Changing Lives

Poverty-In-America

Again and again I am reminded by experts that my brothers and I are not supposed to be doing as well as we are. On a recent offering on NPR I learned that the odds of making it out of the cycle of poverty while growing up in a single family household are daunting, and yet my siblings and I not only managed to break a cycle that had haunted our ancestors for generations, but we also managed to be emotionally healthy as well. At the end of a glorious Thanksgiving Day that we shared together the three of us sat back and attempted to analyze the factors that had been important in bringing us to our current state of happiness and success.

We all agreed that it would have been impossible for any of us to make it as adults had it not been for our mother. She was at the center of our upbringing, a task that she took perhaps even more seriously than most. She understood that from day to day she played the role of both mom and dad. Every major obligation was placed squarely on her shoulders, and her start after my father’s death could not have been more difficult. We had no car, no home of our own, no money in the bank, no life insurance pay out, and she had no job. Things were so financially grim that I caught on to the direness of our situation even though I was only eight years old. I had enough sense to rightly interpret the whispered concerns that I heard my aunts and uncles voicing as they worried about what would become of us. Somehow my dear mother would manage time and again through thrift and intellect to weave gold out of straw, and keep us afloat as a family without ever burdening us with her troubles, but she never would have been able to manage all alone.

I suspect that had our mother been virtually on her own the enormity of her task might have broken her far sooner than it ultimately did, but she was surrounded by people who continually supported her and me and my brothers. I found great comfort in the knowledge that we had guardian angels who always showed up when we most needed help. Their efforts on our behalf began on the day of my father’s death when our house filled to the bursting with members of our extended family, long time friends, and people from our temporary neighborhood and church. That trend would continue for all of our days as children and it would provide reassurances to us that someone would be there to catch us if we suddenly began to fall.

I still remember my Uncle Jack taking us to purchase a car after Daddy’s wreck with the funds that Mama had received from the car insurance policy. Even though the automobile that he was driving at the time of the crash had been virtually brand new and fully loaded with all the bells and whistles of the day, the check barely paid the balance of what was owed on the car that had been destroyed, and left only a pittance for a down payment on a new vehicle. Uncle Jack, who was a worldly wise and frugal man, counseled my mother to purchase a replacement that was within her means. He found a stripped down Ford with a standard transmission, rubber floor mats and a color that nobody would have chosen on purpose, that was advertised for an amazingly low price. He brokered a deal with the salesman by appealing to his sense of decency. Still my mother gazed at the ugly car and insisted that it was hardly the kind of model that my father would have chosen. It was Uncle Jack who insisted that she was going to have to learn how to make do with what she had. We drove away and used that “Charlie Brown” car for the rest of my childhood. It took us wherever we wanted or needed to go, but mostly it represented possibilities and the strength of individuals like my uncle who would take care of all of us for years to come.

It was the same Uncle Jack who guided us to the home where all three of us would grow into adults. It was a far more modest place than the ones that we had been viewing with my father. Most importantly, though, was the fact that the neighborhood where it stood was filled with incredibly good people who would become the steadying force that my brothers and I needed. Over the years we shed all of our fears and came to feel infinitely secure because of our neighbors who always seemed to be teaching us things and helping our mother with household repairs. It was a wholesome and safe environment that was made even better when Mama was wise enough to center our world on the nearby church and the school where we would make lifelong friends and build the happiest of memories. Everyone knew of our tenuous situation, and while they never openly discussed their sympathy for our plight, they quietly made extra efforts for us. There was a generous spirit that followed us and kept us from harm. We mostly took all of the people for granted as children are wont to do, but deep in our hearts we understood how important they were in helping to shape us into confident adults. We learned from everyone that with a bit of hard work and imagination we would ultimately be just fine.

We were admittedly more fortunate than most children who struggle with poverty. We had a huge village of adults who took us into their hearts and never let go. With our mom encouraging us to use our natural gifts and talents wisely, and a great deal of motivation from teachers and mentors we were able to break the chains of economic hardship. Today few would ever imagine that our life stories might have made us just a few more statistics had it not been for the love and wisdom that surrounded us when we most needed those things. We know that it is never impossible to rise above even the most challenging circumstances which is why I suspect that we have in turn spent much of our lives attempting to help others just as we were so magnanimously assisted. Our altruism was born in the knowledge that each of us has an opportunity to help our fellow human beings and to touch hearts in ways that alter the trajectory of lives.

It saddens me to know that we still have so many young children who are feeling broken, alone, afraid and powerless, but I regularly see the same kind of good people as those who helped my family by stepping up to make a difference. In this season that is often defined by plenty and excess each of us has the power of reshaping destiny. Even the very smallest of attempts that we make to share the wealth of our good fortune, talents and love with those who have less may create the very spark that sets a soul on fire. I was the recipient of all that I needed to redefine my life, and my gratitude for the many souls who made my rise possible will be eternally boundless. Go forth and seek out the suffering. Listen to their cries. Embrace them and you will change the world.

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