How a Summer Job with The Salvation Army Changed One Teen’s Perspective

Sep 13, 2016 | by Laura Poff

A Mile Down the Road

By: Christopher George

A mile down Chattanooga's Dodds Avenue from the McCallie School lies an entirely different world known as East Lake. At McCallie, we worry about the next advanced placement U.S. history test or whether we'll win the football game this week; At East Lake they worry about the next shooting in their neighborhood or if they'll make it through the next paycheck. In my summer as a lifeguard for The Salvation Army in the projects, I was humbled, amazed and shocked by the way the kids' lives are so different from mine.

I took the lifeguarding job to make money and avoid getting a "real job" working at a restaurant, doing lawn care or working at a Lake Winnepesaukah booth. I didn't know I was signing up for a summer that would completely change the way that I see life, people, society and the McCallie community.

One morning, a little boy came to the gates as I was opening the pool and walked up to me. His name was Carlos, and he was 4 years old. He didn't know where his parents were, but he assured me that his siblings were looking after him. I thought I'd look after him as well. As life would have it, he and I became best friends. I thought that I was being a good influence on him and that he needed a big brother figure.

Little did I know that he would impact my life more than I could ever impact his. Every morning he would walk across the street to The Salvation Army, and every morning he would jump on me with a huge grin and an infectious laugh! I used to complain about the littlest things, but I realized Carlos never once complained to me, nor did he ever break his joyful smile. I began counting my blessings and starting every day with a smile, no matter how the last one went. I never thought that I would be given life-altering advice from someone who was in kindergarten.

In his unknowing intelligence, Carlos taught me selflessness at its core. Being 4 years old, all Carlos wanted to do was swim, eat snacks, color and play games, but one time while running around hyped up on sugar, Carlos stopped in his tracks and looked at me. I noticed that a little girl was playing air hockey by herself. Carlos immediately began playing with her. When I asked him about it he said, "She looked lonely, so I wanted to play with her." His response helped me realize that kids don't see people as different, but they see them as solely individual people. We need to be like children in the way we see people.

At McCallie, we try to isolate ourselves from the community around us by saying that we are "outside of the ghetto," because that community is poor, lower class and plagued with violence. We need to adopt Carlos' perspective that when we see a person in need of help, we help them no matter what their race, gender or socioeconomic class may be.

Carlos and I became almost brothers by the end of the summer; we were brothers living in two different worlds. As I sat down to eat lunch one day, I was scrolling through Twitter just like normal, nothing special, but I read an article about all the gang shootings that had happened throughout this summer in Chattanooga. Young men were being shot and killed on the streets far too often. The only thing that was running through my mind was that Carlos will have to grow up in that environment; he or his brothers might get caught up in that violence. The thought devastated me.

I started thinking about how naive I was growing up in the suburbs of Chattanooga, not knowing anything of violence. I thought about how Carlos's eyes are so wide open at such a young age, and that he can't escape that kind of situation. And I couldn't help but to think about McCallie. It has been a cornerstone of my development as a man, so I thought about what McCallie could do for that entire community. I thought that McCallie's young men should be going to The Salvation Army to be big brothers to the kids. I still believe those kids have a lot to teach us, just as we can teach them about life.

So this summer was not one of uneventful binge-watching Netflix, and this summer job was certainly not just for the money. I learned more than I could have ever fathomed in the three short months as a lifeguard by just being there with kids like Carlos. Through interactions with the kids, I learned how just a mile down the road is a whole new world very unfamiliar with my own.

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