A Helping Hand

 Column By Kathryn Valentine

   “Why would you ever want to go to Africa?” Whenever I tell someone that I went to Kenya this summer, that’s the first thing that always comes out of the person’s mouth.

    My name is Kathryn Valentine. I’m eighteen and am a freshman at the University of Connecticut. And in June, I graduated from Bristol Eastern High School. It was decided when I was a freshman by my mother that if I kept up my good grades, stayed out of trouble, and got into a good school that she would take me on a trip anywhere in the world as a graduation gift. Last November, after much debate, we finally settled on a Kenyan safari.

    I love animals, and my dream job, since I was a child, was to be a zoo veterinarian. This was my reason for wanting to go to Africa- to see all of the exotic species that the savannah has to offer. As we arrived in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, we were excited to get the safari started. We boarded busses and took off for our luxury hotel on the outskirts of Kenya’s capitol. It was on this initial venture to our hotel that my life changed forever.

    I’ve heard about third world and developing countries. I knew that the people were very poor, but until I was actually in one, I had no idea the severity of these people’s living conditions. In Nairobi, I was first exposed to poverty. There were run-down buildings, trash everywhere, and people walking around barefoot.

    When we got out of the city, things were indescribably worse. Everyone lived in small clusters of between 20 and 50 ten foot by ten foot shacks they called ‘towns.’ There was no running water, no medical care, and no paved roads. There were a multitude of schools, and when we questioned our tour guide as to why some children had shoes and others did not, he gave us this explanation: “The government provides school supplies and uniforms to the kids. The way you can tell whether a child is a ‘has’ or ‘has not’ is whether or not they have shoes. The parents are responsible for paying for shoes, and many cannot afford them.”

    Here we are, staying at luxury hotels eating five-course meals while there are millions, if not billions, of people in this world who cannot even eat some days. Hundreds of thousands of those people lived right in the country we were in. It made me sick to my stomach to think about. But you couldn’t ignore a problem that surrounded you.

    When I got back to the United States, one of the first things I had to do was to buy my school supplies. I drove to my local Wal-Mart to buy a backpack, pens, pencils, notebooks, and a printer. I walked into the store, grabbed a cart, and headed for the aisle with all of the office supplies. As I reached for a few bags of pens, I started tearing up.

    How is it fair that I can buy whatever it is I need without even giving it a second thought and there are people that don’t even have access to clean water? I put down the pens, returned the cart, and left the store without buying a single item.

    That night, two things happened. I can clearly remember both. As I laid in bed in the quiet minutes before one falls asleep, I started to contemplate everything I had been through in the past month. I just couldn’t comprehend everything that I had seen and how while I can experience a third world country and know that I will soon return to my real life in the United States, those people can’t leave- that’s their life.

    The second thing that happened that night is that I decided to call my college advisor the next day to change my major. Instead of being a pre-veterinary major, I decided to change to something that would truly make a difference- a pre-medical major.

    Now, at the University of Connecticut, I push myself to my limit in school so that I can one day go to medical school. After medical school, I plan to spend a good portion of my time in third world countries, visiting small villages where access to medical care is limited and donating my services and my time. As my friend always says, “She’s minoring in saving the world.”

    I know deep down inside that this is what I should be doing with my life. I understand that there are people right here in Waterbury and Bridgeport that need my help, but there are people in other parts of the world who have absolutely nothing, and if I can make a small difference in their lives, I have done my job.

    This winter, for four weeks, I am starting my life of service. I am going to Hanoi, Vietnam and volunteering in the National Pediatric Hospital. It is here that children with life-threatening illnesses spend their days. I will be entertaining the children by playing games, doing arts and crafts, and making music. I am very excited to be going with a group called Volunteer Visions. They are a not-for-profit organization, and so all of their trips run on volunteer donations. The cost of my four-week trip will be nearly $3,000 for room, board, and flights. Any donations would be greatly appreciated to help pay for my trip. Just remember: no matter who you are and what your income, there are always ways to make a small difference in the world, whether it be in your own backyard or on another continent.