Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wednesday was Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty

I missed it, but didn't want to miss out on writing about a cause that is dear to my heart.

Due to some fabulous mentoring programs - Project Northstar and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, I've been blessed with the opportunity to be part of a larger community to help lift children out of poverty.

By chance, I wandered into a run-down DC school the month after I graduated from college (almost 20 years ago.) I saw an ad for volunteer tutors for Project Northstar at GWU, where my dad was a professor. I didn't know what to expect, but I decided to show up.

Little did I know, that day would change my life.

A bus pulled up full of kids from a DC homeless shelter. I was assigned to work with one of three triplets. My triplet was rightfully suspicious of the naive "do-gooder" in front of her. I had no frame of reference for her life. I'd just graduated from college and was about to start grad school. I had two married parents, had always lived in a house, and had never been hungry a day in my life.

For the first two months, she would stare at me, sullenly, and call me names. Some of the names weren't very nice. But being young and stubborn, naive and frankly, not knowing any better, I kept coming back. Every Tuesday night, I'd return to the run-down DC school and we'd sit in the cafeteria together, staring at her homework.

Finally, she began to trust me. Slowly, she began opening up. Eventually, we even tackled some of her homework. She was in 4th grade at the time. We managed to meet weekly until she hit 10th grade, and I moved away to Madison.

During those 6 years, I think I learned as much from her as I learned at college. I learned that poverty hits kids and it hits them hard. I learned that underneath those sullen, hungry, angry eyes was a beautiful, smart, kind and wonderful young lady.

I joined up with Big Brothers/Big Sisters when I got to Madison, and have had very similar experiences with my "littles." My first match and I started when she was in Kindergarten. When she was a Sophmore in High School, she moved to Chicago so I started with my current match last spring.

I can not say enough good things about mentoring programs. They take regular old average people like me, and match us with fabulous children. These fabulous children turn us into better people. They make us kinder. They make us more generous. They make us happier. They teach us more about the world than any advanced degree ever could.

And, most importantly, Mentoring programs lift children out of poverty.

Mentoring programs work. I've seen it with my own two eyes with three separate children. It's not enough to throw money into welfare programs (although I definitely thing just about all programs serving the poor need more money...) You have to show kids who grow up in poverty that a different life even exists. How do they know about college if they've never met anyone who went to college? How do they know about marriage if they've never known anyone who was married? How do they know about mortgages if they've never lived in a house?

One of the biggest regrets I have is that I have done a really rotten job of keeping in touch with my first two matches. But I see my current match every week (when possible) and do everything in my power to integrate her into my life so she can see that her future is not hopeless - it can be as bright as we can make it.

And let me repeat: I am nothing special. All I do is open up my life once a week to one other person. Some days we do fun outings. Other days, we just sit around and play card games. This is not rocket science or any great contribution to society. This is just regular, day-to-day old stuff. Anyone can do this. Really, anyone.

Once someone said to me, "Aren't you afraid of the effect she (meaning the poor "little") will have on your children?"

I was flabbergasted, and mumbled "no" and changed the subject. But in retrospect, I wish I had replied, "No, I'm proud of the effect she is having on my children. She is teaching them to be kind, generous and aware of the inequities in our world."

It's hard to accept that we live in a country where nearly 13 million children —18% of all children—live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level—$21,200 a year for a family of four.

More related links:
NCCP (National Center for Children in Poverty)
Childhood Poverty
Blog Action Day List of Posts
Neat & Simple Living
On Simplicity
Images of Poverty
Big Brothers/Big Sisters


Bridgett said...

What a strange question for someone to ask.

I'm not where you are yet. I can't get my own s**t together enough to open up any time. And it bothers me.

But I run the girl scout brownie troop at my daughter's school. First apple picking, first Christmas caroling, first trip to this or that museum for a few of them. And that makes me glad.

Üfürük said...
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Ariane Benefit, Organizing Coach said...

Hi K,

Thanks so much for including a link to my post on how I transitioned out of poverty, and especially for your wonderful insights about REALLY does make a difference - formally and informally. I never had an "official" mentor, but teachers, friends' parents, people I babysatfor and guidance counselors and even bosses, and fellow students and co-workers who "took me under their wing" and taught me about things I could not have known all made a difference. All it really takes is patience and willingness to listen, ask questions, answer questions, teach vs. be critical and judgmental. Bless you for teaching your children to be kind to other kids. They are so lucky to have you as a parent. Middle class and wealthy kids who befriended me in college taught me SO much. Several are still my friends today. We have helped each other grow, get jobs, and process all that life sends our way. The best way to make a difference is to just "be" a person who makes a difference every day in small ways. It all adds up!

LisaS said...

I don't understand why people assume the poor are de facto evil or bad somehow, or that having contact with them is somehow dangerous. If my family wasn't poor when I was a tween & teen, it was by the narrowest of margins. Mentors make a lot of difference, the entire world of hope beyond the daily struggle. So good for you. and her.

have you tried googling your previous matches?