It was just another hot, sweaty day in the “village” at Arkansas’ Heifer Ranch, a camp where people can experience what it’s like to live in an impoverished community. The four days I lived there seemed like forever, as there were no modern-day conveniences. In fact, it felt like the village was set out of time and a world all its own.
I lived with three other girls in a run-down school bus with a shack attached, like those sometimes found in the Mississippi Delta, especially after Hurricane Katrina. With their homes destroyed, hundreds of people were forced to build shelter using whatever materials they could find, such as an abandoned school bus like ours. Our quarters were sparse and a bit cramped, yet strangely homey as well. Wasps, flies, mosquitoes, and other bothersome insects flew about at all times of the day. Because our home was almost completely constructed of metal, we roasted in an oven during the daytime and shivered in a freezer at night.
We tended a little garden of chewed up collard greens, a few okra, and green tomatoes. We also fed and watered the “community” chickens and ducks as needed for our daily chores. One day, we had to weed around our bus and untangle some rusting chicken wire that was overgrown with weeds to “earn” money for food. It was times like these when I felt as if I was not Dana the San Diegan but rather Dana the Deltan.
We weren’t the only ones who shared the life of a Deltan, though. Next door to us lived the Shacklefords, as we affectionately called them. Their upper-class house was constructed of wood and raised several feet off the ground in case of a flood, an all too common occurrence in the Delta region. There was a big porch in the front with two benches and a big garden out back.
Inside, they had a real kitchen, complete with a real stove and a real sink with running water. My overuse of the word ‘real’ may sound silly, but you must understand that our “kitchen” consisted of a bookshelf with a camper stove on top and shared the same space as our makeshift table and salvaged lawn chairs. Their house also had two bedrooms and a living room, the latter in which my enlightenment took place.
While sitting on the reclining chair, I sneezed into a Kleenex. Not wanting to walk all the way to the outhouse to throw one little tissue away, I offhandedly asked, “Ginger, by any chance do you happen to have a trashcan in here?”
“Why, yes we do. It’s by the back door,” the elderly Texan woman replied, pointing in the bin’s general direction.
“I see it. Thanks, Ginger.” With that, I threw my garbage away and laid back down on the recliner to resume drawing.
Even though I said nothing, I realized something: I had no trashcan handy for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to have one. It dawned upon me that the people who were forced to live this life probably forgot what it was like to have little luxuries like a trashcan, too. Though I eventually went home, many people have no other place to go to. Every moment and everything is a gift, and those gifts should not be taken for granted, for like the people affected by Hurricane Katrina, I, too, could lose them any day.
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