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Stop Making It About the Money

(Domenico Stinellis/AP)

So yeah. First Lady Melania Trump wore a really expensive jacket during her visit to Italy last week. The Dolce & Gabbana she sported in Sicily basically cost as much as I make during an entire year.

Stop right there.

I hope you didn’t start calculating my salary along with my education and my years of experience and then judge me based on my earnings.

But if you did, I understand. That’s what most Americans do.

We tend to equate the size of a person’s salary or bank account with success. If someone makes a lot of money, that must mean they’ve done something right… they’ve applied themselves and persevered. And if they are poor?  They obviously need to try harder.

In reality, that’s completely ridiculous. I’m not rich for a lot of different reasons: I wasn’t born into a wealthy family and having a high paying job was never my priority. I wanted to do work that I found satisfying and meaningful, which is how I landed in social work. I will never garner a big salary, but I’m actually a very hard worker.

On the flip side, Melania Trump became a model and then she married a super rich guy. Those were her choices, and I shouldn’t judge her for them just as I hope people don’t judge me for mine. If she weren’t married to the President of the United States, the cost of her jacket certainly wouldn’t be making headlines nor would people be citing her expensive choices as reprehensible in light of her husband’s proposed budget and stance on social benefit programs.

Don’t get me wrong.

I understand the outcry. I too am completely appalled by Trump and his proposed budget. And yes, I admit that I can’t help but believe that Trump has no sympathy for the poor partly because he can’t relate to their situation.

But equating the size of the Trumps’ bank accounts to his proposed budget is as irrelevant as claiming our social and budget problems are the fault of poor people who don’t try hard enough. President John Kennedy and Senator Jay Rockefeller also came from wealth,  yet they always took into consideration the least among us.

Being wealthy and being able to pay $51,500 for one article of clothing have nothing to do with a commitment to help our less fortunate neighbor.

Being a person of wealth doesn’t mean you lack compassion for the poor any more than living in poverty means you expect society to support you. Of course there are rich people who only think about themselves just as there are poor people who want to “live off the system.”

But stereotyping and making assumptions does no one any good.

Money doesn’t define us. The way we treat our fellow human beings does.

Our role in life is to support each other and to call out those who don’t. It’s that simple.

Some of us can help because we have plenty of money to meet our own needs and enough to help others. Others can give our time and our God-given talents to mentor, teach, or guide those who need extra assistance. And all of us can raise our voices in support of those who need us most.

It’s just not about the money.

It should never be about the money, and none of us should care how much anyone else spends for clothes.

With that said, I have to admit that even if I had $51,500 to spend on one jacket, it would look absolutely nothing like Melania’s, which I think is ugly and obnoxious.

But there is nothing wrong with judging an item of clothing.

It’s the people who wear the clothes who shouldn’t be evaluated based on appearances alone.

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The Meme I Hate the Most

megaI regretfully admit that I was in my forties before I truly understood one of life’s most important tenets: being right will never feel as good as being kind. That’s why I almost didn’t write this.

I don’t want to shame or embarrass anyone who has shared or posted the meme that makes me cringe every time I see it.

I know that it was posted with the best of intentions by great people with good hearts, kind souls and a desire to make the world a better place.

But a statement suggesting that big homeless shelters are somehow better than big churches is, well, just wrong on so many levels.

Let’s start with the fact that we live in America, a nation founded by people seeking a right to worship in the way they wanted. Dismissing how others choose  to worship is completely un-American.

Personally, I’m not a fan of churches with memberships larger than the population of the town in which I live. But that’s why I don’t attend one.

I understand concerns that the money used to build, maintain, and equip such large churches could be better used to pay for services to the disadvantaged, but couldn’t the same be said for almost any aspect of our own lives? If we had a smaller house or a less expensive cars, all of us would be able to give more to charity.

We should all spend less time judging and more time actually helping others.

Which brings me to the other reason I hate this meme.

Are there really people who think that building more and bigger homeless shelters is the answer to our homeless problems?

To me, that statement is like waving the white flag in surrender to all of the issues that cause homelessness. We are accepting that we are helpless in the face of the root causes, such as mental illness and social injustice. We are admitting that prevention doesn’t work and that people and systems can’t change.

And I’m not willing to accept that.

I work for a social service organization that fights poverty. Yet every day, I also fight a mentality that providing financial assistance and food to the poor is all we can do to help.

In reality, that’s doing people in poverty a disservice. It’s sending a message that they are not capable of doing more or being more. It’s telling them we’ve given up on the possibility that they are capable of helping themselves and helping others.

Addressing issues of poverty is hard work. It involves developing relationships with people who are often hard to love or don’t understand the manner in which middle class people live and interact. It’s our job to walk with them, teach them, and set expectations for them.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for emergency financial, food, and housing. There is. We can’t expect anyone to make big changes in their lives when they are in the middle of a crisis.

But if that’s all we do, then we are selling them, and ourselves, short.

So instead of calling for more homeless shelters, I want to hear a rallying cry for more preventive and support services. I want a united demand for better mental health and drug treatment programs. And, most of all, I want people to stop putting the band-aid of temporary shelter on gaping, life-long wounds created in part by the inference that some people should just accept their place in life.

Too Close For Comfort

9922247156_416ec698b0_kMy 15 year-old daughter hates when I write anything without her approval and her editorial input. (For the record, she is an awesome editor.)

But sometimes she’s involved in something so much bigger than her or her editing skills that I am compelled to write without her approval.

This is one of those times.

To fully understand this story, you have to understand my daughter.

She is the girl who cares about every single living being and will always root for the underdog. She is the child who Googled how to provide emergency care for a baby squirrel and made me drive to the drug store to buy Pedialyte and a medicine dropper so she could save the one our cat dragged in.

She makes me buy tofu because it never breathed, can’t enjoy shrimp because they used to swim freely in the ocean and notes that every hamburger was once a cow.

And that same love of every creature is why she saved a cicada that was struggling on the sidewalk.

We were walking our German Shepherd when I heard her gasp and tell me to stop.

“He’s struggling,” she said pointing at the cicada on its back with legs flailing helplessly in the air.”I need to help him.” (Personally, I have absolutely no idea how to tell a male cicada from a female cicada so I went with  her assumption that the cicada was a guy.)

Kendall nudged “the guy” with her shoe so he could grab onto it.

And grab on he did.

Once he had flipped himself upright on her canvas shoe, he began to slowly make his way up toward the laces.

And that’s when the screaming started.

“Get him off!” my daughter screamed. “Get him off.”

The piercing quality of her screams gained urgency because I wasn’t acting quickly enough.

By the time the cicada’s tiny, spindly legs had begun to make their way up my daughter’s bare legs, I was convinced that one of the neighbors was calling 911 to report a murder in progress.

When I finally did locate a stick (because I didn’t want to actually touch the bug either), my daughter was almost in a state of panic. Thankfully, I was able to get the cicada onto the stick and then safely onto the grass.

Kendall almost immediately admitted her shame at not wanting to actually touch the bug she was trying to save.

I told her that was natural and she shouldn’t worry, but I couldn’t help but compare that situation to ones I witness almost every day.

I work at a social service organization with a mission of improving the lives of others, particularly those living in poverty.

On a regular basis, I see the generosity of others to help the less fortunate. And not a day goes by when I’m not in awe of individuals who don’t run screaming when they realize that a simple financial donation isn’t enough to raise people out of poverty.

Does the money help? Absolutely!

Is it the answer? Absolutely not!

While there will always be individuals in situational poverty who just need that one financial boost to get them back on the right track, most of the people who walk through my office doors aren’t on any track at all. Instead, they are stumbling through an obstacle course of life designed by people who live in a world that is foreign to them.

Some of them don’t understand the importance of education. Others were taught that arguing and fighting is the only way to get what they want. And some have never even experienced the security of being a priority to parents, caregivers or anyone else who wants nothing in return but their well-being.

Letting such individuals people into our lives can be difficult and frightening. As my daughter stated after the incident with the cicada “My screaming didn’t indicate I didn’t want to help, but I just freaked out when he actually touched me.”

I understand her sentiment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t step outside of our comfort zones.

Saving a life – whether it is that of a bug or that of another human being – often requires us to do just that. It can get messy and dirty and sometimes even scary.

But if we really want to change the world, we have to touch the world we want to change.

 

If Only

if only

As a social worker, the most heart-breaking cases always walk through the door on a Friday afternoon when most social service organizations are closing for the weekend, all the organizations are out of funds, and everyone is both mentally and physically drained.

And there is absolutely nothing I can do to help.

So it was a few weeks ago when a woman with three children under the age of four walked through my door. And as the woman told her story, two words ran in a continuous loop in my brain: “if only.”

“If only” I lived in a community with more resources.

“If only” the woman and her children weren’t invisible, irrelevant or deemed undeserving by people who are more concerned about their next vacation or their social status.

But most of all, “if only” our social services system wasn’t so broken that we invest most of our resources into programs that are as effective as putting BAND-AIDS on wounds that need major surgery.

The details of the woman’s story varied only slightly from those I’d heard before.

She had stayed home to raise her three pre-school age children while her husband worked. Everything was fine until, one day, her husband decided he didn’t want to be married anymore. In fact, he didn’t even want to live in the same country she did. And so, he fled  – leaving her with no work experience, no support system and three very young children entirely dependent on her.

Unlike me, the woman had never been supported or encouraged to ensure she could be financially independent. No one had even told her that furthering her education or skills was an option.

And so she did the best she could.

She went to the Department of Health and Human Resources and applied for benefits, including Temporary Assistance of Needy Families, or TANF. To receive those TANF benefits, she had to sign a personal responsibility contract that required her to make every effort to find employment. She did just that. The job she found was only part-time, and the limited hours were irregular. As the sole caretaker for three small children who got sick and had other emergencies, she was often late and sometimes missed work.

Unlike me, she hadn’t grown up in a home where steady employment was a top priority. No one taught her the importance of calling in or being on time.

So when her supervisor spoke to her about these issues, she quit.

Unlike me, no one had ever explained to her that the costs of quitting are greater than those of being fired. She just didn’t know. But she soon learned.

Her TANF benefits were sanctioned because she had broken her personal responsibility contract.

Without any income, she got a car title loan to pay the rent.

Unlike me, no one had ever taught her that the interest on such loans quickly grows out of control. And unlike me, she had no support system of individuals who could help her financially. The people she knew were facing similar crises.

Despite her efforts, she couldn’t afford her rent and was evicted. She and her three children went to live in a shelter with strict rules and little privacy. That’s why the apparent kindness of a new acquaintance was so tempting.

The man offered her a free place for her and her children to live.

But, unlike me, she had no role models for healthy relationships. She had no frame of reference that trust, one of the most essential elements of any relationship, takes time to develop. She was in crisis, and people in crisis want one thing: a way out.

And so she accepted the man’s offer even though shelter rules prohibited her from returning for 30 days if she left on her own accord.

Unlike me, she had never been provided with opportunities to reap the rewards of delaying gratification after weighing benefits and consequences. She had only been taught to act on instinct and in the moment.

But less than a week after leaving the shelter, she realized that the promises for a free home didn’t actually come without a cost. She escaped with only her children and a car that was being repossessed because of her failure to pay on the title loan.

And that’s when she landed in my office on a Friday afternoon

I wish I could say I helped her, but all I could do was encourage her to go to another town with a homeless shelter from which she hadn’t been banned for 3o days.

As she was leaving, one of her children asked her if they were finally going home, and her response was “I told you that home is wherever Mommy is.” My heart broke a little.

Her words along with my own words of “if only” have been reverberating in my brain for weeks now.

“If only” echoes every time I listen to representatives from social service organizations report, in an almost congratulatory manner, that they have increased the number of people to whom they have provided emergency assistance. Providing assistance to those in crisis is important, but when the numbers go up, we are reinforcing how little we are doing to improve the long-term circumstances of struggling families.

“If only” echoes every time I hear poverty defined in terms of a lack of money rather than as a lack of resources. We can’t eliminate poverty until we address all the resources people need to succeed – that type of resources that I was so fortunate to have growing up: ongoing support, positive relationships, skills, knowledge, encouragement and role models.

And “if only” echoes every time another desperate individual or family walks into my office on a Friday afternoon and there is nothing I can do to help.

“If only.” “If only.” “If only.”

The Curve

the curveWhen I was in high school, my fellow students begged our teachers to grade on a curve. Their theory, of course, was that if everyone did poorly, no one would fail. That wasn’t necessarily true, but we were self-absorbed teenagers with little concern for broader implications.

If you’re not familiar with the grading curve, it’s a tool used by some educators to distribute grades on a bell curve. When an assignment or test is scored, the average score becomes the average grade. The scores above and below the average are distributed accordingly. That means, if you get a really high score, you might skew the curve for everyone else. It also means some students are guaranteed to land at the wrong end of the curve.

Back in the 1980’s, my teachers rarely actually graded on a curve. But when they did, I knew two things would happen:

1:  I would get grief from all the other students in class warning me not to do so well that I would mess up the curve, and,

2:  I had an opportunity to prove that I didn’t need a curve to do well. And that opportunity far exceeded my concern about anyone else’s grade.

At the time, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in academic success. I truly thought that the only thing at which I could excel, and which made my existence matter, was getting good grades. (Yes, I completely related to Brian in the Breakfast Club).

I also believed that getting good grades was simply a matter of working hard, and that anyone could work hard. I had little tolerance for my peers who got mad when I did well. To me, they just needed to try harder.

And so, I shamefully admit, I always tried to burn the curve.

Needless to say, I’m embarrassed that I used to think that way. I now realize that I had so many advantages: educated parents, good nutrition, a safe place to sleep, a home free of violence, a family that embraced education, a mother who believed women didn’t need to depend on men, and a father who expected as much of his daughter as he did of his son. My list of advantages could go on and on and on.

But now, all these years later, I recognize how some children start off at disadvantage simply because of the family they are born into or because of a disability. Some struggle to read. Others struggle to overcome loss of at least one parent in the house. Others were never encouraged or never had an adult who even recognized their potential. And when you are struggling just to get by, studying for test isn’t a priority.

That’s why, more than 30 years later, I may be ashamed at who I once was, but I am also ashamed of some of the former classmates who still embrace the bell curve. Some of the same people who encouraged me not to exceed are now blaming their neighbors for falling at the negative end of the curve. I know this because I see their posts on social media.

They complain about people “on welfare”and how they don’t want their hard-earned money going to support people who are lazy and just don’t try. The want to drug test individuals who receive SNAP (food stamps) because they aren’t deserving. And they have the misguided belief that if people just try, they can find a job that pays more and provides benefits.

When I read such opinions, I can’t help but  wonder if my former classmates remember back to the days when I, the person at the top of the bell curve, had similar thoughts about them.

But, over time, I learned that each of us has fought both visible and invisible battles to get where we are, and success looks different for everyone. No one’s achievement shouldn’t be denied or belittled. But neither should we think everyone has the ability to achieve what we have.

Such thinking only accomplishes what the bell curve does: ensures an elite few stay on top while someone will always be struggling to just get by.

Falling Out of Bed

cat falling out of bedWhen I was a little girl, I fell out of bed on a regular basis.

Sometimes, I’d pick myself up off the floor and climb back under the covers. Sometimes, my father, who must have heard the thud, would come into my bedroom, scoop me up, and tuck me back into my bed.

I don’t remember being particularly concerned or afraid of falling out of bed, nor do I remember my parents worrying about it.

It was just something I did until, one day, I didn’t do it anymore.

Like so many childhood memories, my habit of falling out of bed was locked away in a part of my brain that only opens with the right key. Sometimes that key is a piece of music, sometimes it’s a smell, and sometimes it’s a conversation. But there are times when I have no idea what key unleashed a memory. It just pops into my mind, and I can’t shake it. Those are the moments when I realize my memories have come out of hiding and dusted themselves off because they are trying to teach me something.

And so it was last week with my memories of falling out of bed.

As I thought back to those nights decades ago, I realized they represent all of life’s struggles. Those times I fell out of bed were only a fraction of all the tumbles I’ve taken. And yet, I only remember a very small percentage of them – the ones that left behind scars and a good story.

But almost every time I stumbled or even completely fell, I had the choice to wallow in the pain and humiliation or to pick myself back up. Those few times when my struggles were so great that I couldn’t just pick myself back up, I was fortunate to have someone nearby who heard the thud and immediately responded with a helping hand.

There are so many individuals with no such people nearby. On almost a daily basis, I watch the stream of people coming through my office doors for financial assistance or other social services. I realize that most of them had very few, if any, people nearby listening for their thuds. And I wonder if it’s harder to pick yourself back up when you know that no one else is paying attention to your struggles.

I also wonder if knowing that you are safe and that someone has your back makes it easier to teach yourself not to fall. When you trust that people care and realize that falls are part of the learning process, it’s easier to have the fortitude and the ability to prevent self-inflicted bruises.

My memories were reminding me that I, like everyone else, needs to pay more attention and react to the thuds when someone nearby, no matter who they are, falls.

A Double Life

double lifeI lead  a double life.

Every day, I straddle two very different worlds.

Last week, I spent time listening to a man in his mid-thirties who is a regular in the waiting area at my office. He comes not for services but because he feels safe there.

The man is a paranoid schizophrenic who has been disowned by his family, experienced bouts of homelessness, been the victim of street-wise individuals and sporadically stayed in psychiatric hospitals. On that particular morning, he had housing but wanted to complain about police harassment.  He used “colorful” phrases as he expressed confusion as to why anyone thinks he could be violent or dangerous.

I gave him my sympathy while gently telling him that his rough language might put some people off. What I didn’t say was that I was pleased he was even talking to me. That meant he was taking his medication.

When he’s off his medications, he mumbles to himself and doesn’t make eye contact.

I take comfort in the fact that all of my co-workers keep tabs on him and worry when he appears to be off his medication.

Their concern doesn’t come from any work-related requirement. They care because they understand the tenuous line every person walks.

Some of us are fortunate enough to start life with a wide open road built by a strong support system. Taking a step forward to better circumstances is an expectation that is cheered, encouraged and made possible by multiple people.

Others are forced to walk a tightrope of poverty, violence and disinterest. Taking one step forward into better circumstances is a test of determination and the ability to navigate an obstacle course of mental and physical health problems, abuse and poor role models.

Which line we walk is often a stroke of luck, sometimes a matter of choices but always requires a safety net provided by our fellow human beings.  The people I work with know their job is to increase the odds for everyone who walks through our doors.

But that’s my work life.

My personal life can be completely different.

Only a few hours after my conversation with the schizophrenic, I was selling hot dogs, hamburgers and nachos at the high school concession stand where the talk among the parents was all about the latest drama: “slushee gate.”

According to those in the know (not me), the band has total rights to all fall sports concession sales. The football parents (not the students) disagreed, sought and apparently received permission from one high level administrator to sell frozen lemonade slushees during games.

Drama, including public cussing by the wife of a football coach, ensued.

I care about supporting my son and the band, but I can’t understand getting so emotionally engaged in something that doesn’t actually affect anyone’s well-being.

There are too many parents who are struggling just to meet their family’s basic needs and are ill-equipped to deal with the complications of daily life. A battle over concessions at high school athletic competitions isn’t part of their world just as their issues aren’t on the radar of parents who can afford for their children to be involved in extracurricular activities.

Because of my career choice, I live in both worlds.

Which is why I had a recent conversation with a woman who was young enough to be my own daughter yet had three children. She was homeless and had made a poor decision that resulted in her eviction, and therefore her children’s eviction, from a local shelter. She talked to me about her “baby daddy” (her exact words) and their violent relationship.

There was nothing I could do but provide her with a few kind words and a bit of advice. She had made one critical error that couldn’t be fixed and didn’t have a support system of family or friends that could help. Because of that, she had no place to sleep other than in a tent.

Her situation was weighing on my mind when a well-to-do donor breezed through my office door.

I listened as she described the stress of downsizing her home to what she called “a retirement cottage.” Since I don’t live in her world – I just visit it – I thought the only small thing about her new big house is that it has less square footage than the estate where she used to live.  I empathized with her concerns because she was feeling stressed.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but note that I was once again straddling not two  but three worlds. The one where I live, the one where my clients live and the one where my donors live.

I appreciate our donors. They are caring people who know they are fortunate and wanted to help those who are not. They are the lifeblood of my organization.  But they still live in a world that is very different from the one inhabited by the people my organization serves.

And I have to negotiate all those worlds. But that type of double life isn’t something about which I should be ashamed. Instead, I should consider it a gift that allows me to serve as a bridge that increases understanding and hope.

At least it increases my hope that one day, I’ll work myself out of a job and no one will have to lead a double life. That’s  because we will all  live in the same world.

The Drug Test

drug testO.K. I get it.

If you don’t know anything about “the welfare system,” then drug testing “people on welfare” makes sense.

After all, your hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being used to support “people on welfare.”

Even on days when you don’t want to go to work, you show up because that is what is required for you to bring home a regular paycheck. Obviously, “people on welfare” are looking for an easier way to get money.

And, because they aren’t working hard like you are, they must spend their time doing whatever they want – including watching television all day and doing drugs. Since they don’t have jobs, the money that “people on welfare” use to buy those drugs is obviously coming from their “welfare check” that we, the hard- working taxpayers, provide them. If they didn’t use the money from their “welfare check” to buy the drugs, then they don’t need a “welfare check” at all.

To ensure that no one “on welfare” is using our money to buy drugs, then we have to drug test them. That way we won’t be wasting taxes, right?

Wrong.

The seemingly ongoing demand and state jumping on the drug testing band wagon isn’t based on facts and statistics but rather on prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation about “the welfare system.”i don't always

It’s also a waste money. Requiring drug tests for individuals who receive social services benefits has consistently been shown to increase administrative costs with little else to show for the efforts.

When the State of Tennessee started testing individuals who applied for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), only 37 out of more than 16,000 applicants failed drug tests during a six month period.  Those results weren’t much different from those in other states, such as Utah and Florida.

I don’t know what the cost of administering those tests was, but I do know there is no way that those results can be spun to indicate cost-effectiveness. But then, the outcry for drug-testing people who receive TANF has never really been about cost-effectiveness or even helping families with drug addiction.

It has always been about pointing fingers at low-income people and blaming them for their circumstances.drug-testin-testing-for-welfare-recipeants

Despite public perception that “people on welfare” are lazy and don’t do much to contribute to society, the life of people who receive TANF isn’t all that restful. First they have children to raise.

TANF, which was established during the Clinton administration, is only available to families with children. It also requires recipients to participate in programs that help them learn skills and gain employment. In West Virginia, TANF recipients are required to sign a personal responsibility contract which they have to follow or they will lose benefits.

Even if they do all that is required of them, federal law prohibits them from receiving  more than 60 months of assistance during a lifetime.

For a small amount of cash assistance (in West Virginia, a family of four receives an average amount of about $385 each month), TANF recipients must go to classes, do volunteer work and actively seek employment. Studies show that the average time any individual receives TANF is 24 months, and that is usually the result of unfortunate circumstances like the loss of a job or divorce.  Much like an insurance policy, TANF was available to these individuals who had been taxpayers but fell in tough times until they could once again be taxpayers.

I have many more friends who never used TANF  not because they never had financial difficulties but because they had the resource friends and family to help them through the crisis. Not everyone is surrounded by people who have the resources to help.

But even when we look beyond the stereotypes about who receives TANF, there are even bigger issues.. For example,what happens when someone does test positive for drugs? What will happen to their children (since they must have children to even receive the assistance.) Just as critical, who will be responsible for treatment and recovery services? In my community, those services are usually unavailable and inaccessible to low-income and rural individuals. Advocates have been complaining for years about the lack of treatment programs. Before we focus on drug testing anyone, we must  have the community capacity to help those who struggle with addiction.

The call for drug testing “people on welfare” only makes sense to those who either don’t understand the social services system or who don’t want to understand it.  It only makes sense to people who don’t mind stereotyping low-income people or who don’t realize that’s what they are doing. And it only makes sense to those who think that subjecting people who are already struggling to additional accusations is more effective than subjecting them to a helping hand.

The Crap Shoot

diceI am fortunate to have a job in which I am constantly reminded that I won the lottery of life and which gifts  me with examples of my luck on a daily basis.

Recently, my co-worker rushed to clean the seat of a chair where a schizophrenic homeless man sat unaware that his pants were so low they were no longer covering what should have been covered. When she gently told him to pull up his pants, he apologized and pulled the up. My organization’s ability to serve this young man is limited, and he walks the street every night. Several people are working with him to try to find adequate services that will address his needs and provide him with a safe place to sleep. In the meantime, he has nothing more than what he can carry in his arms.

At the beginning of the month, I spent hours trying to find a way to get a young man back to his family. He had lost his job and with it the income that allowed him to pay rent or buy food. While on the phone with his mother, the operator broke into the conversation with a call from a prison. The prisoner was the young man’s father, who proceeded to tell me what a loser his son was. He also told the woman with whom I was talking that she should not travel the hour to pick up her son because he didn’t deserve it. Sadly, the mother listened, and the young man remained stranded with no support system or resources.

This week, a woman with six children called our offices asking for help. The electricity at her house, a run-down shack, had been shut off, and she had no hot water for baths or showers and no way to cook or heat up food. Her husband, who had lost his job a few months ago, had recently found  employment but wouldn’t be receiving a paycheck for several weeks. Since the family had no electricity, and therefore no fans or air conditioning, they leave their windows open in hopes of a breeze. Because of that, the children’s bodies are covered in mosquito bites.

Every day, I hear conversations I cannot understand. My office is right next to that of our immigration attorney, so I listen daily to conversations in foreign language. Occasionally, I understand what is being said, and it is never heartwarming. I listen to families who came to the United States for political or humanitarian reasons and have no place to go. Just the other day, I witnessed a six-year-old child translating  for her mother. She was telling our outreach worker about the eviction notice her family had received.  At the age of six years, this little girl should be playing with dolls, taking dance lessons and swimming with her friends. Instead, she is doing all she can to prevent her family from being homeless.

Perhaps most controversial and yet most heartbreaking among the clients I encounter daily are the hundreds of people who live in generational poverty in the United States. Of these individuals, some were raised in families in which violence was a norm. Others lived in homes in which education wasn’t a value and in which routines such as dinner and bedtimes were foreign concepts. Some were born to parents who abused drugs and who neglected their children during the most crucial years.

Even though I come face to face with such poverty very day, I am also reminded that for every person who walks through our offices seeking assistance, there is another person who is pointing fingers and placing blame. I’ve heard it all:

“If people tried harder, they would have an education and a job.”

“Our country already has too many problems. Why should we help people from other countries?”

“If I can make it, anyone can make it.”

“I’m tired of my hard-earned dollars going to support woman who had kids just so they could live off the system.”

What many people don’t realize is that, as my co-worker says, “Life is one big crap shot.”

We don’t get to choose who are parents will be or where we will be born. We don’t get to choose how intelligent we will be or whether we will inherit a mental illness. And we certainly don’t get to choose whether we will be raised in an environment that values good judgement or in one where children are  just lucky to get through childhood alive.

There are days when I wish I could yell to the world. I want to say that I completely agree we should all do our best and we should all make good decisions. But I also want to yell that some of us are fortunate to have been raise to understand cause, effect and consequences. Some of use are lucky to have been raised with values on which we make good decisions. Some of us were raised to think about the future rather than just the moment at hand. And some of us were raised with people who want us to excel rather than pull us down.

If life is truly a crap shoot, then I was lucky enough to roll a good deal. I may not have a lot of money or the biggest house on the block, but I am an intelligent woman surrounded by people who support me. Even better, I am  surrounded by people who will do the same for a stranger who was never handed the same odds that I was.

My real fortune comes not just from having a job but  from having a job that allows me to witness people who truly understand that their skills, knowledge, education and general good fortune aren’t just good luck. They received these gifts so they could use them to help and provide for others.

Getting to witness such acts to benefit the less fortunate  on a daily basis makes me one of the luckiest woman in the world.

Nellie Oleson and Other Monsters

Nellie OlesonThere is nothing worse than realizing your childhood nightmare is actually a reality.

As a child, my monsters were people who thought they were better than others because they were attractive or had money.

As an adult, I’ve discovered that I actually live among such monsters.

Growing up, these monsters were portrayed as fictional characters like Nellie Oleson from the television show Little House on the Prairie.

To most people, that show was about family.

To me, it was an epic battle of good and evil.

Good was represented by the hard-working Ingalls family, and evil was represented by Nellie Oleson and her mother. The ambivalence of society was represented by Nellie’s father who rarely stood up to his wife and his manipulative and self-centered  daughter, Nellie.

Nellie thought she was better than others because her family had money and other families didn’t. Not only that, but she actually looked down at people who didn’t have the same resources.

As a child, I never understood how anyone could actually like Nellie, who never did anything to earn her pretty dresses and easy lifestyle.

As an adult, I am amazed that I still have to battle such monsters.

These monsters rear their ugly heads in the form of  women who have never had to work to support their family. They have married men with good jobs and depended on their husbands for money. (And for the record, living on a budget in college or in early adulthood isn’t poverty). At the same time, they belittle the working poor and call them lazy. Here’s my advice: If you have never had to support a family on your income alone, you have no right to judge others.

These monsters bear their teeth when their beliefs about social status are challenged. Here’s my advice: Don’t open your mouth about poverty unless you have either experienced it yourself or have spent time with those who have.

Finally, these monsters avoid people who struggle as though they carry some type of disease. Here’s my advice: Surround yourself with people who are different than you. Not only will you become a more well-rounded and educated person, you might discover others have a great deal to offer.

This week, I had a realization that I can never slay the monsters I feel as though I am always battling.

But I did realize I have every right to walk around these monsters and keep going.

And if enough people join me, we can show the monsters how we really feel.