By Melissa Etehad, 17, Santa Monica HS
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Melissa raised awareness of World AIDS Day by decorating her school with red ribbons.

Photo by Marisa Iannaccone, 17, Santa Monica HS

One day as I was flipping through the TV I came across a channel that showed a half-naked child standing alone in the middle of a desolate dirt road. The child was holding a broken toy covered with mud. A narrator explained that this was Sub-Saharan Africa. It was a village with no food, running water or access to education.

I could not forget the images of the child. I thought it was unfair for that child to live that way. I started researching global poverty on the Internet and what I found shocked me. According to Bread for the World, an organization that fights world hunger, 923 million people across the world are hungry. Every day 16,000 children die from hunger—that’s one child every five seconds. And some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water. After I learned this, each time I ate a meal, went to the grocery store or saw people throw away food, I felt guilty.

When I look at this world I see so much beauty and potential. I feel  everyone should have the opportunity to achieve their dreams. It disturbs me knowing that people around the world don’t have the necessities to live. The more I kept researching and learning about this epidemic the more I felt I needed to act. At first I thought that it would be easy to find ways to fight global poverty. However, I realized it would take more than just wanting to do something.

I thought of creating my own organization. I knew there were people in parts of the world who weren’t getting enough food and clean water and there were diseases. I saw myself going to Africa and feeding people, giving them water filters and educating them on how to protect themselves from diseases. But, I didn’t know where to turn to find out how to do those things.

That’s why I got excited when I heard about an event in my community December of my freshman year. It revolved around bringing together community leaders and Santa Monica residents to join the cause of fighting HIV/AIDS and orphans in Africa. I thought this event was a great way to become involved because I would be able to make a difference.

The day of the event I went to the beach and helped set up tents. The highlight was when more than 100 people formed a peace sign with our bodies on the beach and a photographer in a helicopter took an aerial picture. This act represented how people halfway across the world can show unity toward fighting a single cause. Even though I didn’t go to Africa, I still felt like I did my part by making people in my community aware of this issue.

I was inspired to do more, but I wondered how. Each time I heard something on TV about poverty in third world countries or read about it in an article, or I was at the grocery store or riding the bus, my thoughts drifted back to how I desperately wanted to work on solving these issues. I had an empty feeling in my stomach and it wouldn’t go away. Knowing that I wanted to do something but was not doing anything felt painful. There were so many things but I didn’t know where to put my attention. I wanted to do everything and that’s not possible.

I had big goals for my club

Motivated not to waste another year, in 10th grade I started a club at school and named it On the Move for the Globe. It would be dedicated to helping people in poverty in third world countries—specifically with hunger, malnutrition and access to clean water. I wanted to adopt a village and help raise money to provide whatever they needed. If that area had problems with HIV/AIDS, we would find a way to educate them. If the kids needed uniforms to go to school, we would provide them. But I still didn’t know how to do that.

That same year I joined student council where I met Kelly Snyder. She was two years older than me and her passion was also working to find ways to fight global poverty. Through the nonprofit Invisible Children she raised $25,000 to build a school in Uganda. Why couldn’t I do the same thing? I thought, “How is it possible to raise that much money?” Seeing all that Kelly accomplished inspired me.

Kelly took me under her wing. She used to always say, “It doesn’t mater how the event turns out, what matters is that you did it.” After that I realized that it is more important to take action than to just sit around and wait for that perfect idea. She showed me how to put on school events, how to lead a meeting, and how to deal with money and the school administration. I was able to learn so much from her ability to lead and inspire people. She always smiled and talked with enthusiasm and confidence and her compassion showed through the work that she did. Having Kelly guide me not only helped me find myself but also helped me realize that fighting global poverty as a teen is possible.

That's fighting poverty, too. Melissa helped fix up a home for a low-income family through Habitat for Humanity.

Photo by Yodit Yazdinian, 17,
Santa Monica HS

Kelly told me about some of the organizations that she was involved with and I joined a few, such as Amnesty International, which deals with human rights around the world; Habitat for Humanity, which provides affordable housing to families in need; Global Citizen Corps, an organization for teens whose goal is to help people and communities around the world who are in poverty; and the ONE Campaign, whose goal is to end global poverty. All of these organizations have resources for teens such as suggestions for putting on events at school and letter writing campaigns to Congress to call for changes in policy. Through these organizations I began to understand that raising awareness is one of the most important ways that I could make a difference. Before, I was thinking too broadly.

At the beginning of junior year, my club held its first event for World Food Day. I asked people from student council and the club to help make blue bracelets, which signify world hunger. Six friends helped me make around 4,000 bracelets and we went from classroom to classroom talking to people about the facts of hunger in Africa. The best part was that I knew that I had a whole team behind me. It meant other people cared too. Before the event I was worried it would be pointless and that people would think of it as random. But after we gave out the bracelets, a  lot of students and teachers asked questions and were interested in what we were doing.

A few months later, I decided I wanted to do something for World AIDS Day. I thought of all the ways I could make people at my school more aware. I finally came up with a plan: to have a speaker  and to decorate my campus with red ribbons. Luckily some people in my student government class were able to get the e-mail for Bobby Shriver, the Santa Monica city council member who co-founded the (PRODUCT) RED line, because their parents knew him. We e-mailed him and invited him to talk.

That day I put red ribbons on all the trees, and distributed red ribbons for teachers to wear. At the assembly Shriver talked about how students can help with the fight against AIDS. He said that the money spent on (PRODUCT) RED T-shirts from the Gap would go directly to the people in Africa with AIDS. During the assembly, standing before 350 students, I felt that I was helping educate my peers. At the end, everyone applauded and some people approached Shriver and asked him more questions.

At the end of junior year I applied to the Global Citizen Corps Leadership Summit in New York. The summit’s purpose was to bring together 40 students of all ethnic backgrounds from across the country to educate us on ways to end global poverty. I’d been searching for so long for help and at this summit I’d be learning from people who work in this field every day. When I got accepted I was excited because I would be able to meet a group of teenagers who felt the same way I did. Throughout the week I met people who spent their lives trying to end global poverty. We listened to speakers who worked on the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. There was a man whose sister died of AIDS in Uganda and a man who started an organization to end world hunger. We also visited the United Nations. It was really exciting for me to go to the United Nations because they work with the same issues that I cared about—ending world hunger, preventing HIV/AIDS, human rights and keeping peace.

I wasn’t the only one who felt they weren’t doing enough

On the last day of the summit we were asked to stand up if we had ever felt stuck, hopeless or anxious in our journey of fighting poverty. One by one people started to stand up and before I knew it everyone in the room was standing, acknowledging the same fear I had. One girl talked about how she had a hard time having events at her school because her administration was too strict. Another girl said she felt frustrated because she didn’t know how to motivate people at her school to care about global poverty. I was relieved to hear that I wasn’t the only person who struggled and felt this way. Listening to everyone showed me that what’s more important is how we act when we come across difficulties rather than what the difficulties may be. Being with a group of people who shared my beliefs made me realize this was something I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

After I came back from the summit I felt that I had a clear vision of my priorities. I really wanted to encourage people at my school to be involved with helping people in poverty.

In August I organized a group of four students from my class to spend a day working with Habitat for Humanity, doing construction on a home for a family. Fixing up a house for someone is a way of fighting poverty because the foundation for leading a sustainable life is having a house, and being able to help provide that is fighting poverty.

I was proud to see our hard work helping someone

That's fighting poverty, too. Melissa helped fix up a home for a low-income family through Habitat for Humanity.
Photo by Yodit Yadinian, 17, Santa Monica HS

On a Saturday, we arrived and met 15 adult volunteers and the woman who owned the house. The man coordinating the project asked us if we knew how to paint. We said yes. Then he told us he wanted us to go on top of the house and paint. I climbed a ladder and stood on the scaffolding. It was shaking and it felt like I was going to fall. My friends and I began painting primer on the top edge of the house. (Primer is the step before you paint.) My other two friends worked right below us, putting primer on the edges of window frames. While we were working other volunteers were sawing wood to place on the top of the garage to add to the frame of the house.

We painted for eight hours and by the end of the day everyone was exhausted. The woman who owned the house came up to us, smiled and gave us all hugs. She told us that she was happy we were there to help her out and that she really appreciated what we were doing for her. It made me feel happy. I felt like this was the right place to be. I organized two more Saturday trips. All the hard work we did really made a difference; the house looked beautiful after we painted it green and the construction on the garage was finished.

I am relieved and motivated now that I have found a path to fight global poverty. This year I am planning a hunger campaign at my school. I want to invite organizations that fight world hunger and have them speak at my school during an assembly. I also hope to create a short documentary about global poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa to show during the presentation and to talk to students at my school about world hunger.

I know that someday my dream of going abroad to Africa and working directly with people who are in poverty and spreading awareness will come true. Until then I plan on continuing to educate my community about global poverty and trying to involve other teens to help families in need.

Other stories by this writer …

Helping in New Orleans. My youth group was shocked at how bad things still are, but glad that we could do our part. (September 2006)