Sometimes I have those moments where I feel so lucky to be alive, I feel blessed to be a part of something greater than myself. That is what it was like for me to volunteer in Africa, a place truly impoverished and underdeveloped in relation to my country, Israel.
Ever since 9th grade I had this ambition to volunteer in a developing country. As I was sipping on my chicken soup at our annual Sabbath table on a Friday night, I overheard a conversation where a guest was sharing projects he was running in Uganda to assist in purifying water for the locals. He described their difficult living conditions, the faults in their educational system and the challenges that children there face daily, going days without essentials like food and electricity. The conversation triggered a deep desire to go someday and help the people who lived in such a state. As I reflect I notice how this conversation resonated with me on many levels, a small taste of what it means to be fortunate, something I did not truly think about most of my life. Education, family holidays, health, good friends. All these benefits were so obvious to me. It was hard for me to imagine being hungry or not having the ability to pursue things I was passionate about like dance, music or sports.
Luckily this year I could take some time off and go pursue a long-awaited dream. I spent three months in Ghana running the health project, educating children and adults about the importance of hygiene, nutrition and the treatment of infections and illnesses. I was blessed to interact with extremely loving people who did not have much but showed immense gratitude and appreciation for what they did have. After seeing the conditions they live in, which were shocking, it struck me how numb I have become to the wonderful things I was given throughout my life and how blessed I am to be able to spend time doing something I am so passionate about.
In the afternoons, I took part in a nursery program. We played many games with the children and spent time bonding with them. In addition, we taught them math, English and arts. There was one child named Vincent who was 8 years old, tall and extremely malnourished. He was a bright kid with soft brown eyes and a wide, beautiful smile. Soft-spoken and shy, he exuded such sweetness and innocence. From the moment I saw him I decided he would be my personal project, the person that I would try to help most, hoping to invest as much as I can in his development.
As I sat with him for the first time, we counted numbers he didn’t know how to pronounce, order or add and subtract. Seeing this was heartbreaking because even though he was smart and had potential, he was never given the opportunity to learn. As I got to know Vincent on a deeper level, I started to understand that mentally we live in different worlds. The way we see reality and the things that matter to us differ significantly. He doesn’t have the luxury of dreaming because he is so confined in his ability to look beyond what surrounds him, not knowing what exists beyond his small village.
It was difficult to think that around the world, children his age are already multiplying and dividing or performing even more complex mathematical calculations. As we practised diligently, he learned to count to one hundred and by the time I left he knew how to solve basic math problems. As I left the children on the last day my heart was broken. How could I abandon these kids in the middle of such progress? Especially when they need so much help? But reflecting on this experience I learned how precious knowledge and opportunity is, and I was lucky to have met Vincent because he taught me that within every individual there is great potential.
Vincent’s qualities of happiness and humility taught me much about finding the good in life and showing appreciation for the small things that I take for granted. I learned to appreciate the fact that I went to school, had a loving family and had the means to accomplish goals for myself. But more importantly, I left with a sense of responsibility teaching me the importance of being active, leading the realization that if I was placed on this Earth in an advantaged environment, I need to do everything I can to help those who aren’t so lucky. This idea taught me one of the most valuable lessons I will carry with me for a long time. No matter what I do or where I go, the field I choose to work in should always have a focus on helping others and making the world a better place.