Thursday, November 25, 2010

thankful for raúl's lesson

Today, on Thanksgiving, those of us in the U.S. are reminded of everything for which we have to be thankful. Many times, we even speak of this day in terms of our "bounty" and "abundance." As a Minnesota/South Dakota-native living and working in rural Bolivia for nearly five years, I often find myself inspired by the young people here at the College who are able to recognize and give grace and gratitude for what they have...particularly in terms of opportunities that come without abundance.

I think of UAC-CP student Raúl Carita – a young man genuinely grateful for the opportunity he's been given to study at the College, despite the challenges and difficulties that accompany it.

Raúl Carita.

A first-year student in the UAC-CP's Nursing Department, I first met Raúl a couple of months ago when our Food Cooperative manager handed me a list of names of students who she heard weren't eating regularly and asked me to check in with them individually.  Raúl's name was at the top of the list.

A day later, sitting on the bench outside the Volunteer House, I encouraged Raúl to tell me why he wasn't participating in the Food Cooperative Program. And so he explained: he is the youngest son of poor citrus farmers who live here in the Bolivia's mountainous Yungas. "My parents are old and they work really hard for little money," Raúl told me. "I can't bare to ask them for extra financial help."

Which was why Raúl was barely eating. He was skipping meals – drinking only juice, eating only crackers – because he couldn't afford the monthly $22 subsidized cost for lunch and dinner in the College's Food Cooperative Program. (Thanks to Cross International, the College offers a free breakfast program for all students and donations to Carmen Pampa Fund help provide a subsidy for lunches and dinners). Any money Raúl was able to save he used to pay for school supplies and his nursing uniform.

"So, why do it?" I asked him in all sincerity. "I mean, how is it that you want to study so badly that you're willing to put your studies before your stomach?" Raúl's answer was simple. He came to study in Carmen Pampa because he knows first-hand the abject poverty that exists in Bolivia. And he knows he has the ability to do something about it.

"I have seen the way people are forced to live in remote, rural communities. They have no access to public health or education and it makes me very sad. But I believe, with a college degree, I can help improve the health and livelihood of my people. I feel called to do this."

Raúl's tender disposition and dedication to helping people charmed me immediately. As did his ability to solve his food problem.  "I talked with the president of the Food Coperative," he told me later. "And we agreed that I will work in the kitchen every day and help the cook." In exchange for his work, Raúl said, he is able to eat for free. A great solution for Raúl! (But unfortunately not something that will work for all students who need financial help to pay for Food Cooperative dues.)

"You know," Raúl said into the microphone my iPod voice recorder, "I really feel called to be a nurse, to help the sick and suffering in my country. Yes, it is a difficult time for me as I work to achieve this goal. But I at the same time I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here [in Carmen Pampa]; to have this chance to improve myself and serve other people."

Today, as I consider my blessings, I think of Raúl. And I find myself truly appreciating that, in the midst of so much need (adequate food, accessible health care, quality education, etc.) and in the absence of abundance and privilege, here in Bolivia there are young people like Raúl who not only recognize grace, but turn it into opportunity and change.

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