Great need, global and local

Posted: May 20, 2010

I always felt a responsibility to help others, and when I graduated from college in 2006, I decided to dedicate my career to that goal. For two years, I taught HIV prevention and sex education to young people in homeless shelters and detention centers in northern Virginia. But I wanted to make a greater impact, so I decided to head for the trenches of the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.

In January 2009, I left for Tanzania, where I spent nine months teaching HIV prevention in a small rural village. Although I thought I understood poverty, I was not aware of the everyday struggles some people face, including a lack of running water and electricity, few jobs, limited educational opportunities, the constant threat of disease, and inconsistent medical care.

I experienced these challenges firsthand one day while living in the Tanzanian village. On my way to teach a class, I came across a little girl lying on the ground in front of a house. I asked her what was wrong. She didn't answer, but I could see a gaping wound under her chin and dried blood covering her clothes.

I saw an older girl through the window of the house and asked her what had happened. She told me the girl had undergone surgery and had just been discharged from the hospital. The doctors didn't give her extra bandages, clean clothes, or any pain medication. And the older girl didn't seem very concerned, either.

I cleaned up the little girl with my first-aid kit and gave her some bread and water. I later found out she was an orphan and was being cared for by her uncle's family, which already had several children and couldn't afford to take adequate care of them all.

It was upsetting to learn that human life could be treated with so little regard, but I began to realize that most people in the world live that way. My middle-class American existence is an exception.

Since I returned to my hometown and started work as an HIV risk-reduction counselor, I've been struck by the similarities between parts of Philadelphia and Tanzania. People in our own back yard are living in third-world conditions. Many cannot feed themselves or their families, pay for electricity and water, or see a doctor.

Now, as an intern with the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia, I am responsible for meeting people served by the organization and writing their stories. So far, I have come across children learning how to grow tomatoes in the West Philadelphia Corps Community Center's garden; a mother of six climbing out of poverty; and a newly formed "pajama caravan" delivering bedclothes to city shelters.

Our latest challenge has been to find volunteers to help the Salvation Army assemble and pack one million meals for Haiti on Friday and Saturday at the Drexel Armory. I hope to inspire others to join me and a literal army of volunteers in sustaining the victims of January's earthquake. And I hope that by reaching out to our brothers and sisters overseas, we will develop more sympathy for those who are hungry here. I have seen poverty in my back yard, across the country, and overseas, and I feel it's our responsibility to do what we can to help people who can't help themselves - wherever we find them.

Elizabeth Clarey lives in Swarthmore and works at an HIV prevention and service agency in Philadelphia. She can be reached at lizclarey@gmail.com. For more information on the Haiti drive, see www.salvationarmyphiladelphia.org

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