Together, we can all make a difference, one life at a time

Copyright 2011 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a guest column on September 24, 2011
in the Austin American-Statesman)

    Paying tribute to his grandparents in a commentary published recently in the American-Statesman, Michael Morris described how they stepped in to help when he, at age 5, and his mother fled Morris’ abusive father.

    As I pondered Morris’ misfortune, it occurred to me that he was lucky to have caring grandparents for protection. Sadly, there are countless children who don’t have such a safety net.

    As a children’s court judge several years ago, I presided at hearings in abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and foster care cases. I saw youngsters and parents who traveled along wrong paths and made unwise choices that caused them much misery. Among them were youths who were on the edge of an abyss, on the brink of destroying any chance for fruitful lives. They were children crying to someone― anyone ―for the slightest guidance or direction. But there was no one around to offer it. I’ll never forget the faces of those desperate individuals with their sad stories.

    After completing my work, I had breakfast with two dear friends. My hostess spoke of the children in war-torn Irag and Lebanon. As she talked, I thought that one needn't look to other counties or even beyond the borders of our own community to find these deplorable conditions.

    As the sun shed the day’s first light on the city below, some poor children down there would wake up hungry. Their only meal of the day might come from eating scraps of food off the floor in unsanitary conditions unfit for even dogs. They would be forced to fend for themselves. Their parents, in a drunken stupor or on drugs, were barely able to take care of their own needs, much less their children’s.

    I imagined a youngster in some dwelling he called home being abused or sexually assaulted. This might be, in years to come, the force that would propel him into juvenile court, much like the youngsters who had appeared before me.

    Through the years, I’ve come to believe that life is a gift we take for granted. We don’t own life, no more than we own our children. It and they are only on loan to us from God. It should be treasured as something sacred.

    Those of us who’ve succeeded in our careers pride ourselves in what others would perceive as our distinguished lives. When I find myself getting carried away with my own notion that I’ve done well, I remind myself that I was lucky to have had the opportunities my own circumstances in life had to offer.

    The question we must ask is whether, given the conditions and lack of opportunities that many of our youths endure, would we, in the same dire circumstances, fare any better. None of us chooses the family we are born into. We have no more say in that accident of life than we do in choosing our eye color.

    Yet, we stand ever so ready to criticize and even condemn those among us who haven’t attained what we have, instead of reminding ourselves that in so many ways, life is pitifully unfair for not affording all of us an equal chance.

    I still think back, wondering whether I made a difference in the lives of those children. When I have these doubts, I recall a story a friend told me when I shared my frustrations with him. A young couple was walking along a beach. They came across hundreds of starfish that had been swept ashore and were dying in the hot sun. The woman picked one of them up and threw it as far into the ocean as she could.

    “That’s not going to make a difference,” the man said with a smirk on his face.

    With hope in her eyes, the woman replied: “It will to that starfish.”

    As in that story, I console myself with the hope that I may have made a difference in at least one life of someone who appeared before me. I’ll probably never know, but that thought alone gives me hope that any one of us can make a difference in the life of a child at risk.

    I’ve vowed to try making that difference, but I do so knowing that one person can’t do it alone. All of us, acting together, might accomplish a small part of that goal. I ask that you consider helping in this effort by volunteering to do your part in improving conditions in your community. But before you can do that, you must―as I finally did―open your eyes.