This is our reality. It’s shocking at times. Other times, it’s very predictable. It’s saddening, sometimes sickening, and often times seems hopeless. Children growing up in poverty with parents who cannot give guidance, unconditional love, and modeling. No father. Living with grandparents. Moving 1-4 times a year. No car. No home-cooked meal. Sometimes no meal at all. No bedtime. No bedtime stories. Sometimes no bed. Sometimes no bedroom. Sometimes no home at all. No signed agenda. No parent conferences. No working phone number. No clean clothes. No winter coat. Yet, when you work in a school, we face it day in and day out. We keep fighting the uphill battle. We keep teaching, listening, guiding, praying, hoping, motivating and encouraging when the future can seem some dim. But, it cannot be all up to us……
This is our little East Tennessee. As a School Counselor, I am not naïve enough to believe that the problems I hear about here can compare or compete with big-city issues but what we have and see here is This is our community. Poverty is everywhere and it’s not going away. In fact, there are more children living in poverty now than ever. These children grow up, though. These children will become adults living in our community and we want them to become productive members of our society and not a statistic. Yet, let me share a slice of what they are up against.
As always, I never know what my week will bring as a School Counselor. This week was no exception. Let me begin with a sad one. There’s a little guy in first grade who acts starved for attention, has undiagnosed ADHD, has a lot of difficulty sitting still, and gets really jealous if other friends get positive attention. This week has been worse than normal and I’ve begun revisiting him the past 2 weeks. This week, I began to understand why he has no motivation to do his school work and cannot even be in his own skin. While meeting, he told me “they are about to be out on the street”, meaning about to become homeless. The family is broke and they “have no lights” because they “can’t pay their lights bill”. And, he says it’s cold at night, so chilly that he hasn’t been sleeping well. He’s been wearing the same dirty yellow shirt for the past 2 weeks.
So, I go into solution-focused counseling. How are we going to solve this problem? They have food until next week and I went to the nurse for some clean clothes that she bagged up. Next, I told him I’d like to call his mom but he knows our conversation is confidential and I could see his little brow worry up. He said to me, “I don’t think you should call her. She’ll use her mean voice with you.” The mean voice she’ll use with me is the same one she uses with him every day too and here he is trying to protect me. Heartbreaking. I told the little guy that I can handle it and I’ll be ok because I won’t tell her what he’s told me. (Long story short, we spoke. She didn’t use her mean voice but she didn’t share that they need help. They still have no electricity.)
Let’s move to another classmate, a 7 year old too. He has a two older brothers with heart defects that can drop dead at any moment if they exert themselves too much. They are both on medication. One is already in an alternative school and the other is on his way. The baby sister and my friend have their own different daddies so there are 3 dads with 4 children, and the mom is young.
Now, my little friend has really been doing better lately, not perfect, but better since we’ve been meeting. And, yesterday he opened up even more and shared a memory about his deceased dog Tiger who was the same age as him. They grew up together. He was a good dog. About a year ago when his premature sister was born, mom was in the hospital for several days while the boys were with relatives. The dog, Tiger, was left at the family’s home for days on end in the freezing cold (remember what a bad winter we had last year?) with no food or water. No one went to care for Tiger. And, when the family returned a week later, they found the dead, frozen, starved dog in the shed. I’m not making this up…..The kids saw the dead dog and my little friend said he couldn’t eat afterwards because he was so sad.
Round three, let me tell you about a group of Middle Eastern kids whom I love. A fourth grader frantically came to see me after winter break to tell me about a hellacious fight at their (subsidized) apartments. Once again, a couple middle school kids had started a fight and this time it was egged on by a “big kid”, maybe high schooler. He described in detail watching a 6th grader beat his friend , punching him repetitively to the head and face and the 4th grader stepping in to help. It was so bad the police were called and the boys are not to be outside. If they harass them again, they can go to juvenile. So, now these poor kids are trapped inside all the time. Imagine never being able to go outside when you’re not in school, and having no car. This is their life. This is our town.
These are only a very few obstacles I heard about this week. I am certain there’s much more that ‘we’ don’t hear about, secrets kept in the dark. So, what is to become of them? If they do not and cannot feel safe and comfortable where they live, what does this do to them? What can we do to ensure that they don’t become a statistic, that they don’t keep family traditions, and they choose different paths in life? What can we do?
Here are some thoughts for my friends, my neighbors, and my community. Many wonderful people I know already do some of these things:
- Get your head out of the sand! (Reality Bites and ‘we’ have problems)
- Mentor youth
- Many times, I have called to inquire about a Big Brother. The wait list is years.
- Get into schools
- My church, (Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church) is doing just this. We have volunteers adopting a classrooms, making a differences, and modeling good citizenship.
- Support, fund, and promote education (instead of criticizing teachers)
- Fight for what you believe in for our education system. Teachers and educators can’t be the only ones.
- Educate and guide uneducated adults
- Mentor adults
- Sponsor a family, and/or get involved with organizations like Bridge (for refugees) or Safe Families for helping in emergency type situations
- Support a higher minimum wage so the poor can work and survive
- Come one, the minimum wage is no way to survive and very low in the US compared other rich countries.
- Support safe sex, and less children out of wedlock
- Controversial and I will say very little since I work in the school system…. But, because I work with at-risk families, I have to note that bringing more children into dysfunctional homes is not working or helping.
- Feed children and support organizations like Second Harvest that provide food for the hungry
- Speak up for the funding and importance of School Counselors and Social Workers. In Knox County, we have horrendous ratios. The recommended average is one counselor: 250 students. As an Elementary Counselor, we have over 1000 students on average working full-time in Knox County Schools. We cannot even begin to help and get to every child and family. Social workers are about the same.
- Volunteer with your own kids. Show you care about others so that they will notice peers in need and have the desire to help.
- Be a good, or even just decent, responsible parent to your own children.
I know we care about our kids. I know we care and want a bright future for our youth, all of our children. (And, I hope I hear a little more about ‘friendship problems’ this next week!)