My daughter turned 16 this week, and I’m thinking about what I might say to you while sitting here covered in glitter. I’m spray painting wooden letters and numbers that spell out “Sweet 16” to use as decorations. While I am thinking about my daughter, I can’t quit reflecting on the life of another little girl I am reading about who grew up in Waynesville during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Her life is what I described to my friend as ‘wretched.’
She survived a life of extreme poverty and abuse, and throughout the book she mentions the constant hunger her family felt. She and her siblings were poorly clothed, and went to school with no shoes even in snow and ice. They lived in one shack after another and on a daily basis; she battled famine, filth, bullying, addiction and abuse of every kind. I read her story and can only try to imagine what it is to be that poor and live this type of life.
I’ve heard adults say, “we were poor, but we didn’t know it,” usually in admiration for parents who sheltered them from those realities and worked hard to provide the basics. This child knew she was poor, and though her father was an incredibly hard worker, his money was used to fuel his moonshine business and his addiction, rather than feed and clothe his children. Neither of her parents was nurturing. There were no hugs or expressions of love among family members. We know that lack of nurturing is detrimental to a child’s growing brain.
I know there are children in our town who are battling the same battles. The fact that over half of the students in our school are enrolled in free and reduced meals programs tells me that children are hungry. There are kids who are likely getting their only decent meal of the day at school. Backpack programs and food banks are hard at work trying to fill those gaps and ensure that during weekends and over school breaks children have food to eat.
At present, the federal 2014 poverty guidelines for the US state that the poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,850. In 2012, 13% of the households in Henderson County were in poverty, having incomes below $15,000 and 25% of families were making less than $24,999 annually. Children and families in our community are not immune:
- In 2010, the US Census estimated that 25.3% of Henderson County children under the age of 18 were living below the poverty threshold. This number is equal to approximately 5,567 children. Assuming 70 kids on a bus, that number of children would fill 79.5 school buses!
- The Department of Social Services showed that approximately 20% (n=4,784) of children under 18 received food stamps in 2011
- 2012 saw a 27% increase in the number of households using food stamps in a two-year period.
- During the 2012-2013 school year, 55.5% of Henderson County children in grades K-12 were enrolled in free and reduced-price meal programs.
The effect of an environment of ‘toxic stress’ caused by poverty is extremely detrimental and can lead to cognitive impairment, learning disorders, health problems, depression, anxiety and mental health disorders that impact behavior. All the things we talk about, from parenting support and education, to affordable housing and access to health care, are solutions that children and families need to help combat the impact of poverty on their lives. While political sides argue on about a ‘war on poverty’ and the best way to deal with it, our children, one after the other, are falling right through the cracks. I believe the answer lies in us and our willingness to be generous and take care of each other and not to excuse ourselves from giving.
Please do not miss a chance this season to impact one of these young lives this year. Ours is a generous community and local efforts like angel trees, Toys for Tots and food pantries make an enormous difference. For the girl in the story, the local giving drives in her community were how the she got coats and a new outfit every year. It was also the generosity of neighbors that would eventually rescue this little girl. Local human service agencies and religious congregations are connecting with schools to get help to children and families who need them most. The Salvation Army, Interfaith Assistance Ministry, the Storehouse and Toys for Tots are all organizations still taking donations that will be given to children and their families this season. As I write this, the Storehouse still has 30 families in need of sponsoring. Additionally, nearly every religious congregation likely has a giving tree or some collection taking place. Organizations serving children and our local schools will help see that these gifts get to the children and families who need them most.
I can’t help but look at my own life in contrast to the one I’m reading about. Most likely, you’re just like me and have much more to be thankful for than worried about in this season of your life. I hope you’ll join me in using some of your blessings to make a difference in the life of a child this season.