From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul


For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but forfeits his soul.

Jesus of Nazareth

“Remember that nothing carries more potential for change than individual acts of human kindness, even though corporate enterprise is important to the economies of developing countries.” The keynote speaker had just concluded his lecture entitled “Business Opportunities in Southeast Asia.”

Impressed as I was by the speaker’s business savvy and his obvious understanding of international markets, I believed his last statement to be somewhat disingenuous.

What did an American, dressed in an expensive suit, lecturing in a five-star hotel, know about individual acts of human kindness in the developing world? Judging from the cynical expressions on the faces of my fellow conferees, I was not alone in my skepticism.

The following day, while touring the Indonesian city where the conference was being held, the taxi in which I was riding passed through a dilapidated block that consisted almost entirely of trash. I rolled down the cab window in an effort to grasp the squalor I had only seen on TV in the United States, but the stench of the surroundings forced me to retreat. Before passing on to less disturbing scenery, I saw a shabbily dressed woman and two small children rummaging among fly-infested debris, eating discarded scraps.

The image of the pitiable woman and her children filled me with a sense of hopelessness and an even darker skepticism toward the words of the speaker from the previous night. No act of personal volunteerism, however noble or kind, could change the plight of a family like that, I thought.

Eighteen months later, I had the occasion to return to that city and, having spent a year and a half in the creature comforts of the West, had forgotten about the images of the woman and her children. It wasn’t until the taxi was passing through the very same section of the city that I remembered the family. Though I was certain I was in the same location as before, the area looked cleaner.

I explained to the driver what I had seen eighteen months earlier and asked him if he knew a woman with two children who lived among the refuse.

“Ibu Lani,” he said.

Fearing the worst, I asked what had become of her.

“I’ll show you.”

Maneuvering the taxi between piles of discarded cardboard boxes and newspapers, the driver stopped in front of a small wooden shack hidden behind a mountain of empty bottles and rusty cans.

“She’s probably in there,” the driver said pointing at the shack.

“Is that where she lives?” I asked, hesitant to get out and see for myself.

“No,” the driver answered, laughing. “That’s her office.

She has a house near where her children go to school.”

“Office?” I asked. “I thought she was so poor she had to search among the trash for food.”

The driver smiled at me through his rearview mirror.

“She was, but a foreigner taught her how to collect the trash and sell it to companies to recycle. He even brought people to meet her so she could find out what they wanted. I know because he was in my taxi the first time he saw this place and Ibu Lani.”

“Who is this guy?” I wanted to know.

“That’s him behind us with Ibu Lani.”

I turned to look where the driver was pointing and gasped when I saw the transformation that had occurred in Ibu Lani. There was no doubt she was the same woman, but she was well-dressed and carried herself with a graceful confidence not present when I had seen her eighteen months earlier.

And who was the foreigner who had taken the time to teach this woman that she could rise above the poverty and despair which surrounded her? Dressed in filthy coveralls and carrying a dripping trash bag filled with greasy newspapers, it was none other than the conference speaker himself.

I was too embarrassed to tell this man that I was aware of his humble act of service to this woman. I think Dave is one of those rare individuals who would rather remain obscure.

Thinking back on it now, after I spent the next seven years serving the people of Indonesia, I wonder who Dave’s act of volunteerism impacted the most?

Jamie Winship

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