beautiful sunset showering the Chicago skyline withcolor. But when I backed up, I saw the same picture through the bars on thewindow. What a different perspective.
And just as the sun set, our workwas finished. The director of the shelter couldn't stop thanking us for our helpand financial donation. We certainly appreciated her gratitude, but could notfeel her enthusiasm. When we sat to eat dinner, we all felt guilty eating pizza,which would be a luxury for those at the shelter. We talked about the day, but itwas hard to put the imprints left in our hearts and minds into words.
Athome, I immediately jumped in the shower. My hands, face and clothing were a messfrom our work. But no matter how I tried, I could not wash all the dirt from thefine lines in my fingers and palms. I don't think I ever will.
Henry DavidThoreau once said, "To be awake is to be alive." I used to think that Iwas alive. But now, I know that I'm alive, because I've been awakened.