Wednesday, April 25, 2007

American Idol, Landfills, and Juvenile Justice

Alright, I confess. I'm an American Idol fan. I'm all about the brainrot. It's pathetic, I know, but what's even more pathetic is that I don't even own a television and I watch a taped version of the Tuesday night show on Wednesday evenings. Last night's show revolved around "Idol Gives Back," this "big" war-against-poverty campaign they're doing. The big thing they kept mentioning is how for each vote, NewsCorp was going to donate $0.10, for up to five million dollars. They never really said where the money was going, except that it was to *gasp* Save Lives! Also nevermind that this is freaking NewsCorp and five million dollars is barely a drop in the bucket, if that. It probably did do some good and made a lot of people feel warm and fuzzy inside, so I can't complain too much.

So, last night, instead of forcing us to watch Bono "coach" the contestants (oh God thank you for sparing us that pain), we got to see a bunch of short segments of the host and the judges going around the US and Africa. The parts from Africa were ... familiar. (Nevermind that they never told us where in Africa they were; it's one big homogenous place, so it must not really matter anyhow. And while they did talk about how horrible of a disease malaria is, they didn't mention AIDS even once. American Idol is a family show, after all.) But, yes, the shots of people walking through landfills and of large groups of orphans happily eating in large bare rooms... it was a total deja vu, except the grinning kids in the video had darker skin that the ones in my memory.

In August 2005, in the middle of a month-long trip through southeast Asia, my father and I found ourselves in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. (If you don't know anything about Cambodia, quit being ignorant and go check out the wikipedia article or something. Especially the parts about the Khmer Rouge and Angkor.) We knew that Phnom Penh was going to be horrible, the worst combinations of a large dirty city and abject poverty in a country still recovering from large-scale genocide. Cambodia's tourist attractions are are elsewhere, and we were only in its capital out of necessity. My father's all-too-natural solution was to spend our one full day in town visiting the dump.

I'm not kidding. You just can't make this stuff up. We had met a couple in Siem Reap (the town near Angkor) who had spent a few days volunteering at the Centre for Children's Happiness in Phnom Penh. This organization actually runs two orphanages; the kids are separated by age and amount of time since they've lived in the landfill. Lived in the landfill. Like the girl in the picture on the left, these kids have all lived in the Phnom Penh dump as "garbage pickers" before coming to the orphanage. They go through the trash trying to find something, anything, they can sell for mere pennies in order to try to get enough money to buy food with. They literally live and sleep in the dump; the lucky ones might even live there with older siblings or even a parent. Most are orphans, or have parents in worse situations than them (e.g., missing a limb from the copious land mines scattered throughout the country). The CCH carefully picks children living in the dump to come live in the orphanage instead—and, importantly, the kids have to decide for themselves that this is a change they want in their lives. Usually the children coming straight from the dump have to spend about three months (if I remember correctly) in a hospital gaining strength and being treated for various diseases. (Actually, many only spend a few weeks, but some must spend many many months in recovery.) At the orphanages, they get a chance at having a "real childhood." They learn to read and write (in Khmer, English, and Japanese), they learn math, they learn job skills, they learn traditional Khmer dance and art, they learn how to care for one another and how society runs better if people treat each other with respect, have jobs, and take care of themselves. And, oh yes, they learn math. The walls of the courtyard in the main orphanage are covered with painted lessons: vocabulary, useful math formulas and ideas, proverbs, etc. I spent a while talking to one of the older students, a 16 year old boy who had been in the orphanage for three years. He said he really liked math, "especially trigonometry," and working on the computer. This is what we call a "motivated player." He said that when he turned 18, he wanted to work for the orphanage as a full-time employee; this was two years ago, and I do not know what he has wound up doing. The founder of CCH, Mech Sokha, is very open about the workings of the orphanage; the main office (where the computers live, and thus where many of the children spend much of their time) has a whiteboard dedicated to a breakdown of exactly how much it costs per child per day, and where all of that money both comes from and goes, as he is explaining to my father in the picture on the left. This is one of my favorite pictures (aside from all of the math!) from the orphanage because the kid you see standing next to Mech is so typical. For the first time in their lives, these children are somewhere safe, and it was so obvious just how safe they felt. Kids were running around, hugging each other, hugging Mech (like this one here), and generally just being happy. (I was the one with the camera, so many of them while I was there were taking turns having their picture taken, inspecting the preview on the screen on the back, informing me it wasn't good enough, and making me retake pictures. Oh, the cuteness.)

My dad actually got really excited by the entire experience. One thing we noted is that their computers were all really old and crappy; they had about ten, but only one or two would ever work at a time. My dad thought, "I have a lot of friends; we could easily get dozens of nice computers here." So he tried to help, to forge a bond, but apparently Mech just quit responding to his emails, the last I heard. I personally found the entire experience depressing rather than invigorating; it is difficult to see people making so much out of so little and not feel guilty for making so little out of so much opportunity in my own life. I'm still naive and idealistic; instead of seeing one potentially solvable situation, I see a whole helpless world full of Things That Should Not Be. In my head, I know what the world should be like, but the real world around me is so different that it's overwhelming to know how to go about fixing it. Well, there's that, and the fact that I'm incredibly cynical and impatient and people annoy me.

My father, you see, is different. (It takes a special kind of person to decide to visit the Phnom Penh dump on a tour of southeast Asia, yes?) He was a high school guidance counselor for almost 30 years, and somewhere along the way got involved with a volunteer organization associated with the state's Department for Juvenile Justice. Whereby "involved with," I really mean "founded," and whereby "Department for Juvenile Justice," I'm referring to "juvy," the prison where kids under 18 go. My strongest memories of Christmas morning when I was a kid don't center around getting up at the crack of dawn to run downstairs and see what presents I got; they revolve around getting up before the crack of dawn to drive out to DJJ to hand out bags of Christmas gifts to the teenage inmates there—gifts like pads of paper, pre-stamped envelopes, an orange, and a toothbrush. Since his retirement my senior year of high school, my father has poured himself into running this multimillion dollar philanthropic adventure. Explaining everything they do would require a whole other post, not to mention actually listening when he's going on about all of it on the phone.

My father's philosophy is that charity has its limitations; money can only go so far, and if you actually want to make a difference, then you need to actually do something. Charity is trying to treat symptoms ("we need to feed these hungry children!"), while philanthropy is trying to cure the cause ("we need to help these children's parents feed them!"). Charity makes people feel all warm and fuzzy inside; it has immediate gratification and results, and it's easier, but it the results aren't lasting. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is hard. Philanthropy requires thought, action, and inspiration in additon to mere money. It's one thing to give incarcerated kids prestamped envelopes, but it's something all together to try to change their lives and keep track of them so that when they get out of jail they don't go back to their old (criminal) habits upon returning home.

This is part of what has me cynical about the whole "Idol Gives Back" nonsense. I'm not saying it's bad; I'm saying it sounds like it isn't going to be as effective and useful as it could be. Money going to food doesn't solve problems; it merely postpones them until the next meal, while teaching people that they don't have to work for what they get. In Africa, wouldn't the money be better spent teaching safe sex and supplying condoms so fewer unwanted kids are born? Shouldn't we be trying to attack the problems instead of simply making ourselves feel better?

And, yes, I was glad to see Sanjaya go.


Jacob said...

Your dad gets cooler the more I hear.

And I'm reminded that I should do more volunteering/activism/whatnot.

Publia said...

I heard a lot about AIDS, but I am going for giving benets.

Publia said...

I mean bednets

mollishka said...

Bednets? Like, mosquito netting? ??

Also, I hear they did mention AIDS on the "results" show last night, but again, as I don't have one of those televisions thingies, I don't actually watch the Wednesday night shows.

JanieBelle said...

Hi Mollishka!

Gotta tell ya, I despise reality TV in nearly all its forms, and American Idol is right at the top of the list. I agree with you that while at least it was an attempt, as soon as I heard about the "Idol Gives Back" thing, it seemed much more like a marketing gimmick than actual effort to do anything productive. When NewsCorp starts spending money that hurts a little to give up, and sends people to do something helpful, then I'll be impressed. This was more like throwing fourteen cents of spare change at a homeless person after calling the TV news crews in to film it for the six o'clock news.

Guess I'm a pessimist and a cynic.

Lovin' the stuff about your Dad, though! That's impressive and inspiring!