Poor, kind, rural boy, 9, inspires winning essay


When the Loyola High School senior went to the podium, he thanked all the usual people -- his parents, his Jesuit teachers, the archbishop, the Catholic Relief Services workers who were giving him a free trip to the West African nation of Gambia for winning their essay contest.

He had one more person to cite, a 9-year-old boy named Jason who lives in the southwestern Virginia town of Dante, population 900.

"The Jesuits taught me I should try to be 'a man for others,' " said Michael J. Watts, 17, accepting his first-prize certificate from Archbishop William H. Keeler and Gambian Embassy representative Aminatta Dibba.

"But Jason taught me more than I ever learned at school."

This pleased the Catholic Relief staffers who had planned the essay contest for Maryland high school students. Its purpose was "to promote global understanding and to stress community service."

Michael met Jason on a hot summer day last June.

The teen-ager, who is a parishioner of the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, was in Dante with about 30 other Roman Catholic volunteers from the Baltimore area. They faced a week of manual labor, helping residents of the impoverished, largely abandoned mountain community fix their homes.

Michael, whose grandmother lives in Wytheville, Va., recalls his first view of Dante in his winning essay:

"I had always pictured poverty as something that was confined to the inner cities or a far-off desert nation. . . . The town was no more than an hour away from my grandmother's house, but it seemed like a completely different world. . . .

"Only about one in every four houses were still occupied. The rest were dilapidated and overgrown with weeds.

"Although the residents had running water, only a single stream carried wastes away from the houses."

While Michael got to know and admire a lot of the folks in Dante in that one week, it was Jason who made the deepest impression.

"Such a simple thing caused the boy so much joy," Michael writes.

"The first thing he wanted to show me was his baseball cap that had his name written in magic marker on the back. I do not think that Jason realized his material poverty. He did not know my world any more than I knew his. He treated me without the bias that I had sometimes displayed towards the less fortunate. He saw me as equal and taught me an important lesson about equality."

A Loyola High teacher, Tom Durkin, will accompany Michael on his 10-day visit next month to the small West African nation of Gambia, population 800,000, where Catholic Relief Service has development projects.

At last Friday's awards ceremony in the Catholic Relief Services headquarters on Fayette Street, Ms. Dibba assured him of the "genuine warmth and friendliness of the Gambian people." But as in Dante, "there is not much to offer in material terms," she warned.

Another Gambian, graduate student and social worker Miriam Saidy-Jah, offered Michael this advice: "Relax and enjoy your trip."

Three contest runners-up were present, Maryland students Shartriya Collier, Mary Sutton and Ernest C. Jones III. "You are all winners," said Frank Carlin of the relief agency's staff.

The essays, submitted between Feb. 17 and March 31, were judged by staff members assisted by students at Towson State University and teachers from four local Catholic schools.


"The people in the family were not the way impoverished people are usually portrayed. They were not belligerent and did not expect the help we were giving them. Instead they were a simple family, very grateful for everything they had. Junior and Wanda saved all of their spare money, sometimes skipping meals, just so they could buy their children the only Christmas gift they had asked for: a Nintendo game machine. Although Christmas was at least six months past, the children were still grateful for the gift and eager to show it off to us. I felt guilty when I remembered my Nintendo set gathering dust back home."

"This past year I have become more active in social justice issues in and around my home parish. I have come to realize the closeness of poverty. A few weeks ago, somebody asked me what kept me going and why I didn't think my small efforts were futile. I had to think, but I had an answer. The answer was not some com- plex drive inside me or some Bible teaching I had learned in school. It was very simply: Jason. I real- ized that the little effort that I had put out had a very big impact on his life. While I may never hope to end world hunger, or create world peace, I can bring hope to my small part of the world, even if it is only one person at a time."

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