Contents: UU World September/October 2002
September/October 2002

Work Camp

Young Unitarian Universalists build a playground — and understanding

by Heather Robb

With just two simple questions, Lyle Whiteman silenced us — twenty rambunctious Unitarian Universalist teens and young adults. We had come from all over the country in the summer of 2001 to spend one or two weeks on a UU work camp in the migrant-farmworker community of Crewport, Washington.

See also Taking Justice to the Community by Kimberly French

We were just beginning to take in the stunning backdrop, east of Mount Rainier: the small city nestled among tall, brown mountains, under an afternoon sky of Maxfield Parrish blue and clouds tinged pink. Lyle, the director of the Youth and Young Adults Just Works Program in Washington, met us for our orientation in a conference room at Yakima Community College, whose dorms would serve as our home. His first question: "Why have you come here?"

A sweet girl named Ellie raised her hand: "I want to help the people of Crewport because they are less fortunate than I am. And I want to learn about a new culture and share my experiences with my community at home."

We all nodded in agreement, satisfied with her answer.

Lyle smiled and posed his next question: "And how do you think that answer would sound to the people of Crewport?" He let the silence hang. Suddenly Ellie's answer didn't sound so sweet. It sounded condescending and disrespectful. Yet we all knew any of us in the room would have answered the same way.

Finally, he broke the silence: "Think of it this way. We are not saving poor, destitute people who cannot save themselves. We are helping them build and strengthen their community because, without community, the world is nothing."

If Lyle's talk didn't shatter our middle-class preconceptions about charity and poverty, our first day in Crewport — a half-hour's drive away through the irrigated desert — did.

Crewport did not appear the way many of us had imagined it would. The fifty-eight small, flat-roofed houses were built in the 1940s at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, out of her concern for the growing migrant-farmworker population. There are no longer any stores, churches, or community buildings, just houses along a quarter-mile stretch of road out in the middle of farmland. Over the years the government has sold off the houses, and now they are all owned by Mexican migrant farmworker families.

That night at the dorm, we reflected on the day's events. The most common reaction was that the town did not appear to be as poor as most of us had expected. Our definitions of poor came from what we had read in magazines or seen on TV. We expected, I suppose, makeshift shelters of cardboard and dirty sheets, hungry people drinking out of puddles, and doe-eyed children staring blankly into the camera. Instead, we found a town of well-kept houses, with colorful gardens flourishing in every yard. The children were not starving, but energetic and enthusiastic, always eager to help.

The poverty in Crewport made itself known little by little, as we got to know the people who lived there. Looking at one of the houses in Crewport, you would never have known that the family living inside had been without water for fourteen days. You would never have known that its inhabitants, young and old, rose from the places they slept, in beds or on the floor, not knowing whether they would have jobs that day. You would not have known that the children had watched their father get arrested and taken away by immigration authorities, not knowing whether they would ever see him again. You would not have known that the people in the houses lived in fear of their neighbors, of anyone who might turn them in, for nearly everyone here has at least one family member in the country illegally.

Before I arrived, some of the work campers had gone door to door in Crewport, asking residents what the community needed most. The answer came back: a playground. More than one hundred children live in Crewport. The only place for them to play was in the road.

The days passed hot and dry as we worked. Pulling weeds, clearing trash, digging, raking, shoveling, leveling a path, sawing, building, creating, and growing. For three days my job was cutting wood with a hand-held saw, something I had never done before. When we weren't needed on the construction, we played with the children. There was always something to do. Bit by bit the playground grew — swings, monkey bars, lookout tower, paths. As it progressed, I could feel that unseen growth was occurring on many other levels, too: trust, a sense of community, and most of all, the changes in our own awareness of the world beyond what we had known.

The monkey bars took shape one day, and that evening, one of the families invited us to a fiesta at their home. A group of older Mexican women were frying tortillas for tacos. One grandmother saw me watching and motioned for me to come try making one. Struggling with my high-school Spanish, I learned that she had pounded the corn and made the cheese herself. In that moment, it did not matter that we did not speak the same language. It was enough just to be women, laughing and cooking together.

The heat in central Washington was different from anything I had ever experienced. Unlike the sticky humidity of an East Coast summer, Yakima's 100-degree weather felt very comfortable. I soon discovered that was because dry heat evaporates your sweat before you realize it's there. If you don't make sure to drink water often, you quickly become dehydrated and nauseated.

When Lyle told us at orientation that many of the houses in Crewport had been without water for two weeks, I was unable to grasp what that really meant. It wasn't until we were out there working in the heat, appreciating every sip we were taking from the water jugs we had brought on our bus, that we could really begin to understand. And we knew we had to take action.

So one evening we went door to door in groups of two teen volunteers with one of the older bilingual children, trying to find out who had water and who didn't. To our surprise, many of the people who opened their doors were not at all enthusiastic about drawing the attention of the government. They were afraid of what the consequences might be. I did not know how to react. I wanted to tell them that they deserved a voice in society, that they did not have to tolerate such irresponsible indifference. But I stopped myself, as it dawned on me that as a middle-class white American, I can safely demand that my voice be heard. For an immigrant who lives in fear and doesn't speak English, it is much safer to remain silent.

The work I did in Crewport has definitely made me appreciate the luxuries and privileges I have in my life. But more important, it has given me a greater sense of my responsibility to use that privilege to make the world a more just place.

I have always considered myself an activist young person. I come from a family and a church that highly value serving our community and standing up for our beliefs. I went on my first peace march with my parents when I was ten. But going to Crewport showed me how little I really knew about social injustice in my country and how there is always more to learn about how other people live.

Crewport and other migrant communities like it are almost invisible, untouchable, to the rest of society. Migrant farmworkers are paid less than minimum wage, and live and work under conditions that would not be allowed for our own citizens. Because their cheap labor is essential to our agricultural economy, our government makes a choice not to arrest and deport them or let them work legally so they can be better protected. It is a tragedy that we won't find a way to treat migrant farmworkers fairly and humanely.

It's easy for us to focus our concern on the Middle East, Asia, and other countries. We need to acknowledge that social injustices are occurring on our own soil. Right here in America we have a lot to be ashamed of. We need to turn our attention to what we can do to make this country, and this world, better for all living things.

My experience in Washington State made me see that any effort to improve our world, no matter how small, is significant. Little steps toward a big goal are the best way to get there. As Margaret Mead put it, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

I know that the lives of the people living in Crewport will improve because of the playground we built. But we were only the catalysts. We are not the ones who will ultimately make Crewport a better place. That will be done by the very people who live there. By the end of my first day in Crewport I was convinced that the residents were just as eager to help themselves as we were to help them. That was the most significant lesson I learned: Often the best way to help is to give others the opportunity to help themselves.

Heather Robb of Newark, Delaware, is a sophomore theater major at Syracuse University. She volunteers for the on-campus International Young Scholars, tutoring children from families who don't speak English. This article is taken from a homily she delivered last fall in Unitarian Universalist churches in Newark and Wilmington, Delaware, and from interviews with writer and editor Kimberly French.

 Contents: UU World September/October 2002
UU World XVI:5 (September/October 2002): 28-30

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