Monday, August 9, 2010

Lift Where You Stand

Whenever I get back from El Salvador, I start to think about the world and my place in it.  I am always struck by the colorful and contrasting sights of El Salvador—the green rolling hills lined with communities of tin shacks; the street vendors, with their beautiful displays of coconuts, dressed in grimy rags; the children on the street peering up at me, their eyes indescribably brown and deep, their cheeks inevitably smudged with dirt and soot.

When I walk into the Hogar, I don’t see rags and shacks, litter and dirt-smudged cheeks.  I see happy kids with happy lives. 

Sometimes, that makes me feel guilty.

Why do I go to the kids of the Hogar, bringing crayons and games and friendship, when so many others in El Salvador are suffering—perhaps even more than those within the safe walls of the Hogar?  Should I be spending my time and resources on other children?

In my many years of working with persons with disabilities, I’ve found one thing to be true: In general, persons with disabilities are happy.  It’s in their nature.  That is certainly true for the residents of the Hogar.  In spite of their physical and mental challenges, they never stop smiling.  They have food, shelter, clothes, friends, and adults who love them (the workers).  They are content. 

So if they are already content, what do we as volunteers add to their lives?  Well, we improve the quality of their lives.  We bring them individualized attention, which the overburdened workers cannot provide—mornings spent reading Twilight aloud with Antonia, blowing bubbles with Inecita, or practicing times tables with Carlos; we bring them something different in an otherwise mundane daily routine (most of the residents spend their entire lives at the Hogar, until they pass away)—a trash bag fashion show, a photo scavenger hunt, a Night of the Movie Stars—something fun to occasionally break up the monotony; we bring them colorful murals on their walls to brighten up those long hours that they sit and wait with their 150 peers to have their clothing changed or their teeth brushed. 

But is this worthwhile?  Is improving the quality of life for a few people a meaningful contribution to the world—a world filled with people who don’t even have the necessities of life?

As I’ve pondered these questions, I’ve often thought of a story told by one of the leaders of my church, Dieter F. Uchtdorf.  He talks about a moment when he and some other men were trying to move a heavy grand piano.  They tried different, complicated systems for balancing the weight and maneuvering the bulky instrument—but to no avail.  Finally, one of the men said, “Brethren, stand close together and lift where you stand.”  When everybody just did what they could where they could, the piano rose off the floor, and they were able to move it together.

Elder Uchtdorf goes on to compare this situation to service in the church and the world; we can’t all do everything for everyone all the time—but we can look at the situations we are in and the skills and abilities that we have, and we can do our part by “lifting where we stand.”  If we all do this, we will make the world a better place together.

The fact is, I can’t change the situations of the random children that I see on the street in El Salvador. I wish that I could help each of them, but it’s simply not in my power: I don’t know them—I have no connection to their families.  The children that I do know and the place where I do have connections is the Hogar.  And I initially got involved there because it utilized the experience and skills that I already had from working with kids with disabilities in the United States.

Are there places in El Salvador and throughout the world that could use more help than the Hogar?  Yes.  But for now, I have to lift where I stand.

I think this principle applies on a broader level as well.  I may not always be in a position to run off to El Salvador each summer; my life will evolve as my family grows and my situations change.  But in every stage of life, I can do what I can where I can.  If I am serving in my community or as a member of the PTA, perhaps I won’t be serving people who "need" it as much as those at the Hogar—but if that’s where I stand at that period of my life, well, then that’s where I can lift. 

For now, I’m grateful for the kids at the Hogar who I’ve gotten to know in this stage of my life.  This is an overdone cliché, but they have lifted me much more than I have lifted them.  Honestly.  They are always happy; they are willing to love anyone; and they are oblivious to the inconsequential stresses of adult life.  Whenever I am with them, I think, “Now what was I so worried about last week?” And it doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.

They remind me of something that Deborah once told me: I’m “too blessed to be stressed.” 


  1. I LOVE that last line... I'm too blessed to be stressed. I want to remember that. You have a smooth and beautiful way of writing. It just flows. And I think you're very right about lifting where you stand. I think most people would look at what you do in El Salvador and feel amazed at the sacrifices you are making (I know I do!) and then be inspired to try and do more where they can. Of course you can't reach everyone and when I think about it, I get too sad, knowing there are deprived, sad children and people all around the world. But thinking about it just enough gives you perspective and reminds you of all you've been given. And then pushes you to "pay it forward". Thanks for the reminder to do just that.

  2. What a nice post! Very thoughtful and inspiring. I don't think I've read that talk. I have actually been thinking a lot about this ever since a RS lesson we had several weeks ago. I may have to do a post about it myself so I don't forget what I've been thinking. The lesson mentioned Corrie Ten Boom. She is the author of The Hiding Place who was discovered hiding Jews with her family and sent to a concentration camp with her sister, where her sister died. She is the woman with the incredible forgiveness story of shaking the hands of one of her former camp guards and telling him that she forgave him. I am sure you have heard it. Whenever I think about people like her or like the people who hid Anne Frank's family I think things like, "Wow. They changed the world. I could never do something that long-lasting and powerful." And, no, I will never have to hide Jews from Nazis or risk my life in that way, but the fact is that those people didn't set out to change the world and be known for their selflessness. They set out to help one or two families that they knew and loved. By doing everything in their power to help just one or two Jewish families they weren't even scratching the surface of the Holocaust's enormity, but it changed the lives of those families, and it has had a profound effect on the rest of the world as their stories have echoed down through generations. I think I can try to help one family. Who knows what may come of it?

  3. Well said Rachel! I struggled with this same thing while I was in El Salvador and always admired you for devoting so much to those kids.

    PS remember when we started keeping donations in our bags and giving them out randomly to people on the bus? haha

  4. Sarah, what you wrote reminds me of the movie The Blind Side. That family didn't set out to change the world at all--they just saw one boy in need and decided to help. They lifted where they stood. And what a huge difference they made to him! (And now they are inspiring other people through the film, so it's a ripple effect.) Yes, Celeste, I remember giving out our donations! HA!

  5. I love that post and what you said. There were so many times when I was there that I wondered how I could help those who I felt were struggling even more than the kids. What's good about the hogar is we're in a situation to make a last difference there. It has also made us aware of the other people who are in need and maybe an opportunity will come up down the road when we can help them too.
    Thanks for the opportunity!

  6. I think about this sort of thing all the time too. I think I am always looking for "some great thing" to do with my life and talents. Then sometimes I realize it is often the small day to day services that truly have an impact on others and your mom was the perfect example of this. Her funeral was packed with people who she had touched by simple acts of service. And that is a life well lived. What really matters in this life is loving others and spreading happiness.

  7. Rachel - you are amazing!! I can't find your email anywhere but I wanted to chat a little about adoption. Email me if you want!

    Love you! (my little beehive - ha!!)
    Camille Ridge


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