Children walked atop hills of garbage and scavenged for something to eat, or maybe something to sell so they could buy food and live another day. Shards of glass and metal mutilated their feet.
It was surreal to witness. This was the type of poverty you see on CNN or in documentaries—not right in front of your face.
There it was—the face of desperation and destitution, just feet away from me. These Dominican youngsters were residents of villages that were intentionally situated on dumps because the mounds of refuse were seen as a source of food.
The garbage was their food. It was also the foundation of their home. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, I know. I’ve wrestled with it ever since.
That was 2008, on my first trip to a developing nation. Tonight, almost 10 years later, I’ll pack for my next trip—to Nicaragua.
It’s easy to dismiss service or missions trips as more selfish than selfless, more rooted in “I want to look like a good person” or “I want to have fun and travel” than “I want to help others.” Understandably, many Americans have become jaded toward these international trips. I mean, didn’t the Onion nail popular sentiment with this article?
But I want to counter that, because I’ve seen firsthand in my own life how these trips can spark a deep empathic drive to help fix the world’s biggest problems.
In the years since that first trip, I’ve joined an organization called Rise Against Hunger (formerly known as Stop Hunger Now). Our mission is simple: to end world hunger.
It is not what I expected I’d be doing with my life. In high school, I was obsessed with grades, intent on attending an elite college. I achieved that goal, then chose an accounting major with my sights set on big business and big paychecks. I continued further down that path to complete a master’s in business, aspiring to work in big-time collegiate or pro sports. But even as I continued my studies full-steam ahead, crushing Red Bull to help me focus during the all-too-familiar all-nighter (college, am I right?), my initial experiences in the D.R.—I went back in 2010—never left my mind.
The image of those kids walking on the garbage gnawed at me.
It’s true, those trips were probably more educational than utilitarian in a long-term sense. The aid we brought was limited—basically just what we could fit in our suitcases—and some of the planned activities were nothing more than stopping at a village and playing baseball with the kids, or visiting an orphanage to hold the little ones and read stories to the older ones. It doesn’t sound too substantive, I know. But those experiences irrevocably changed my life.
At Rise Against Hunger, we work daily to extricate kids from tragic circumstances—like those garbage dumps—and implant them into life-changing schools and training programs, to give them a way out... a new lease on life. On a trip to Costa Rica 18 months ago, I chatted with one of our partners. His eyes misted up as he told us that the previous year, four young children had died from malnutrition in a village not far from where we stood, because they simply didn’t have anything to feed them. It was absolutely heartbreaking. Tears filled my eyes as I turned away, silently but resolutely saying, “Not on our watch.”
We packaged a stunning 125,000 meals that day, loading them onto food bank trucks headed to save lives throughout Costa Rica. As of today, we’ve sent 313 million meals to our partner organizations worldwide... and we’re just getting started. Our biggest sponsor and contributor, Kraft Heinz, committed today to provide one billion meals to those in need by 2021. The United Nations recently had a summit where they put forth 17 sustainable development goals for the year 2030. One of the goals is zero hunger. When I think back to hearing about those four children in Costa Rica that died of starvation, there’s nothing in the world I want more than the eradication of hunger.
Experiences like this affirm why I am doing what I am doing with my life, and why I am so deeply grateful for those initial international trips that sparked my drive. It’s easy to feel jaded when you hear about people going on international service or missions trips, but if the opportunity arises for you, I seriously implore you to consider going. You probably won’t make a dramatic career change, but I fully expect it will increase your empathy for others and change your perspective.
You never know when the opportunity will present itself. That trip to the Dominican Republic in 2008 that I described above… the one that changed my life forever? That was actually my high school senior class trip.
We were originally supposed to go to Disney World.
I’ve never been more grateful for an altered itinerary.