“There are people in this world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” She points to a quote written on a piece of paper by Mahatmas Gandhi inside my binder. Without looking up, she said, “I tear up every time I see this.” I stare at her long slender fingers. Her age is clear by looking at the leathery wrinkles on her hands and arms. Her face is long and slender: her cheekbones protruding below her ears cause the only imperfection. Yet, something about her voice cradles gentleness. She’s sitting in a chair, arms and legs crossed, patiently waiting for my reply. Looking up and realizing this, I quickly explain, “Oh, right. My father printed it out for me to remind me how fortunate I am.” I wondered if that was a good answer. Was it? She quickly throws me a crooked smile and quietly agrees, “That you are, Yutaka.”
Ruth Kendrick currently is the founder and president of a non-profit organization: The World Children’s Fund. Hundreds of dedicated citizens like Ruth, living in countries all over the world such as Switzerland and Germany organize funds to send humanitarian aid to the poverty stricken areas around the world. These countries include Africa, Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea. As soon as she finished explaining the role her company takes to combat poverty in Developing Countries, I thought, “Great way to portray yourself as a hero!” However, as I would realize later, she is an incredible woman who has dedicated her entire life to helping those less fortunate than her.
Ruth was born in Shanghai, China in September of 1957. There is a tradition in China that encourages the birth of baby boys. In Chinese culture, the male gender is the one that passes on the family name and “traditions”. Therefore, a baby girl is considered bad luck, and is often abandoned. Instead of asking Ruth how she felt about this tradition, I brought up a novel titled The Good Earth written by Pearl S. Buck. In this book, I explained, the main character Wang Lung strives for a baby boy, but instead revives a girl. He then has to decide whether to keep the girl or abandon her. As soon as I finished this sentence, her face lit up. I was expecting her to demote this popular culture, but she looked down at her feet, and without looking at me, said: “It’s not right or wrong. It’s just different there.” Just at the age of two, Ruth’s parents decided to abandon her under a bridge. Quietly, as if she wanted no one to know, she calmly said, “This is why I can’t give you the exact day I was born.”
Ruth was taken to a local orphanage where she spent her days until 9 years old. This is when the biggest news of her life came to her ears. “I remember jumping up and down with joy, it was great.” A Chinese American woman living in San Jose named Nora Lam was adopting her. “But it wasn’t all happy you know. I remember Mother Tessa, telling me I was going to be moving to California. At the time, I didn’t even know where in the world that was. Let alone, I lived in China all my life.” Although Ruth has no memories dating back to this event in her life, Nora often told her how blessed she was. “She used to tell me that when she came to pick me up from the orphanage, I was taking a bath in cold water, and washing my body with my underwear.” For me, this symbolized the poverty of Developing Nations. Until I met Ruth Kendrick, I never stopped to think about the conditions that these children have to go through to live.
In San Jose, Ruth attended Leland High School with teachers like Steve Bowen and Robert Miller. School for her was a mess. Twitching the pen she had in her hand and without looking up, she uneasily said, “My integration into the American culture was slow. While the girls I ate lunch with were talking about cute boys, I was struggling to pass my English class.” This may sound awkward to a person born and raised in the United States, but foreign students have an obstacle of communication to overcome in their initial days in the States. When I came to the United States, I had a difficult time being accepted. I remember for the first time, being able to read Cat in the Hat: an obvious milestone for me.
After graduating Leland, she told Nora that she wanted to start working full time as a waiter at a local restaurant and forget about college. Pointing to her cheeks that were turning crimson from embarrassment, she said, “I got slapped real hard. I remember my mother not talking to me for weeks. When she finally did though, she said that anyone can try to take your money, but no one can take your education.” Although at the time I did not realize this, I later reflected on this single quote and realized how true it was. You can loose money or anything materialistic, but education is an indicator of what you can do, and no one can rob you of it.
But even on that first day, as Ruth was facing the quad at San Jose State, she was reluctant to get an education. I have been taught all my life that education is more important that anything else that I owned. Therefore I have pushed hard to get the best education. I rely heavily on the saying, “Have to, glad to.” Education as a minor in America is mandatory. Thus, I believe that instead of wasting away six hours of my life everyday, it is far better to invest that time, and learn. When I questioned why she disliked education so much, she simply said, “My heavy Chinese accent made me feel like I did not belong. It wasn’t that I hated education, but I felt distant from society. I remember students calling me derogatory terms like chink. “
However education did get better for Ruth. After four ambiguous years at San Jose State University, she graduated with a Business Degree. However, she did not feel satisfied. “In my business class, we would talk about how to make money, and how to manipulate people in the business world, but that’s not what I wanted.” Ruth had a lifelong goal to give back to the society she was born in: China. She quickly started up a small non-profit organization called Nora Lam Ministries. With a smile on her face and a sweet chuckle, she said: “I had to put my mother in it somewhere, she was my inspiration.” I felt warmth come out from her, as I realized that Nora was all she had. The strong bond between them never broke apart. “She’s gone now, but it’s as if she’s still here with me. Everyday, I think of how I can work to be a better person through her teachings”
After the initial start as a small non-profit organization in the early 80’s, The World Children’s Fund currently has over fifteen different offices around the globe. Just last week, she traveled to South Africa to give teenage children education about the HIV virus and prevention methods. “It really hits people, some never realize the magnitude of the situation. Others never realize it is even a problem.” Afterwards, she spent a few hours telling me stories describing the horrendous conditions in Developing Countries. Sharing the most difficult experience ever, she broke down. After wiping away her tears and asking me if her make up was smeared, she told me that the situation involved the time when she was overseeing a small orphanage run by her organization in the Philippines. A local farmer brought a young teenage boy, about the age of ten, into the orphanage. “The child was so skinny, that we knew conditions of malnutrition was eating away at his life.”
Because the orphanage has only one doctor and three nurses, and all were busy in an operation, there was no medical attention given to him. Ruth knew that if this child were to receive medical attention, he would be consuming the medical needs and resources of more than twenty children. Clearly with regret, she quietly looked at me and continued, “In these Developing Countries, antibiotics, and other basic medical equipment are short supplied. Therefore, the best we can often times do, is give them some goat milk, and hope for the best.” When Ruth drove back to the orphanage in the morning, she found the young child never made it through the night. “I’ll never forgive myself for that. I know I could have done something, but instead, I just ignored the real problem.” Although I was silent, to me, this is an amazing decision. She did not make the split second decision based on profit or money, but how this one child could later affect the lives of many others to come.
Towards the end of the interview, while discussing stories after stories of children in desperate need, I asked her how she went to sleep at night, knowing that so many children are in this condition of desperate need. “If I was a politician, I would be telling you right now that poverty in the Middle East does not exist so that I can manipulate you to my likings. But I know, that although I’m just one person, I’m helping the global cause by taking action, not ignoring it.” I can find true dedication to the children around the world in her smile. Every time she shares a goal of hers with me, her face brightens, and a smile is put upon her face. I realized that there are more to motivation than just money. For Ruth Kendrick, it’s the idea of giving back to community.
“I’ve always felt that I needed to give back in some way to compensate for the things that I gained.” It is phenomenal to see that someone go through a negative personal experience, learn from it, and use that experience as an inspiration to help others in similar conditions. Overall however, I came to realize how gifted I am. I came to the United States from Japan when I was 9: the same age as Ruth when she immigrated here. However, I did not have to put up with or experience around me things like malnutrition, disease, death, or abuse. “Feel bad for me?” she added quickly with a frown on her face, “don’t, because all of those things are the past, and I’m working hard to help those in need now more then ever. If I didn’t experience these times, I probably would be working at a desk, or filing papers, but instead, I’m traveling to places all around the world and constantly meeting new people. And plus, with my job, I get to wake up everyday a feel good, knowing that my work saves lives.”