01/27/2016 04:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How People Sometimes Just Can't See Poverty When the Poor Look Too Good

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Dr. Jane showing that smiling isn't bad on the beds at a Vietnamese Orphanage

My cousin Mara and Andy Cohen's daughter, Alana, contacted me through text while I was in Vietnam last week visiting the programs of WWO. She is a junior in college studying graphic design in London and she has traveled with her family to WWO sites in the past. During the summer of 2015, she traveled with her mother, Mara, to Haiti. She texted me while I was in Vietnam last week to have a FaceTime call about a school project. She wanted to ask me how I feel when returning from a trip abroad. She wanted to know how I transition back to my life in the US and how I deal with what I see in places where there is such suffering.

How perfect was this chat? I have been home for 3 days and my fierce denial about jet lag should give you a good indication of how I deal with how I feel about my travel. Alana gave me the opportunity through this interview to drill down and get to the essence of how I feel. By her example, she revealed to me how she felt after her time in Haiti. She felt guilty for all that she has in her life. Her tender admission was striking. She is 21 and yes, she has had the advantages of private school and a University of Michigan education as well as a lot of leisure travel abroad with family, but when she was in Haiti, she experienced the poverty and challenges of the orphans and vulnerable children WWO serves. She was having trouble reconciling her life with the lives of those less fortunate, very poor children.

Thanks Alana, for your kindness and love of the children we serve. You are full of grace and kindness and you will inspire me and all those you meet to be better human beings because you have taken the time to go abroad to witness another reality and you feel compassion. Your search for how this fits into your life is admirable. You are daring, Alana, because really seeing what others feel is likely the greatest challenge we have in the world. By not seeing the suffering, we risk compartmentalization and we then can't experience the feelings of others. This might be why we can't achieve peace in the world.

Dr. Jane pondering before she visits rural homes in Vietnam with WWO supporters

I am always affected by my travel in the same ways actually. Since 1989 when I first when abroad to Greece, I always felt the same about my work with very poor children and families. I long to help and I feel inadequate. I am inspired by the courage of children and adults who are facing the lack of opportunity, employment, chronic illness, and stress and trauma from the day in and day out fight to survive. When I go on a visit to a family living homelessly in a makeshift shelter on the Saigon River, I feel privileged to be with them and enter their home. I have this same feeling when I visit the tent homes in Kenscoff, Haiti. The families are proud of their homes and their ability to manage their lives in spite of adversity and they appreciate our respect.

From the earliest years of my life as a child working in my father's grocery store in Jamaica, Queens, I have taken in poverty and not avoided it. I have not always understood what poverty meant, but when I worked with kids living with HIV and did home visits and met orphans in orphanages in Romania, Russia and China, I always made sure that I showed respect for the poor because my father had shared his feelings about the poor and because he had always shown the poor his respect and kindness.

WWO has never photographed nor filmed children with dirty faces, flies, ripped clothing and poorly fitting shoes. We have concentrated on the dignity of the families and children and felt proud of their courage and bravery. We have always seen and felt the trauma and emotional pain of the individuals we served in the last 18 years and we envisioned from the very beginning, that the people we served deserved to be understood. What does this mean specifically? Our work is focused on the psychosocial aspects of life and we interview families and children and we ask very personal questions about feelings of hope and sadness. We learn details about how loss and sickness in families living with HIV affects them. We listen to tragic stories and we are sympathetic and sensitive.

When you are not poor, it is very hard to see poverty. When you have comfort and don't experience trauma and stress from not having money, food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and education, it is sometimes almost impossible to get what you are seeing. You look for drama in what you see and when the people who are poor look clean and are clad in neat clothes that fit, you wonder whether they are indeed poor and you wonder whether you are actually really seeing deprivation and anything worth feeling sad about. Can you imagine this puzzle? The children are poor and yet they might not be sad; the children are sick, but are hopeful. The families work together to surmount inescapably bleak surroundings and circumstances. There is resilience and a healthy attitude in poor settings.

A young boy in Vietnam showing off his clean hands!

What does poverty look like? Can you really identify it and see it? Can you, those who are not poor, know poverty and recognize the needs or do you deny what you see and look for something more striking? Does it frighten us away and do we deny what we see?

I find that on service trips, visitors often practice triage of a sort. They see poverty and the statistics are real, but the people look too good to be poor. We often need the surroundings to be ugly and intensely and graphically scary, but frankly poverty can look rather nice and there are good reasons for this. Poor people are brave and eager to feel better. They fight hopelessness and depression and when they have services from a dedicated non-governmental aid organization like WWO, they can achieve a very happy mood. We test them and find very positive feelings that are surprising. If there is psychosocial support which includes unconditional love, poor downtrodden children and adults achieve happiness and can escape poverty and break the cycle.

The more we do our job in loving the community of the poor, the better people feel and look and then anyone visiting can be fooled into thinking that there is really no poverty at all. That could be a seriously confusing moment where the mission can be questioned and donors may not be inclined to give gifts. We can't judge poverty and decide that those who look more needy are in fact more deserving of service.

I implore you to rethink what poverty looks like and not to be afraid to see it in all of its can look ugly and scary and it can look normal and lovely.....but it is poverty all the same and those poor individuals all need support and unconditional love. They are not trying to deceive you or fool you...they are working hard to get healthy and be successful in the world.


Dr. Jane Aronson