As I sat in my house by the fireplace looking at my Christmas tree, I was reminded of a time when I was not as blessed. As I scanned each opened gift under the tree, I mentally patted myself on the back for a job well done getting all the gifts my kiddos requested. But, I also patted myself on the back that my kids will never know a life like the one that I knew…which is good and bad. It is great that my kids will prayerfully never know what poverty feels like. But, at times I fear that my husband and I have pushed ourselves to do so well that we will raise kids so far removed from poverty that they are unable to understand that not everyone is as fortunate as them. Like every parent, I want my kids to grow up and be great people (as in good human beings) that contribute to this world…making it somehow better.
People say Christmas is a great time to remember poor…which is easy for me because I used to be one. Actually, poor doesn’t do justice to the socioeconomic status my family occupied. I remember standing in the long lines at the Welfare Office every month waiting for our box of food. If you have no idea what I am talking about…then you weren’t “po” like my family. You may have been poor…but we were po honey! As part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program by the federal government, families with children 6 years of age and younger could pick up monthly boxes of food containing cheese and dairy products, canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter (the one that came in the white container labeled “peanut butter”), dried beans, jelly, canned fish (sardines actually) and various meats, evaporated and nonfat dry milk, breakfast cereals, fruit juices and beverages, rice, macaroni, and spaghetti. So, every month, my mother would round up all three of her daughters and walk several blocks to the Welfare Office.
Once we arrived at the office, we waited in long lines with hundreds of other families for several hours, for our one box of food. Every month it was the same thing. Looking back, what stood out the most to me was not the horrible food, but the rudeness of the people in a position to help such poor families. But, what also stood out, was my mother’s willingness to put pride aside and accept help from strangers. Ordinarily my mother was extremely prideful and went to great lengths to ensure that no one knew the depth of our poverty…not even us. She hid her struggles to make ends meet from EVERYONE, including my father. Honestly, I thought everyone lived the way we did…my mother went to extraordinary lengths to keep us insulated from the cold adult world. I gotta say, her efforts were mostly effective. It wasn’t until high school while completing the FAFSA when applying to colleges that I realized we were “po” and most people did not live the way we did. I distinctly remember my high school guidance counselor telling me “based on your family’s income level, you should be struggling to eat each day. How exactly are you eating everyday?”
But, every month, my mother put aside her pride and subjected herself to judgment and dirty looks by the rude workers at the Welfare Office, for one measly box of food. For that one box of food, she abandoned her hard work of protecting us from our poverty, to ensure that my sisters and I had what we needed. My mother did not do everything right…but she taught me some valuable lessons. One in particular, the importance of sacrifice for others.
As I sat near the fireplace in my house enjoying the warmth, I couldn’t help but think about a time when I would spend my nights praying for warmth. I have always battled with Raynaud’s so the cold has always been brutal for me. Growing up it was not uncommon for my house to have electricity but no heat and hot water…even in winter. So, on the cold winter nights my mom would turn on the electric oven and open it to heat the house. I would bundle up in my winter coat, two layers of clothes, complete with socks and boots, just to stay warm while I slept. I never complained because I didn’t want anyone in my house to know that my fingers and toes changed colors and went completely numb…the feeling sometimes did not return until I was on my heated bus to school the next morning. I also didn’t want my mom to have yet another thing to worry about when she already had so much on her plate.
As I thought back on my childhood, thousands of thoughts ran through my mind. I closed my eyes and forced myself to see my old house. Before long I could see it in my mind, and even smell the old wood from the house. I could see the peach tree that was in our backyard, that I spent hours climbing every day and sat in to write my poetry. I could also hear the echoes in the hallway as my sisters and I sang at the top of our lungs. As I pushed myself to remember a little more, I began to see my 7 year old self. I saw myself kneeling on the side of the bed with my hands tightly clasp together…something I did every night and still do to this day. I pushed myself to take in the sounds and smells, so I could remember a little more. Before long I could hear my 7 year old self. As I heard my 7 year old self, I heard something that I had forgotten.
At 7 years old I promised God that if he allowed me to live long enough to grow up and make it out of my current neighborhood, I would spend the rest of my life showing his goodness and mercy by excelling to greatness. I also promised to NEVER forgot that hungry and cold little girl…because the world is filled with them. My exact words were “when I grow up, I will BE the hero I needed”. That was my 7 year old way of saying that I would ALWAYS find a way to reach back and help someone.
See, that promise at 7 years old is the reason I work myself tireless in my career to be the best to ever occupy my profession. That promise at 7 years old is the reason I started this blog so that my struggles and victories could help someone else. That promise at 7 years old is the reason I rountinely serve as a voice for those without one, and donate my money and time to causes dedicated to helping underprivileged children. That promise at 7 years old is also the reason I am determined to raise service oriented and genuinely good people.
As I sat on my couch by the fire staring out at my Christmas tree, I rounded up my two daughters and husband for story time. For years I had refused to talk about where I grew up and just how poor we were…partly because my daughters were too young to understand. But, I decided this year was the year for the conversation. At age 7 and 2, they are now old enough to get more pieces of the complex puzzle. While they know we donate financially to certain charities, each give 10% of their allowance for church tithes, and yearly collect their toys and clothes to give away to Goodwill, they still remained very protected from a world far different from theirs. So, as we all sat by the fire, I shared stories from my childhood all centered around being grateful for everything in your life because not everyone is as fortunate. I also shared my desire to start a twice a year family service project. As a family, we agreed to volunteer at a shelter or food pantry to offer help in a little corner of our earth.
Holding true to my promise, I wanted to use this platform that I have, my blog, to impact my little corner of the world. Somewhere in the world there is a cold and hungry kid…find some way to help them. If helping kids is not your thing, then find way to help an adult that needs it, or an animal, or the environment. Whatever it is that is your thing…find a way to make a difference.