Essay Contest 2009 "Visions for a Better World" - 1st Prize
Jinah Rhee, Ridgewood High School
Although the U.S. is associated with hopeful nicknames such as ‘the land of opportunities’ or ‘American Dream’, many children live in poor conditions in inner city neighborhoods, unable to escape. These children, many who since birth have been living amongst poverty and violence, are deprived of motivation and encouragement to succeed.
My understanding of lives of the less fortunate was restricted to a third person perspective before my volunteer experiences in North Philadelphia and Paterson. I have spent a portion of my summer for two years so far in a rundown section of the city of Philadelphia as a camp counselor in a Christian outdoor summer camp called Uber Street Camp. It has been a year since I started volunteering weekly, year-around for a program called Hana Missions in a local city of Paterson. The two programs were similar in their goals of providing the children a safe haven from their unhealthy environments. In these cities, both only several minute away from middle class houses and towns, poverty and corruption were palpable. There were drug dealers selling cocaine just a few blocks away from the camp sites, gun shootings were heard on a normal basis, and children as young as seven were shouting profanity at me. The list of corruption is endless, but I saw potential in many of these children. Although most of the children were behind in their studies due to poor school systems, a few of them were shockingly bright. For example, Jose, a 9 year old Hispanic boy, was superior to any other kid I knew in comprehending math. When we experimentally taught him few geometric formulas of middle school or high school level, he could solve problems relating to the formulas within minutes. As Jose possessed great potential of becoming a great mathematician or an engineer, there were many other kids who possessed other talents such as musical abilities.
Though, there was a strange pattern was among the children: the older they were, the more uninterested they seemed in learning. After talking with the few teenagers that attended Uber Street Camp, I understood the reason. Just as poverty had occurred to me as a topic on paper rather than a real, visible problem before my volunteering experiences, becoming wealthy through white collar jobs or even attending a college were abstract, unrealistic ideas for them. They shared the opinion that education would not get bring them social mobility; it was more likely for them to make money through labor work or even illegal activities such as drug dealing. With graduation rates lower than fifty percent, graduating high school alone was an achievement. This reality gave the youth no motivation to try in school. Even with good grades and the desire to go to college, it was unlikely that a family could pay off the expensive tuition for college. Naturally, encouraging kids to go to college was unheard of in run-down cities such as parts of North Philadelphia and Paterson. The environment the kids grew up in served to naturally wipe out any motivation or desire for success through education.
The sharp contrast between the lives of the underprivileged kids and my peers’ lives gave me a new perspective. Despite stereotypes, people did not live in poverty because they were stupider or lazier; some people were born into poverty and were never given the chance to prove that they were equal to people born to higher social classes in terms of potential and talent.
After first handedly interacting with the less fortunate kids, I realized that the core of the problem was not that they did not have enough opportunities, but rather the rooted belief that they would never “make it” to a higher standard of living through education. This belief automatically turned kids off from even trying. This self-discouragement would have to be corrected for the kids to try to escape their poverty and poor living conditions through the means of education. Teaching them why education was important was more important than teaching them how to achieve success in school. “If there’s a will, there’s a way”; I believed that with enough motivation, the talented youth could and would succeed.
My vision for better communities and a better world has a whole includes programs in corrupted cities provide the youth to as much opportunities and inspiration to succeed. The program would have three sub-parts for elementary school kids (grades 1-5), middle school kids (grades 6-8), and high school kids (9-12).
The elementary school kids’ program would be mostly focused on inspiring them to desire success. Other than homework help, they would be given activities to implant values, morals, and motivation in their young minds. Short, fun stories that teach morals to the kids would be used. Also, the usages of educational films such as the magic school bus will assist the kids find joy in learning. Because stimulating interest in education is best started as early as possible, most of their activities would involve hands-on, exciting activities. The program could also introduce the young kids to a variety of extracurricular activities, including sports and music. This could reveal hidden talents and passions among the kids.
The middle school kids’ program would start focusing more on academics in order to prepare them for high school. In addition to basic homework help, any necessary help in subjects, especially math and English, will be provided. Inspirational movies that portray the importance of determination, education, etc. will be shown among with biographical movies of people of great achievements that came out of poverty. As the students enter eighth grade, they will be taken on local college tours to expose colleges to them first handedly. This will help them enter high school with a goal oriented mindset. Also, the program will work to encourage the kids to get involved in volunteer activities, such as soup kitchens for the homeless. Volunteering for the community will both empower them with the feeling of contributing to the world, and help them mature and become grateful for their blessings in comparison with people that are less fortunate than them.
The high school kids’ program will mainly focus on maintaining good grades and maintaining their inspiration to go to college. Not only will help with schoolwork will be provided, but help preparing the SATs will be provided by providing copies of practice tests, classes to learn techniques to score higher, and more. Also, the kids will be taken on field trips to meet with local, successful persons who have achieved success over poverty through means of hard work and dedication. This will let them know that poverty is not a hindrance to success, but just a challenge that they must overcome. Meeting with people that come from the same background will give a realistic role model that they could look up to with the hopes of emulating. When the students become seniors, the program will also help them with the application process. The program will also help introduce students to scholarship opportunities, financial aids, and student loans to help them out financially.
The program would be made possible by the usage of public services, numerous local fundraisers, donations, and volunteers. The programs could be held at the local libraries or local churches’ rooms to save extra costs. Materials used for the programs, such as books and movies, could be rented through the library or be donated by people who have no use for them anymore. Funds for the program could be collected through organized fundraisers. I have experienced great success in fundraisers before. For example, Club Interface, a charity club in school which I am president for, has made over three thousand dollars in profit through hosting a local dance party. The staff of the program could be made up of both full time and part time volunteers, including parents, or even teenagers such as myself. Some volunteers could even specialize in certain extracurricular activities; for example, I have been a violinist for 7 years and am capable of teaching kids the basics of music. Volunteers could easily be accumulated through means of advertising the program through school clubs, churches, town meetings, and more.
Children are the hope and future of the human race. I firmly believe that what social class or environment a child is born into should not interfere in the child’s chances of making the most out of his talents. Precious gems, such as rubies or sapphires, seem like normal rocks and pebbles before they are cut into opulent masterpieces by tools. All that some children might need, just like the gems in disguise, are a little shaping.