by: Tyler Badding
It sounds like a silly title – starfish. How could I possibly surmount my four-month, love-filled, adventure-driven, relationship molding, eye-opening experience into the single word starfish? The problems we have studied both in literature and by sight, the issues of injustice and inhumanity that run rampant across this bleeding earth, the daily struggles of voiceless young’uns who clamber for pencils and notebooks – how could I possibly illuminate all these tribulations and their emotional connections with a sentence, let a lone a single word? I know that action is not required of me, but I find solace in the idea of starfish. Allow me explain.
When we begin to question the validity of our world’s ‘norms’, we step into a dangerous arena of personal questioning and daunting challenges. We uncover a planet of undeniable pain, innocent bloodshed, destructive hunger, and lonely nights spent by both the victim and the oppressor. A damaged world is revealed to us and scars our thinking and our actions. We can never turn around to our own lifestyle because we ourselves are gloriously ruined – glorious in the idea that we have become enlightened, ruined in the idea that this enlightenment will haunt us. How does one deal with such a blow to their rationalities of this world? Many become paralyzed. My mother, on the other hand, has taught me to run against the wind with my eyes wide open; she does so with the story of the starfish. It reads as follows:
There was an elderly man who walked along the shore of the sea. This daily habit gave him peace, comfort, and an easy purpose in life – enjoy what is before you. One day, however, the man noticed that thousands upon thousands of starfish had washed up along the shore the night before and were hopelessly dying as the rising sun dried their bodies. The man did what a good man should do; he began picking up the starfish one-by-one and began tossing them back into the sea. The number of starfish was endless, and another passerby noticed this sad fact. He approached the old man and questioned his actions. “Why do you waste your time? Can’t you see how many of these helpless creatures there are? You will never save all of them. What difference can you make?” The old man, tossing another starfish as he spoke, said “Because it made a difference for that one”.
This is how we must live! The world is in pain, and we ourselves suffer with her as we expose the sad truths and realities that are often masked by our comfortable lives. However, we must acknowledge that pain and act. Yes, it is daunting! No, there is no possible way that one human can repair this hemorrhaging planet. But nevertheless, one must act. For me, the greatest way I can act is to recognize the many starfish in my life, and consequently, recognize my vulnerability of being a starfish at times. The Encuentro Dominicano program revealed to me many situations where simply focusing on the individual can be impacting. I look back at my time at Caritas in Licey, a before and after school program for children, some of which are homeless and rely heavily on the program for their daily meals. I look back at my time in the campo of Juana Diaz and peer deeply into the relationships and many memories that were created. I can think back to our excursions to Dajabón, our studies of Haitian immigration, our tours of cacao fields and our physical visions of urban and rural poverty. The problems we encountered were real, painful, and large. Yet, with the starfish story in mind, I think I had success both personally and communally. It has taken the shape of many actions and interactions, some filled with love and some filled with discipline. Nevertheless, there was success.
Caritas, I do believe, was perhaps the most challenging amongst my experiences. The children, whose adorable faces and squeaky Spanish-speaking voices, swiftly stole our hearts. As my partner-in-crime Annie Townley and I learned rather quickly, these children were facing a lot of issues that seemed very foreign to us. Hunger, homelessness, lack of education, lack of decent shoes/clothing and aggressive violence – these were all apparent and soon haunted us, who as volunteers were called upon to teach English and show love. How could we ever repair the familial damage done to little Robinson and his brothers, who currently live their lives between neighbors’ houses, searching desperately for some source of structure and security? I found success by not avoiding the issues of violence and rude-behavior. If my role needed to be more of a ‘big brother’ approach, then that is what these kids deserved out of me. I did just that! There were days when they were not too happy that we had returned. The americanos meant rules, regulations and lessons. However, we balanced that with activities and games. At the end of the day, and even at the end of the semester, the success we achieved was simply love. I do love those kids! They are energetic, witty, clever, independent and creative! I hope that my impact is this: love can come in many forms, and the form I gave was unconditional care, whether that be through discipline or hugs, teaching lessons or airplane rides. They may forget my name, but I know I can leave Caritas with an impression of genuine care. Leaving them was difficult, as I know our paths will most likely not cross. However, as 12-year-old Bobby so sweetly states it, “If I don’t see you again in this life, I hope to see you in the next.” Wise words from a wise kid.
Juana Diaz, a place that I can call my Dominican home, was a source of many achievements for our group and for me personally. A family was created that will last throughout the remainder of my life. My host mother Isabel and her son Javier remain close to my heart. The hospitality that was shown to our group and myself was immense and overflowing. With that, I have learned the importance of acceptance and unconditional love. I had just met these individuals, yet they awarded me the best of everything to assure my happiness. I think that sense of immense love has stuck with me. Yes, there were issues in the community. The lack of running water was of primary concern. While our group did offer a helping hand and encouragement in their aqueduct project, we obviously knew that our 10-day work experience paled in comparison to the years of planning and dedication that had rested upon the shoulders of these loving people. However, I could use the love shown to me to reflect upon those who I was working and living with. My success in Juan Diaz was the ability to connect and create loving relationships with others. By learning to lead by love, I absorbed the many facets, emotions, and intricacies of the human life. The doors of one’s life are therefore opened to us; that is something beautiful.
I think any success that was achieved during this semester first required self-awareness. At Caritas, I knew that I didn’t have the power to change the familial situations of those children. I didn’t have the adequate Spanish to explain the importance of kindness and gentleness. However, self-awareness is not just the acceptance of what you are faulting, but more so of the gifts and talents you have grown. For me, I love working with children. They bring such a joy into my life! I love working in an educational environment, especially teaching English. Yet, self-awareness does not stop there – strengths and weaknesses scratch just the surface. For instance, understanding your personal privilege is crucial for self-awareness. Understanding what makes others a starfish is the knowledge of their lack of privilege (water, food, education) while also recognizing my personal starfish (faulting in love, faulting in community, relying on material goods). It is a beautiful relationship of sharing.
Love then follows. With love comes a beauty that is simply indescribable. It has many levels, which are not all clean and fun to observe! Love requires you to know that a suffering child will not receive a meal tonight. Love requires you to question the evil that births in this world. Love requires you to be human and denounce anything that threatens that idea. For me, love came in the form of my friendship with a young boy from Juana Diaz named Ivan. He was just as any other 9-year-old child should be – creative, energetic, and mischievous. However, the holes in his shoes and the somewhat obvious lack of adequate clothing depicted a challenging picture. Love acknowledges those factors, but never harps upon them. Love suffers along with the suffering, yet safeguards the beautiful moments of innocence and joy. Yet, one must be willing to work with the challenges of love. The best approach to such obstacles is ingenuity.
Ingenuity takes the situation at present, searches through the privilege or lack of, understands the complexity of love and suffering, and attempts to give an action that is completely unique and self-giving. For instance, my time at Caritas was met with much frustration. The value of education was minimal while violence took center stage. I understood that maybe my role was not so much a fun-loving, super popular volunteer. Rather, my role required discipline. My role required guidance. They deserved my ingenuity of understanding what exactly is my role and consequently how I will address those situations. Tossing the starfish back into the sea depicts a simple answer, yet showing love and achieving results with real human examples requires originality and patience. That originality understands failure and accepts its presence. It remains hungry and observant, always ready to alter its approach and technique.
That hunger gives way to a certain form of restlessness. When we remain hungry to give ourselves, to learn more about our world and its people, we become human-centered heroes. A hero focuses on others, remains restless, is bothered by the fact of hunger, and challenges him or herself with action. For me, this type of hero is acknowledged by the simple fact that the elderly man kept walking down the beach. Before him, he knew that many would perish. He knew he would not reach them all in time. However, he also knew that he had a job and that job made a difference – maybe even just to one. This semester, I hope that I have made a positive impact on one individual. Perhaps they won’t remember my name or my face. Perhaps that is not all that important. However, they will be different in some minuscule way – a way that is better.