I believe that some of the richest people in this world are those who have so little. After I graduated from college last year, I decided to spend a year serving in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. As part of this team-based national service program, I travel around the country with my twelve teammates and work with various non-profit and charitable organizations. Our first project was in Biloxi, Mississippi, where we helped rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. We then worked in Sacramento, California, where we partnered with a Food Locker and handed out groceries to needy people. Our most recent project was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where we facilitated programs for children at a Boys and Girls Club. In my adventures, I have interacted with so many people, from an elderly woman whose brother drowned in the Hurricane Katrina floodwaters to a young Lakota Sioux girl selling dream catchers outside the local gas station. I have not met many people who own fancy cars or go to Cancun for spring break, but I have met hundreds of people who abound with happiness, love, and appreciation of life and all its blessings.
There is Carolyn, the woman in Biloxi whose home we helped rebuild, the woman who lost her entire livelihood in the 30-foot storm surge. There is the man who came to pick up groceries at the Food Locker in Sacramento, the man who had no home address for us to verify when we gave him his monthly allotment of food. There is Kennedy, the 13-year-old girl who regularly came to the Boys and Girls Club in Pine Ridge and went home at night to the Reservation’s homeless shelter. Even though all three people lacked a basic life necessity – a home to call their own – they were rich with happiness and thankfulness for whatever little they did have.
Then there is Marlay. One evening in Biloxi, I saw two children playing in the street, so I stepped away from the construction site to kick a ball around with them. I was struck by how much Marlay smiled and laughed as the ball bounced on the pavement between us. In that particular neighborhood, two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, a majority of the homes remained badly damaged and debris still littered the street. Even though Marlay had lost so much in the hurricane, he had not lost the gleam in his eye or the bright smile on his face. It was only when I offered him a soda did I realize that he had no arms – just misshapen hands attached to his trunk. As I watched him dunk his entire torso in the cooler of ice water just to retrieve a root beer, I felt like crying. Not only was Marlay growing up and playing in a neighborhood visibly marked by destruction, loss, and heartache, but he did not even have any arms.
That night, I spent a lot of time thinking about Marlay and all that he had and did not have. I believe that that little boy – a boy who was materially impoverished and physically disabled – was one of the richest little boys I have met. He was rich with laughter, rich with glee, and rich with appreciation of bouncy balls, root beer, and life. The joy he shared with me that late afternoon in Biloxi has made me so much wealthier than I otherwise ever could have been.
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