I've been pleasantly surprised by personal reader response to my "Traveling the world to learn about humility and hope" blog earlier this month. One reader, Brian Minert, echoed my feelings when he said, "They are all real people, in real places, but sometimes it hurts more when we use our memories instead of our imaginations."
Brian was referring not only to my experiences in Africa and South America but to his memories of Brazil. The area hit recently by severe flooding is the same area where he served his mission.
"I was zone leader over half of Rio de Janeiro," said Brian. "That included the cities in the mountains above it: Petrópolis, Teresópolis and Nova Friburgo. Teresópolis got hit the hardest during the flooding.
"I remember the first time I came into that beautiful city. As I looked out the bus window, I sensed what the Garden of Eden might have looked like. Now it looks like mud.
"I realize that you read the same news I do, but it just seems so much worse to have walked the streets and to have known the people. I know the man who served as the first stake president in Petrópolis, and I remember the chapels and many of the people. I hope they're OK, but some are likely in very difficult circumstances."
Reading a personal memory like this reminds me of driving slowly past a serious crash on the freeway. You see a mangled car or two, numerous emergency response vehicles and miles of backed-up traffic.
It's obvious that someone has been seriously injure — perhaps killed. You think, "I hope they will be OK" or "I wish there was something I could do." But by the time you get to your destination, the life-changing incident of someone else is soon forgotten.
But there is something you can do — even if the tragedy is an earthquake in Pakistan, flooding in Brazil or some other dire event halfway around the world. And that something is right here at home.
When I'm on a plane and my seatmate asks what I do, when I'm out to dinner with friends, or when I make a presentation to a large group about the LDS Church's humanitarian involvement, I'm always asked — aside from the opportunity to donate cash — how else people can get involved. I tell them, "It's always good to donate to international efforts. Still, don't forget to look down the street where you live."
From my experience, I've seen that it's virtually impossible and pretty impractical for people to rush to a distant country to help. If housing is destroyed, where will they stay? If they don't know the local culture and geography, how can they respond? Their airfare alone would pay for 30 wheelchairs, bring clean water to 400 people or vaccinate 3,000 others against measles. While that is important, it is just part of the picture.
Down the street where they live here and now is an unemployed father. Around the corner is somebody's grandmother in the waning days of her life. Across the fence is a single mom who struggles to balance work, get an education and take care of her kids.
If there's not enough to do in your neighborhood, did you realize that much of what you help process at the local cannery ends up on tables of families who have needs not too dissimilar to those halfway around the world? And in fact some of this food does get sent to distant countries in times of disaster. And the list goes on.
We are surrounded by needs big and small, material and immaterial, and I know of numerous ways to help. If you would like more ideas or have some of your own ideas to share, please e-mail me. Together, we really can make the world a better place one family at a time.