After an all afternoon trip from Ohio to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, my entire missions group and I were happy to finally enter the city at eleven in the evening. We'd spent the whole afternoon napping and by this time, had become restless. Upon entering the area, our excitement was soon snuffed out by our pastor who quickly shushed our loud talking and forced us to shut the windows on our beat-up church bus. Most of us shared questioning gazes as we shut the windows, trapping the humid air in the bus. After all of the windows had been shut, our pastor quietly explained that we weren't in small-town Ohio any longer and that the people in the city would not take kindly to noisy teenagers. The way he said it implied that they would not simply be offended by us, rather, angered by us and could do some serious harm to us.
Following this speech, the bus fell into a quiet state. Most of us peered out the windows as our driver maneuvered through the tight inner-city streets. As we slowly made our way to our destination, I noticed several things I had never seen before at home. Flickering, orange street lights illuminated elaborate graffiti that covered the sides of the buildings, battered old cars, tired eyes of homeless men by the street, and trash, piles and piles of trash. I jumped at the sound of a siren rushing down a parallel street, the lights peeking between buildings. I was yet to find out this would be the soundtrack to my week in Philadelphia.
We finally arrived at our destination. Our pastor hurried us off the bus and shooed us to the opposite curb where our luggage had been dropped off a few minutes earlier. We were rushed by our leaders to find our belongings and hurry back across the street to the front of our host church. While I waited for our pastor to check in with the church leader, I looked up at the looming church. The bright moon allowed me to see a bright red door atop a crumbling staircase. Next to it was an old volunteer bunkhouse where we were to be staying.
We split by gender, the boys taking the lower floor and the girls taking the second floor. Twenty-five girls, including me, trooped up the thin staircase precariously, hoping not to trip on the small stairs or on our luggage. Upon tumbling into the landing, we found a long, narrow room filled with bunks, only thin walkways between them. Without wasting time, we all claimed our bunks and stuffed our belongings in every available space. Above the noise, one of the girls loudly pronounced there was a single bathroom containing one sink, one mirror, one toilet, and one shower. We quickly took turns showering, and hurried to bed.
The next morning we were awoken by the bright sun peering through the city buildings. We headed down to breakfast in the church basement, revitalized after a nice sleep. After breakfast we were briefed on how to behave in the city, and then released in groups of four to pick children up from their homes to go to VBS camp. Our group was assigned Hope Street. We walked down Taigo Street, smiling and greeting those we passed, only to be met with silence. We arrived at our street and turned left. We slowed down considerably, taking in the awful conditions of this area. The air reeked of garbage and we were hard pressed to find clean concrete to walk on. Trash laid in piles against the buildings, around cars, even around front doors. We walked past several men eyeing us suspiciously as they took draws on their morning cigarette. By the time we had reached the first house, our green shirts bearing the church's emblem, were already soaked with sweat from the morning's heat radiating from the asphalt. We knocked timidly on the door. No answer. We tried again. Nothing. We made an executive decision to move on and try another house.
After running through our assigned pick-ups, we had only managed to pick up three kids. We led them to the park (or rather, they led us), panting as the heat worsened. We arrived at the park and they instantly ran to the other kids that had been picked-up and started playing basketball. They spent their morning playing, and us, trying to keep up with them.
After spending a week in Philadelphia, I was able to realize how hard these kids have it. They live in homes where parents don't care, they live in filth, they live in poverty, and they live where drug deals happen on the corner of the street each night. But through all of this, I was glad I was able to help them by leading them to a great church that can let them see that there is more to life than what they have. Finally, I saw how good I have things here at home and I am thankful for every opportunity I have been given because many kids haven't and will never have the opportunities that I am lucky to have.
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