Elmhurst College: The Power of One

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The Power of One

I was in my usual Monday night spot – working at the information desk in the student union at Elmhurst College. I was staring blankly at a money collection container that was made by the college’s Global Poverty Club, of which I am the founder.

Part of the club’s mission is to show students that they, as individuals, can make a sincere difference in the lives of the poor, even if those in need live halfway around the world. The container shows that while living in a world with poverty is costly, solutions can be cheap.

We made the collection container for Poverty Week – a series of events and activities our Club hosted last fall to raise awareness and money. Next to the container was a board on which I’d written that more than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. The board asked students and staff to kindly spare a dollar for the poor each day during Poverty Week.

But as I sat there on the first night of Poverty Week, I was in a pretty dark mood. All I could think about was the kick-off celebration earlier that day, and that it could’ve gone a lot better. Fewer technical glitches. More people. Would’ve been nice if the band had showed up. But especially, more people. In the days leading up to the kick-off, I had run through everything in my head countless times, and it always went flawlessly. I imagined the student lounge packed with people eager to enjoy some live music, to learn about the Global Poverty Club and to hear about all the ways they could help those in need.

But in reality, the band had gotten the time wrong and never showed up. And the students who had bothered to come to the lounge were too busy eating lunch and checking Facebook to notice us. The mediocre kickoff shook my confidence about how successful we would be with the other events we had coming that week.

As I stewed in my disappointment, a student and his noisy friends walked in the front door. I remembered the student from the kickoff event. I also remembered the level of attention he gave us – somewhere between none and zero; maybe an occasional glance upward to see if we were still there. His presence was an awful reminder of my frustrations that day. But he was preoccupied with his friends, so I figured that at least he’d move on soon. But he didn’t. As his friends walked away, he stopped at our collection box. He took an unusual amount of time reading our sign. I expected him to walk away.

Instead, he pulled out his wallet and dropped in a single. He did this every day for the rest of the week.

At the start of the school year, I spoke at a ceremony in which Elmhurst College awarded its highest honor, the Niebuhr Medal, to a theologian named Gustavo Gutierrez, a man who has spent his life advocating for the world’s poorest of the poor.

I said, “If you inspire just one person to do good for others, then in time, you will have changed the world.” I didn’t fully realize the significance of those words until that first frustrating day of Poverty Week, and how beautifully that day ended.

The Global Poverty Club cannot eradicate poverty or save millions of lives. But we can empower those who want to help but don’t know how. Our message made an impact with at least one student. I wonder if that student realizes how profound an effect he had on me.

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