It’s a Thursday night. The woman steps out of an old sedan and into the dark, chilly drizzle. She trudges toward the door, her progress slowed by a limp. Her weathered face gathers in a smile as a tinkling bell announces her arrival at Fish Food Bank.
The same night, a thousand miles away, another woman watches her family sleep on the cot. The day’s heat has dissolved quickly, and the cold night air seeps through the cracks in the thin plywood that encloses their small space on the hillside. Gently shifting the arm of one of her children, she gingerly lays down on the bare mattress with the rest of her family. Looking at the stars through the gap in the roof, she waits for sleep to come.
In my short lifetime, I have seen poverty in distinct forms and in different places. Sometimes it screams its presence from the cover photo of a newspaper or from words scrawled on a piece of cardboard held on a sidewalk. Sometimes it hides behind closed window curtains or in the empty look on a young boy’s face.
For the past three years, I have spent my midwinter break in Mexico, building homes for families in Tijuana. The suffering is difficult to miss. There, a shanty the size of a one-car garage houses a family of seven. Dogs with mangy fur and shriveled stomachs scrounge through neighborhoods like oversized rats. Vendors and beggars navigate the potholes of dirt roads on foot, chasing after our vans with pleading eyes. Like the hills and valleys of the region, poverty is a part of the landscape.
However, this place is not one of despair. Although mere miles away from the glamour of Southern California, the inhabitants of Tijuana live unaware of the material possessions they are missing out on. In fact, they even lack basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter for much of their lives. Yet just as the blind often hear more clearly, these people have a capacity for finding joy and sustenance in their humble conditions.
At Fish Food Bank, here in Gig Harbor, I see people who suffer the same disease but with different symptoms. Poverty has humbled them, in some cases breaking their pride. They may have clean water and electricity and a home with a real door, but it is not that simple. If they don’t have a television, a phone, and a car with gas in it, modern American society poses frequent, almost unavoidable obstacles.
They look across the street and instead of seeing neighbors huddled in their shack, they see a two-story house with a well trimmed lawn. As grocery shopping becomes more and more difficult, they watch others take vacations and buy boats. They strive to stay hopeful while friends and neighbors remain unaware of their struggle. Some say that Gig Harbor is an overwhelmingly wealthy town, but evidence to the contrary walks through the doors of the Food Bank every day.
The differences in the struggles of Gig Harbor and Tijuana reflect the differences in the places themselves. One has little in a simple world, while the other has much more in a complex world. However, after witnessing these two very separate forms of poverty, I find it difficult to draw any further conclusions. The circumstances are too unique.
Gentle, grateful, brave faces smile at me from both Tijuana and the local food bank. Other faces betray hopelessness and shame. Ceaseless adversity has laid bare the very fabric of their humanity, highlighting both its best and worst qualities.
Which situation is preferable? Which is more in need of aid and sympathy? Again, these are questions that I just cannot figure out. And maybe I shouldn’t. The simplest, most truthful and important fact is that they both exist. No amount of guilt can change this. Only with awareness and compassion can we become a helpful neighbor to those across the street as well as those across the border.Aidan O’Neill is a senior at Gig Harbor High School. He is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at adanomatic127@ gmail.com.