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Open Features: The Human Spirit

In this inspirational article Ellie Braun-Haley tells how a group of American students learned a great deal about the human spirit during a visit to the slums of a Mexican city.

The students signed on for a tour and were anticipating something colorful and different yet it is unlikely any of them were expecting a life changing event. For one student that is exactly what it became.

Students were to be escorted that day by retired schoolteacher, Cliff Hinderman. The tour would include a visit into the slums of
a city in Mexico.

Prior to the tour, Hinderman went out to make some important purchases - cooking oil, beans, rice and pasta. Later Hinderman would give these to the students and at the end of their assignment they were to offer the staples to the people they interviewed as a token of appreciation.

Meeting with the American school students, Hinderman challenged the students to complete a special assignment as part of their tour.

“The people here have agreed to allow you to interview them and when you are finished as an act of courtesy, please thank them with one of these food staples,” he explained to the junior and senior high school students.

Dressed in their casual clothes, with the usual designer sandals and runners, the students might have felt grossly out of place and
overdressed, if they’d had time to think about it. Perhaps they had expected homes similar to their own, only smaller. This was far from the reality of what met their eyes on the tour. Coming face to face with poverty can have a startling and numbing effect.

The group arrived at their destination, an impoverished and poor area and to add to the bleakness the rains began, and the area was soon a mucky mess, as was the footwear of the entire tour group.

Words of “OH yuck”, might have been spoken, but with a quiet calm Mr. Hinderman advised the group, “just keep smiling all the while, be respectful, and do your interviews.”

“What should I ask about?” queried one of the younger girls.

“Ask about their computers and CD collections,” suggested Cliff. He of course knew there would be none.

Soon the same youngster came out and said, “Mr. Hinderman, they don’t have any computers nor CD’s or anything.”

“Well then, said Cliff, “ask them what they do have.”

Undaunted, She returned to her assignment.

Those being interviewed were among the poorest in the city. In one home, the size of a medium bedroom, a family of 21 were living. At night everyone slept on the floor, except for the two babies. Hammocks were fashioned and hung from the ceiling. The babies slept there, safely, so mice and rats could not chew on their toes and fingers.

Cliff hoped to have the American children understand more of the world they lived in, for in seeing they would know their world better and might become part of the solution. “Poverty”, says Hinderman, “is more than low wages, it is also low life expectancy, lack of education, child labour, young age marriages, free union marriages, living in crowded conditions, anger, stress, anxiety, pressures and hopelessness and soon the people are swallowed and in a place where they cannot escape.”

The American school students surprisingly did not seem in a rush to
complete their assignments that day though their shoes were thick with mud and the sandaled feet, sported mud, oozing between the toes. They were shocked at what they witnessed yet with audacity and determination they continued. As the interviews progressed the attention of the students was riveted. The people in the slums had less than nothing and the school students stayed on listening and learning.

In one of the homes a student found not only were the people surviving without furniture and cupboards but had no indoor plumbing. At another interview the children proudly showed off their one prize possession, a soccer ball. Soccer is a huge sport in Mexico. The ball, was one of many given out at a Christmas party, compliments of the people of Spirit Lake Iowa.

Assignments done, the students walked toward their transportation, tears running freely down their cheeks.

They had discovered much about the human spirit.

It was much later when Cliff Hinderman received a letter from a university student. The student had been one of those with him that day. In university she had been asked by her professor to write about a life changing event. The tour into the depressed area and the writing assignment had a profound effect on her and that became her topic. She wrote about her encounter with the street children and their families on a rainy day in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. The event, forever changed, the student’s view. She could no longer see the world in the same way she once had. Everything altered that rainy day. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was different.

Cliff read the letter and remembered the student. Her words touched his spirit and he smiled gratefully. “Yes,” Cliff thought, “that rainy day mission for a group of school students had indeed been life changing, a change of the human spirit! It had been good assignment!”

Another student was greatly affected by one of the tours. She confided in Cliff, “I have a grandmother who is Indian and I have always denied her. Now,” she said, brushing away the tears, “I am forever changed I am going home to see my grandmother. I will do everything I can to make it up to her!”

Cliff has been working with the Street Children of Oaxaca since 1997. He spends six months of each year in the Mexican city. As I sat on the Zocalo interviewing him it was difficult to stick to task. Children and adults alike flock to him like the Pied Piper. He is recognized for his work and loved by these people. There are presently more than 550 street children being helped.

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