Pick Up a Starfish

By Liat Rennert

Standing at the food distribution line in Haiti, covered in powdered milk, serving food to hundreds of people who have lost their homes and are now living in tents and shelters, I felt a bit overwhelmed. The sheer magnitude of need, the destruction all around, the hardship. It was a lot to take in. The setting was completely foreign, not like anything I had ever experienced. It was one of several moments in Haiti which had broken my heart, and which have changed my life forever.

In life, we often choose to stay in our comfort zone, with what seems familiar and known. Deciding to step out of it is difficult, but for me it is undoubtedly one of the best choices I have made. For it is exactly there, outside of the safe and familiar surroundings, where the most significant life altering experiences happen. Where the most inspiring people are met. Where callings are discovered.

When people ask me how I chose humanitarian aid as my field of work I usually answer that I am not the one who chose this path. Rather, it chose me.

Traveling to New Orleans to volunteer after Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never been involved in disaster relief or humanitarian aid before, and as a young post-army Israeli I felt compelled to contribute what I could to help people whose worlds had been turned upside down in just a matter of hours. Little did I know that this trip would be where I realized what I was meant to be doing for the rest of my life.

My following trip to Ethiopia opened my eyes to a world which was previously unknown to me. It made me realize how fortunate I was and how amazingly inspiring people were, having to fight poverty on a daily basis.

The people I’ve met while volunteering around the world have left a truly profound impression on me, and have shaped me into the person I am today. To me, they are living examples of resilience and perseverance and courage. I am changed thanks to these people. And I am grateful to them.

The world is an unequal place and people so often have to suffer for no fault of their own. While our ability to influence world order is small, what we can do is use our privilege of having been born in a lucky part of the world, and devote all that we can in order to make life a little better for people who have not been as lucky.

The ‘Starfish story’ (by Loren Eiseley) tells the tale of a person who sees thousands of starfish stranded on the beach, dying, as they are unable to return to the ocean during low tide. The person becomes so overwhelmed by the scope of need that he feels like it would be futile to try and help just a few starfish get back into the water when there are so many others that he won’t be able to help. When he observes a man picking up starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean, he challenges the man’s endeavor, claiming that it would be impossible for him to return them all to ocean, and that he couldn’t possibly ‘save enough to make a difference.’ In response, the man picks up another starfish and tosses it back to the ocean. “It made a difference to that one,” he replies.

Need is massive, and it is easy to get overwhelmed, but by joining forces we can truly help make the world a little better. We all just need to pick up one star fish. No matter how far or foreign it seems to us. Need is universal. People are people. Pick up a star fish. You won’t regret it.

Liat Rennert is a Haifa native and currently serves as Program Manager for JDC/NALA in Ethiopia. She is a winner of the Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Award, which was presented at OLAM‘s 2017 Focal Point conference.

Cross-posted on OLAM.org