Poverty Shows No Mercy.
This past month in the Dominican Republic, I met a little boy who has made an indelible mark on my life. We as Canadians are often swamped with statistics and numbers that are impossible to understand. How do we begin to process that there are 400 million children worldwide who do not have enough access clean drinking water to live? Can a person really ever grasp what is means for 25,000 lives to be lost daily because of hunger related causes? What does it mean that at least 15 million stateless people exist in our world today? Whenever I hear these statistics, they are no longer numbers to me. These statistics represent Steven. I have looked into his eyes, and held his hand, I know that his pain and struggle is real.I first met Steven on the day of our community party. We had packed up our trucks with all of the Hero Holiday participants, sound gear and speakers, countless donations, and a supply of clean drinking water for the day. We drove to the slum area where we had planned to throw the party. The people in this particular community are surviving on sometimes less than a dollar a day. As we pulled up and started to unload the trucks, we were swarmed by ecstatic children. Despite their desperate situations they were eager to spend the day together. The kids were ready for a full afternoon of celebrating and enjoying each others company, dancing, unlimited shoulder rides and the promise of a delicious meal. In the face of this excitement and laughter I found Steven standing off on his own. I went over to him expecting hugs, and giggles like I had heard from all of the other children. As I knelt down to ask him his name, he looked up at me with an utterly blank stare. There was no look of expectation or sparkle in his eyes, only sadness. He seemed so distant, so separated from the happiness surrounding him. I spent the rest of the afternoon with him, trying to get him to open up. I asked him as many questions as I could, the only response I got was a quietly whispered “Steven”.The more time I spent with him the more I hoped he was just simply shy. I hoped I would get the chance to hear his laughter, but that was never the case. Hunger, struggle and grief had stripped him of his innocence and of his smile. In that moment it became clear; poverty knows no mercy. As the party came to a close, our trucks drove away, leaving the community with new clothes, full bellies and a sense of value and new friendship. The only thing on my mind was Steven. I continued to wonder what he had witnessed in his few years of life to leave him so detached and unresponsive to everyone around him. How is it possible for someone so young to be entirely immersed hopelessness?A few days later a smaller group of us returned to his slum neighborhood to spend time with the children. We decided to set up a projector and a white sheet to play the movie, Finding Nemo, an experience most of these children would never otherwise be exposed to. Immediately I looked for Steven and once again I found him off on his own. He seemed to recognize me, but not even a hint of a smile flickered across his face. I lifted him into my arms and held onto him for the rest of the night. That evening I found out that he was an orphan, he did not know his own age and was stateless in the Dominican Republic. Steven has no legal documents and no birth certificate, so according to the government he does not exist. He will not have access to health care or the opportunity to be enrolled in school. Holding onto his tiny body I could feel the air rattle in and out of his lungs with each breath, I could feel his empty, bloated stomach rumble and groan with hunger. The grip of poverty had never felt more real to me. I will the never understand the twinge in his stomach or the ache in his heart, I will never understand which pain is more crippling, but I do understand that no child should face this reality. That night I left feeling angry that our world has betrayed this little boy, I went home wondering how this is a reality for someone who could not be older than the age of four. How has Steven been left to his own defenses, alone and forgotten by the rest of the world?Throughout the month spent in the DR, I had the opportunity to go back and see Steven a few more times and learn more about his life. With the help translators and other people in community, I discovered that he had lost both of his parents in the earthquake in Haiti this past January. He had been relocated to the Dominican Republic, by the community leader, along with his ten year old brother Asdejay. It difficult to imagine that the way he is living now is a safer and more fulfilling than his alternative. Asdejay works in the garbage dump, collecting plastic bottles, alongside other refugees. Sifting through hospital needles, rotting meat, human waste and any kind of garbage imaginable to help provide for Steven and himself. The garbage dump is no place for a child. He makes $0.07 CD for each bag of plastic bottles he collects.In the process of understanding Steven’s story I felt moved to do something, I wanted him to know that he is of loved. I want him to know that he has value and that I will carry him in my heart and mind always. Growing to understand his struggle has rekindled the fire in me to be a part of the solution to the vicious cycle of poverty. There is no reason that he should be forced to face these struggles when we have every convenience resting comfortably at our fingertips. We have unlimited access to information and infinite possibilities to fulfill our dreams and yet he is abandoned, out of sight and out of mind. Despite the deep sadness of Steven’s reality I am choosing not to feel defeated or become cynical. I am choosing instead to become a voice for the voiceless. I will be a voice for Steven. Steven has touched my heart, and after meeting him I will never be the same.~ Nikki, a School of Leadership alumni and volunteer staff on our Dominican Hero Holiday 2010