AS WE AMERICANS struggle to keep our weight under control and consider ourselves deprived if we give up meat or desserts for 40 days, 795 million people on this planet struggle to find their next meal.
Every year, 36 million of them starve to death. That’s the population of South Carolina — times seven.
It’s 98,000 people every day.
The numbers are so far beyond comprehension, so heart-breaking that it seems insane to try to do anything. More productive, it seems, to just down another carton of ice cream, or go back to dissolving lifelong friendships over disagreements about whether Donald Trump is good or bad for our nation.
Unless you think about the starfish.
Forgive me if you’ve heard this story. A Google search suggests it is widely known, but I had not heard it until Saturday.
A man and a boy are walking along the beach after a storm, and the man picks up a starfish and tosses it back into the ocean. The boy asks: “Why did you do that? There are thousands of starfish on the beach; throwing one back into the ocean won’t make any difference.” To which the man replied: “It makes a difference to that starfish.”
Brad Fleming, a strategic partnerships manager with the charity Feeding Children Everywhere, had just gone through those unfathomable numbers when he told the story. And pointed out that what we were about to do wouldn’t put a dent in those numbers.
But it would make a difference to the starving child who receives one of the meals we would be packaging and sending to Haiti. It could mean the difference between life and death. Maybe for just one day. Maybe for a lifetime.
It’s easy to believe the world is too big for any one of us to make a difference. Heck: It’s easy to believe we can’t even make a difference in our own country. Our own state. Our own community.
So we don’t try.
After all, tutoring or mentoring a poor child in a poor school district won’t eliminate the problem of inadequate educational opportunities that our Legislature continues not to sufficiently address. But to that one child, it could mean the difference between graduating from high school, possibly college and getting a stable job, or continuing to languish in her family’s cycle of poverty, perhaps becoming a drug addict, and breaking into our homes to feed her habit.
Giving up a day, or even a week, to help repair or build a home for someone in need won’t eliminate the problem of people living in unsafe homes or even on the street. But it will make that person’s life less dangerous, and possibly save a life.
Volunteering at a nursing home won’t reduce the isolation that has become such a routine part of aging. But it can bring a little joy to each person you touch.
Sponsoring an outing for kids at a children’s shelter won’t stop the tragedy of abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them. But it could mean that the children who get to feel the love and care and protection of adults can start learning to trust grown-ups, and are able to form stable relationships, rather than carrying their emotional scars into adulthood.
Adopting, or even just fostering, a stray won’t make a noticeable difference in the pet overpopulation and the horror of euthanasia, but it will save that one pet’s life — and, yes, dramatically improve your own.
Similarly, one individual can make a difference in our civic life, by casting a vote, by having a respectful, unemotional, fact-based discussion with our elected officials — but those are topics for a different type of column.
My parish believes in the importance of using our time and talents to make whatever positive difference we can in the lives of the individuals we encounter. It’s why members spend a week in Appalachia every summer repairing homes for the needy. It’s why we signed up two years ago with Feeding Children Everywhere, which has distributed 92 million meals since it was founded in 2010.
It’s why, on Saturday morning, 60 of us gathered for a Lenten day of service — about two-thirds from our parish, the rest friends and strangers who learned about the event on the Feeding Children website.
After Mass, we assembled the meals, carefully measuring lentils, rice, freeze-dried vegetables and salt, sealing the filled bags and packing them into boxes to be delivered to Haiti. (Last time, we sent our meals to Syria, but the situation there has deteriorated so much that the charity didn’t feel like it could get them to the right people this year.)
Within a couple of hours, we had packaged 18,000 meals. Well, not precisely “we.” I worked on the assembly line for maybe 30 minutes, and spent the rest of my time documenting the morning for our parish Facebook page.
This certainly isn’t the only way to feed starving children. Nor is it inexpensive. Parishioners donated $6,900 to cover the cost of supplies and delivery for those 18,000 meals.
But such hands-on work has an amazing ability to convert agnostics into believers about the power of one individual to change a life. And as with teaching a man to fish, it could turn out that those transformed by the experience end up feeding starving children for life.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.