The following column was written by Dan Roberts as part of a series published in the Jakarta Globe Newspaper in 2012.
My name is Dan Roberts and I’m the founder and executive director of Red Nose Foundation, an arts and education outreach program to empower underprivileged youth through the circus. The journey taken developing the Red Nose Foundation has not always been easy, but we continue to stride forward with the assumption and hope that we are helping to better our community, our nation, our world. One little piece, one child at a time. And this is my story:
Life has a way of changing things; sometimes for the worse. But the hope is that more often than not, it’s for the better. I believe that it is through that change that we as individuals, communities, or dare I say as a society, develop the strength to progress.
As an expatriate child growing up in Indonesia, there weren’t a lot of things to complain about. I pretty much got what I wanted. I was fortunate: Drum sets and big-screen TVs, chauffeurs and family cooks, school trips to the Great Wall of China and senior trips to that tropical paradise, Bali! So maybe fortunate is an understatement. Very fortunate.
But I was one of the lucky ones. Despite my family’s affluence, my parents insisted that their children not completely lose sight of reality. It was through their generosity to the people around us that I learned the most important lesson of all. Our job as members of humanity must be to take care of each other. Taking care of each other certainly has a different meaning to everyone, and indeed it should.
For my father, it was putting our house staff’s children through school and university. For my mother, it was visiting the same orphanage once a week for six years to spend time with children who needed to be loved. It was inviting the guys from my high school rock band to come down and eat dinner with our family. It was actually caring about the people in our world, with no expectation of a return on our “investment” — no expectation at all. Simply caring because we all need to be cared for sometimes.
When you are young, I think you don’t notice “It.” But, coming of age in one of Southeast Asia’s largest cities, the other “It” begins to creep up on you. When “It” is a 5-year-old girl knocking on your car window asking for a few coins, or a blind woman stumbling in between the cars at a crowded intersection or when “It” is a man who lost his legs in what was no doubt a horrific accident, and drags his body along the curb with a cup tucked in his belt, “It” begins to be difficult to ignore.
“It” is Indonesia’s poverty.
We often don’t know how to combat these feelings of hopeless compassion for the poor around us, so we keep small cups of coins in our cars and try to pass them out at every stoplight or traffic jam. This is how we care. And it might help. Those poor people on the outside of the glass might eat a meal that day, they might buy medicine for their sick spouse and they might put their children back in school. Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is that the man or woman lounging on the bench just out of reach, but not out of sight, will take the coins that we passed out and leave the beggars with none.
If you watch closely, it’s like smoke and fire. Where there is an unbathed child tapping on her tambourine, there is someone counting how many coins she receives and taking his cut. So what do you do? If the child doesn’t meet their quota, they might not be fed, or possibly even beaten. But should you continue to perpetuate the cycle of enabling these children to be abused? It was this poverty that left me confused, sad and a little angry. What could I do, I was only 16!
Around the same time I started to notice poverty, I was introduced to a young man who had traveled a similar path as me; an expat child studying in luxury at an international school. Emmanuel had left college early to come back to Indonesia and open an orphanage for some street kids in his old neighborhood. He changed the path that he thought his life was supposed to take, and devoted himself toward putting a roof over the heads of a few street kids. His devotion and dedication toward the less fortunate in his life was inspiring to me at 16. He was someone like me, and look at what he had accomplished.
Like I mentioned before, I played in a rock band (although a scream band might be a better way to describe it, but that’s beside the point). My school had a tradition of putting on big music concerts, and when it was my turn in the pecking order to organize these events, I started donating our funds to Emmanuel and his orphans. The amount of funds that we raised was small, possibly insignificant, but it was what we could do. It was our way of taking care of each other. It was our way of combating poverty in a way that made sense for us as teenagers.
Finding My Nose, Part 2
Finding My Nose, Part 3