A Painful Realization: I Can’t Help This Time

I’m able to do the work that I do because I can usually separate what is possible for me to do from what is not possible. Remembering the serenity prayer is useful, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; The courage to change the things I can; And, the wisdom to know the difference.” Sometimes it’s harder than other times. Occasionally I can’t accept these words, even though I know I should. I’ll share an example.

One day an education colleague came to me and said there was a student who dropped out of school because he could not afford the school fees ($3/trimester), notebooks ($5 max) and a uniform ($7). He walked several hours to our clinic for treatment. Upon hearing his story, a nurse who is new to our clinic alerted a member of our education team, hoping we could help. It turns out that the boy’s mother is dead, and his grandmother took him in. His caretakers now have a large household (15 +) and will not pay for him to attend school. He said he passed the 6th grade exit exam last year. Sadly, this story is not very unusual. He asked us to help so he can continue studies.

I wanted to reach into my bag and give him the money he needed immediately. There is no doubt in my mind that many of you would be willing to give him the money as well. As our construction manager, a Brooklynite who overheard the story said, “Hell, I’ll give you that right now. That’s less than a bottle of whiskey at home and could do far more good here.”  Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that to act.

We work in an impoverished area. Nearly all families are struggling to get by. If they hear this story, many more who genuinely need support will come and ask for help, and other entrepreneurially people will try to find a way to benefit from the support we give. Of course, I don’t blame them, this is one of the poorest countries in the world and most people rely on subsistence agriculture. We’re in one of the hunger seasons now. The latest Global Hunger Index report came out recently, and according to this widely respected index, Burundi is the country worst affected by hunger in the world. I can walk down the clinic hall any day and see many children in our malnutrition ward who are severely malnourished, and it’s heartbreaking to see. The needs here are great.

Our education program targets primary school children, and we do not have a program to help children pay for secondary school fees. There are hundreds or thousands of stories like the one above. If I help this one child, “three more will be here tomorrow,” my supervisor reminds me. We don’t have the capacity to examine each individual case and find out if the story is true and the child really needs help. Yes, I know our education team is already overextended in the work we are doing. Further, our budget is not flexible. Every penny is accounted for between now and December.  These facts should but don’t always make it easier for me not to give to one individual who needs it.

Last year, a driver at our clinic told me the story about how he could not continue school because he lacked school fees. He’s clearly smart and eager, always asking to learn a few new English words and retaining them better than I ever have when learning a language. The fees are only $3/trimester now. Twenty years ago, they must have been even less. I’m still moved by his story, and I had trouble stopping myself from imagining that driver, who is my friend, as this young boy who was sitting at our clinic.

While I was eating dinner that evening, the construction manager who had overheard the story walked over and slipped a $20 USD bill in my lap, clearly trying to be discreet. I quickly tried to explain in a few words that the situation is more complicated than I initially thought, but he insisted and walked away quickly, entrusting the money to me. I knew I shouldn’t follow up on the case, given that it is beyond the scope of our programming and could open a pandora’s box of requests. Later that night, lying in bed, I reminded myself of the serenity prayer. It wasn’t working. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to help that one boy, even if I couldn’t help others. I decided, along with my education colleagues, to try to find out more about this one boy’s story. After that, we promised ourselves, we would limit ourselves to program priorities and budgeted activities.

After much research, we found out that the boy’s story was not entirely true. Yes, he comes from a very poor family and is an orphan. There’s a good chance he’s abused and neglected. He did not pass the 6th grade exam last year. He dropped out of 5th grade, primarily because he could not eat. He started collecting wood to sell. The scope of the problem became so large that we really couldn’t intervene. The case goes beyond our capacity and expertise. We do not have permission from the government to operate in the realm of protection and social services. It’s not easy to accept, but I must.

To be a professional in this field, I must not become too emotionally connected to one story. I must be somewhat realistic and practical, recognizing my own limits. There are hard moments and wrenching internal struggles because the suffering of others moves me, but usually, I focus on what’s possible and remember the serenity prayer. I must.