While some students use their winter reading break as a time for vacation, I spent mine teaching English to elementary school students in the Dominican Republic. I went as a volunteer with 24 others from my school.
During my week, I was blessed to teach English to four different elementary school classes. The kids would greet us with huge smiles and exhibit a real eagerness to learn from complete strangers.
One particular day, I remember asking a student to take out his pencil to write down the lesson we were teaching. He pulled out his pencil case, which was falling apart, and removed the contents — a few broken pencils and dried up markers.
It made me think of our North American culture, where kids have tablets and iPads before they are old enough to drive and I looked at this boy who didn’t even have a pencil to copy down the lesson of the day.
The experience is not one I will soon forget. Although I saw the poverty of the Dominican people in what they lacked, I found my own poverty in my abundance. For the first time in my life, I started to see poverty as more of a relative thing than a defined state.
The children I had the privilege of teaching during my stay in the Dominican Republic were so incredibly joyful with what little they had. An incredible thing about it, though, was that they didn’t see see themselves as poor. They were content.
When I returned home, I became acutely aware of my excessive complaining over petty things. I suddenly found myself appreciating the simple things in my life in a way I never really had before.
I learned a new lesson of gratitude in the most unlikely of places. In the Dominican Republic, we took cold showers, woke up to strange insects in our rooms and dealt with incredibly humid temperatures. But when I got home, I was so grateful for all that I had and desired to give away what I realized I didn’t need.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Although I’ve heard this passage several times in my life, it took on a new meaning after I saw how little earthly treasures matter to the people in the Dominican.
It’s important to remember that this life, and all that is within it, is temporary. We can often get so caught up in the material wants of our world that we forget about the spiritual needs in our lives.
As we continue journeying through the season of Lent, perhaps this is the time for us to take a good look at the material possessions in our lives and decide how necessary they really are.
(Atkinson, 21, is a first-year journalism student at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ont.)