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I was born into a pretty large family. When my brother was born with a significant physical disability, osteogenesis imperfecta, the world changed. Growing up, I knew that things would be okay, thanks to my parents, and thanks to the help of family and friends.
The memory that comes to my mind around Christmas is a tradition my mother put together, one I doubt would work today. We, as a family, would go to a local store and buy two gifts: a gift for a boy and a gift for a girl. We’d wrap them and put them inside a box. We would then write a letter that read: “Dear Mr. Postmaster, please give these gifts to a boy and girl that need them in your community, and let them know Santa thinks about them, too!”
One year we sent gifts to a small town in Alaska, another year off they went to New Mexico. I don’t know if they ever reached anyone, but everyone in our house who participated felt as though we had done something to help someone else out in the world. As an adult, I’ve had the fortune, and misfortune, to see the impact of poverty on so many. Some of the items that we take for granted are desperately needed. but families are forced to live without them. And poverty doesn’t always appear in the ways you might imagine.
Before COVID, a local charity helped families with coats and common goods that families would need. A small pickup location, where families could drive through and get what they needed to make their holiday better. As someone came through with a newer SUV, a person who had worked with the charity pointed out what too many don’t want to acknowledge. We don’t know the situation of others. Poverty doesn’t mean you were always poor. Many can fall into poverty quickly due to family situations, medical debt, loss of a spouse, divorce, loss of a job.
Whatever they were driving before those events happened? That is what they are stuck with today. They can’t trade it in for something cheaper because they might not have the credit to get something cheaper now. They can’t let go of a car because that is their way to try to get work. They might not have equity enough to make selling it net them anything.
In truth, so many times we make judgments about what poverty looks like that we look for reasons not to help people who need it most. This is especially true in the winter, when holiday charities are in full swing—at the same time cold homes, access to utilities, and non-paying obligations (like schoolwork, caretaking, parenting, and an unnamed slew of other important work) can put people below the poverty line at the highest risk of lower outcomes.
In my nearby grocery store, there is a large container for people to donate food. It is always full. It’s full of spam, garbanzo beans, black beans, canned beets, or whatever can be found the cheapest in the canned food lane. It makes people feel good to give something. Are you really giving something you would eat, or that you would make for your family? If you are supplying meal components, you are asking a lot of people who have very little. If you are providing items you wouldn’t eat, does asking poor children, people with disabilities, older adults, and the underserved in general to eat those foods feel good?
I think about this a lot. I remember periods when the best meal in our household was a big part of a bag of rice, sugar, and some milk. Would I want that every day? No. Charities are finding new and better ways to work with families, especially helping them feel involved and respected. A local (to me) charity organization, the Johnson County Christmas Bureau sets up a pop-up store yearly where families can “shop” through items they need; detergents, soap, gifts, clothing, coats, food, necessities. They get the power of choice.
To quote a volunteer: “One year I was standing near the frozen food section and handed a woman a turkey, and she started crying.”
Imagine how life-changing it can be for a family in need to be lifted up and know that the community sees them and recognizes that we are all in this together.
Work on behalf of those in need is a year-round opportunity. I despise the fact that so many Americans get pushed into this place due to low wages, loss of work, misogyny, and structural racism. Women who have been stay-at-home parents find that the gap in their resume after a divorce harms them in getting into the workplace and childcare is a tremendous burden. They might get confronted by potential employers who ask the seemingly friendly question of: “Oh, how old are your kids?” which sounds like fun small talk but really boils down to “Are your kids old enough, because if they are younger than I deem I will not hire you because you might need to go to their school or home on a few days.”
People who find themselves disabled after an accident or life event can find that employers quickly remove them from the potential hiring pool by creating stipulations like: “must be able to lift 50 pounds” for a desk job, or other physical conditions.
We all do what we can to help those who are in need, and to respect them as human beings. Hearing terms like “welfare parents” or “lazy” is demeaning to people who are working 40 hour work weeks but are stuck with expenses they can’t escape from medical debt or sudden life changes.
Kos community, what are you doing this winter to help those in need? I’d love to hear more about it!