I think the best gift I have received is the gift of perspective. During my childhood, my family often spent time in places that helped me to develop a sense of myself within the world around me. Through these experiences, I learned that everyone has a story and we have been blessed with the great opportunity to listen. One vivid memory is when I visited Northcott Neighborhood House, an inner-city community service organization in downtown Milwaukee, WI. I went when I was about ten years old with my parents and a group from our church to tour the facility and learn more about the work that was being done there. Before we went in, my dad was approached by a homeless woman who asked him if he smoked. When he replied that he did not, the woman sadly shuffled away. He later explained to me that due to the extreme poverty in that area, the woman probably asked because she could not afford her nicotine addiction. Before that time, I had never been exposed to poverty face-to-face or considered what it was like to exist in these conditions. Although I didn’t interact with the woman, I remember wanting to help her change her life. Later on the tour, we saw a group of children playing a pick-up game of basketball. In such contrast to the woman outside, their faces reflected hope. I remember feeling bothered by my powerlessness. What could I, as a ten year old, do about the extreme poverty I saw that day? How could I make sure that these kids grew up with better opportunities to be the people they wanted to be? That day, I realized that in addition to providing a safe place for kids and programs for people in bad situations, organizations like Northcott provide hope. In witnessing the work that Northcott was doing, it became less about the organization and more about the people who were affected. People’s lives were being changed every day by the opportunities at Northcott. I remember thinking: how can I, not knowing what these people had been through, be part of this change? Even still, some of my biggest passions – education, children, social programs, community development – were reflected in this first witness of social justice.
To some people, it may seem discouraging to focus on the problems that exist in the global community. But by having a larger world view, paradoxically, I feel more empowered to take on those challenges. In the best of ways, I am grateful for the moments of powerlessness that remind me there is still a lot of change to be made in the world. In addition, these experiences allow me to better understand what I have the ability to change: my consciousness of world issues, my compassion and respect for people of different backgrounds and cultures, my understanding my own passions and how they relate to the changes I want to see in the world. In the process of affecting the lives of other people, my life and perspective can be changed as well. The opportunities I have had in my life do not make me better or worse than the people I met that day at Northcott – they simply make me different. But like them, I have a story to tell.