The Time to Help Is Now

Maria Zapetis - Miami, Florida
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, August 10, 2012
Maria Zapetis

High school senior Maria Zapetis has a comfortable life, but an experience at summer camp made her realize that many people around the world aren’t as fortunate. Now Zapetis believes it’s time she started doing what she can to fight hunger and poverty.

Age Group: Under 18
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Last year my beliefs changed.

Until last summer I had a very comfortable life: winter vacations skiing and summer cruises. My parents spent a lot of money on a private prep school, so they could get me into a competitive middle school, followed by the uber-expensive high school. Everything was about tomorrow, next year, my graduation. We never had to worry about today.

Before last summer I never thought much about the people in the world who live day to day, every day, whose lives are controlled by poverty and hunger. Then I enrolled in a two-week intensive program sponsored by Heifer International. We lived in a “Tribal Village,” in a hot, dry open grassland in Arkansas. I know it was only a simulation, that I could go back to my regular life, but the experience gave birth to a belief in helping others. Today.

I am a tribal member in Mozambique. Every meal, I make the fire for my family, and feel the flames lick up my nostrils as I blow to keep the fuel alive. I cook mush with vegetables. This is all my family is ever given.

I feed the hen and three rabbits their dinner. I grow attached to the rabbits, even though I know I shouldn’t. I name them.

We are living in a house that feels like an oven with no air conditioning like I am used to, and even though water is available, everyone is too hot and tired to move. I go to the kitchen — an area of dirt floor — to make the fire for breakfast. Again I stir and eat the same unfulfilling mush. It’s a bad dream, over and over and over again. My lungs fill up with smoke, ash blocks my vision, and I can almost see through the eyes of people who really live like this every single day with no hope for change.

I’m not getting enough to eat; it’s time to decide whether or not to kill the rabbits. I feel pain but it’s a privileged child’s pain because I know I will soon be eating again. That’s not true for a lot of other children around the world.

Growing up comfortably in the U.S., I’ve never had to worry about my dinner, and even though this whole process was only a simulation, it changed my life. Now I believe in doing whatever I can to help find practical ways to defeat hunger. Today.

So I’ve become president of Roots and Shoots, a group working to improve local environments for people and animals. I’m also working to create a program at my high school called the “Safe Passage” trip, to help young people in the Guatemala City dump. And I’ve got plans to do more.

If I ever feel lethargic, I remember laboring in the hot sun and think of the millions who still do. Now, I try to live for today and stop worrying so much about the future. When I eat or feel full, I am grateful for this fortunate life and want to extend the same feeling to others.

I believe in offering help to those who need it. Right now.

Maria Zapetis attended Miami Country Day School in Miami, Fla. In addition to her school activities and theatrical productions, Maria works to fight poverty and hunger in her community and around the world.

Independently produced by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.