I spent last week in San Antonio with 31-ish middle school students working to repair homes in the city – it was hard, sweaty, and difficult work. Hard because I and my co-leader spent most of our time corralling teenagers who had no construction experience. Sweaty because, well, Texas in the summer. Difficult because we only provided a bandage for the home.
Most of these summer work trips are pretty much the same. An organization enters a community and identifies homeowners who need assistance with repairing their homes – roofing, painting, drywall repair/replacement, flooring, yard work, etc. Over the course of the summer, rotating groups of teenagers come through and do the work for free while paying for the cost of the materials. It’s not the best work (they’re inexperienced teenagers), but in the end the homeowners have a home that is in a somewhat better shape than what they had before. It’s a good work and is legitimately needed, because without these donations of time and materials these homes would ultimately be condemned.
A good number of these organizations pull up their stakes when the summer’s over, their interns and on-site volunteers head back to college, and the community is left alone for the following nine months. The physical work is finished, so it’s time to go. And this is where we fail in these trips.
I was speaking with my small group of kids about our homeowner’s situation – she has a master’s degree in social work and was established in her career, but because of a family health issue she had to become the caretaker for her family member. She had to drop everything – work, friends, church, maintenance of her home – in order to care for her family member and it ultimately landed them both in poverty.
We could fix her home, but there were bigger issues at play in this family’s life. Inadequate healthcare systems. Ever-rising medical costs. Gentrification of neighborhoods. Sky-rocketing lumber costs. Over-demand of construction workers. Food deserts. Insufficient financial education. Poor public transportation. Deficient education. Predatory loans. Systemic poverty. Racial discrimination. Slumlords.
Truthfully, we can continue to take kids to repair these homes, but if we want to make a lasting impact then we need to deal with the larger issues at hand. Right now we’re doing bandage work. We’re fixing the home and leaving the homeowners warmer, safer, and drier, but we’re neglecting so many other things.
We need to set the homeowners up with local organizations who will continue to walk with them. We need to teach these families how to balance their bank accounts, how to utilize legitimate financial systems, and how to access free aid. We need to find ways for these families to get basic education – reading, writing, math, etc. We need to work with neighborhoods and cities to prevent homeowners from being pushed out of their of their homes and evicted for illegal reasons. We need to restructure financial systems and work to eliminate financial predation. We need to come up with a more affordable healthcare system. We need to care not only for the home, but for the family’s mental, financial, physical, and spiritual health. The summer’s bandage work is not sustainable.
I know I’m asking a lot and I know that it probably won’t ever happen, but I have hope that it will. I have hope that someday we can fix these larger problems that are keeping people in poverty. I have hope that someday we can fix our unaffordable healthcare system. I have hope that we can have ethical and moral landlords. I have hope that we can eliminate payday loans and exorbitant interest rates. I have hope that we can make education decent and free for all.
I have hope that these teenagers I worked with will never forget what they saw last week, and I have hope that they will work to change these systemic problems in our world. I have hope that we can all have bigger hearts and the long-distance eyesight to see the bigger-picture issues before us. And I have hope that God will give us all the strength, wisdom, and courage to fix it all.
much love. sheth.