FROM READERS: What are we doing for people who are cast aside?

Saturday, November 3, 2012 | 1:44 p.m. CDT

Mel West is the director of PET Project in Columbia, an organization with a goal of giving the gift of mobility around the world. This post first published on his blog.

I've met them in many countries, these cardboard brothers and sisters of mine. We seldom spoke to each other, maybe just a nod, a universal language. Some were embarrassed by their situation, as was I, realizing that members of my human family were forced to live in dire circumstances.

In San Jose, Costa Rica, where we were attending a language school, we saw him every morning on our way to classes. He lay asleep alongside a vacant building in the main part of town. His house was simple — a flattened cardboard box beneath him and one above. His bare, swollen and scarred feet and the hand of his arm that served as a pillow stuck out from beneath the cardboard blanket.

I never saw his face, but if I had, it would have been the face of one whose life had become cardboard, rejected and piled alongside a building to one day be picked up and hauled away. And who will be there to say, as he is buried, that his life like his cardboard home once contained something valued by society? And who will be there to say that it is still valued by the father of my brother?

In New York City, my brother had built a rather nice house of flattened cardboard boxes in an abandoned lot behind an abandoned building in an abandoned part of the city. It was all of cardboard — the roof, the walls, the floor and a door. It even had two rooms. Why two rooms, I do not know, except that it gives a man pride to have a two-room home.

It was not a bad house, until the rain and cold arrived. Then it would begin to fall apart one piece at a time. First, the roof from the weight of the water. Then one wall, and then another until it was a soggy mess lying on the ground. Few would know that it was ever a house. And alongside it lay its builder in a drunken stupor, his house and his dreams in shambles.

Few passing by would know that he, too, was somebody of value. His life had been like his cardboard house, falling apart one piece at a time, cherished until no longer useful, then cast off.

In Haiti, it was a little village of cardboard houses perched atop a craggy and isolated hill, for it was a leper village. I stumbled upon this "suburb of shame" (shame on a world that allows this to happen) as I took an early morning walk while working in Haiti for Habitat for Humanity. Here, in tiny houses made of cardboard, plastic and tin, lived six or eight families, members of each displaying severe signs of leprosy. As long as my mind remains alert, I shall always remember those dear sisters and brothers cast aside by society as their fingers began to rot like the cardboard of their decaying homes.

I frequently take flattened cardboard boxes to the local civic recycling center where they are baled together and formed into useful items. We receive new boxes that are stamped "Made of Recycled Materials." Is it not the responsibility of our society to do just that to our cardboard sisters and brothers, before it is too late?

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising Editor is Joy Mayer.

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