Philanthropy is often seen as giving service, be it time or money, to the poor. While this is true in many ways, only the people who actually carry it out truly know how this act can lead to great eye-openers, often revolutionising our thoughts and changing our perception of the world around us.
I was lucky that philanthropic activities are organised regularly in my school. To share all my experiences will probably sound like a clichéd story since words can never do justice to an actual experience. Hence, I am going to focus on a single moment that opened up a new channel of thought as to why people experience poverty.
It was the summer holidays, when my two friends and I decided to teach a few children from a scavenger site (these kids collect rubbish and sell recyclable items for a living making about Rp20,000 a day – roughly RM7). The group of children were mainly 8 to 11-year-olds except for a married couple, a 19-year-old guy called Sauri and his 17-year-old wife. Sauri struck me as incredibly enthusiastic in class and a fast learner in mathematics.
One of my teachers got him a job as a gardener in my school, which would triple his salary yet trim his work hours significantly. I was in the room with the both of them during the discussion. To my surprise, Sauri turned down the offer! He was afraid that this job would require him to stay in the school instead.
Despite trying to convince him repeatedly that he would be home by 5 p.m. everyday, he remained afraid. I was astonished. Isn’t it obvious to go for a job that both reduced your working hours and increased your salary, providing a route out of the cycle of poverty?
It only struck me several hours later that it was the lack of opportunities that blinded Sauri. Since he rarely experienced life changing chances, he was also oblivious to new chances that emerged. Despite his willingness to learn, he was not used to this kind of life changing opportunities. He had not been taught to take risks, to get out of his comfort zone, or to leave what had become a part of his life. However, it is only human nature to resist change that is not fully understood, as there is always fear of the unexpected.
Those who get out of their comfort zone and try something completely different – whether it is teaching children, building schools, or caring for the sick – always experience a change in perception. These new experiences shed light on facts that may be otherwise overlooked.
Then, we finally see how much we have misunderstood – or did not fully understand – the things that are uncommon to us. It is the same with the very poor, except they have to take what appears to be a bigger risk since they do not have the money to make ends meet if something does go wrong. The fear in their lives makes it more difficult for them to take that first uncertain step out of poverty.
I finally learnt that although important, it is not the amount of money and time spent for the impoverished that mattered most. It is understanding their thoughts and opinions on matters that are crucial to them. If we understand their fears and what motivates them, it would be easier to help them get out of poverty. If we can understand how that tight rope of survival they are walking on does not allow much room for trying new jobs or lifestyles, we can then refocus our efforts to ensure that opportunities are not only provided, but also seized.
Ganesh Raj Kumaraguru is living a longtime dream by pursuing a 4-year undergraduate course at Stanford University. Throughout his life, he had many colourful experiences and all of them played a big role in helping him achieve his dream. He will share a meaningful experience that taught him something he could never have learnt from school.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.