The Time to Help Is Now

Maria Zapetis

Maria Zapetis is a senior at Miami Country Day School in Miami, Fla. Maria was inspired to help fight global poverty and hunger after she participated in a summer program that simulated living conditions in developing nations. Photo Courtesy Maria Zapetis hide caption

itoggle caption Photo Courtesy Maria Zapetis

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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, everyday. 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.

Independently produced for NPR Digital Media by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

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