Dracut High School senior Maria Hadley, who learned poverty can hit close to home

Dracut High senior Maria Hadley wrote an award-winning essay on how the less fortunate struggle every day to make ends meet. Debbie Hovanasian photo

DRACUT — When Dracut High School senior Maria Hadley signed up to volunteer at the Cor Unum Meal Center in Lawrence, which serves hundreds of needy people on a daily basis, she was most interested in accumulating community-service hours for the DHS National Honor Society.

But what she came away with was an education on how the people in one of the poorest cities in the country — just a short drive from her comfortable home in Dracut — struggle every day to make ends meet.

Hadley, the daughter of Susan and Ron Hadley, took what she learned while serving guests at Cor Unum in a restaurantlike setting, and wrote an essay for her Advanced Placement English class entitled, “Experience Washes Away Ignorance.”

Hadley’s AP English teacher, Robert Moulton, selected her essay to submit to Cooks Honors College at Indiana University, which sponsored an essay contest on community service. Only one essay was allowed per school. A winner, a runnerup, and 10 honorable mentions were awarded out of hundreds of essays submitted from 26 states. Hadley’s received an honorable mention and a $50 prize.

Q: How did you learn about the Cor Unum Meal Center?

A: Our church (St. Francis Parish) volunteers there on Thursday nights, and my mom noticed that they were looking for help and thought we should sign up for community service. Our family (parents and siblings Nick and Bridget) volunteered together. I served the people coming in, cleared the tables and set them up.

Q: How did serving the needy in Lawrence “wash away ignorance?”

A: It really opens your eyes. I knew there were people who were homeless, but I had never experienced anything like this. Cor Unum is also open to everyone, so there were entire families coming in who couldn’t afford to buy food. They were very kind and well-mannered and appreciated whatever you did for them. There were also kids coming in alone, without parents, who sit at the “kids tables.”

Q: You wrote in your essay that your experience at Cor Unum led you to want to get involved in a global effort to fight poverty. You chose to sponsor a child through ChildFund. How does a student find the money to do that?

A: That was part of last year’s New Year’s resolution. I had a paper route and I thought, what am I going to do, spend the money on clothes or another pair of shoes? I wanted to do something better. I saw that it only costs 80 cents a day to sponsor a child, and I had just gotten my Christmas tips. I also work at Brox farmstand in the summer. So I wanted to be able to help someone else.

Q: Tell us about the child you sponsor.

A: His name is Ridwan Yanuarsyah, an 8-year-old boy from Indonesia. His mom writes letters to me about three times a year, and Ridwan draws pictures on them. He has even colored bookmarks for me. I’ve saved all the notes that they’ve sent me. For his birthday I sent $15, and his mom wrote to thank me and tell me that she used the money for new books and new shoes.

Q: What would you say to someone thinking about volunteering at the meal center or sponsoring a child overseas?

A: Go for it — you have nothing to lose. The experience is unforgettable. In Lawrence, you see an entirely different world, and it has made me want to get more involved. Sponsoring a child is not a huge amount of money – just $28 a month, like a tank of gas — and it’s really been awesome. I’ve never met these people, but they are so touched by the little things you do. I hope that all of this inspires me, and others, to get involved and stay involved. It’s a win-win situation.