Community Featured Justice

Poverty yells louder in the winter

In the summertime, kids run around in the sun, giggling. No one notices if they wear the same pair of shorts every day. They meet the other kids in the townhouse complex and they play until dark. They frolic and shriek through sprinklers on the lawn. The cold water in the apartment doesn’t seem all that bad when it’s steaming outside. Kids return home with dirty feet and impish grins. They’re too exhausted from fun to be bothered by their empty bellies. Poverty is a whisper in the summertime.

The leaves start to change and the air starts to chill. The heating bill slowly rises. The clothing expenses do, too. Coats and shoes and jeans are costly. Poverty speaks a little louder. The air begins to get bitterly cold. The coats get heavier. Hats and mittens and boots and scarves add to the list of things a child needs that their parents can’t afford. Schlepping around in the snow, the weariness of poverty wears quicker. Christmas is coming; the risk of disappointing a child hangs in the air. Bodies shiver. There’s no hot water. It’s time to pay the heating bill. The school is calling because his lunch box is empty again. Wet clothes, cold fingers and toes. Poverty yells louder in the wintertime.

I’m a teacher, and I took my work home with me the other night. My colleagues told me it would happen, that I’d see something in my classroom I wouldn’t be able to shake. I’d never survive if I internalized every heartache I witnessed. But the other night? I took my work home with me.

We had part of our staff meeting at the community centre around the corner from our school. We toured the building and learned about all of the programs offered for the families living in the surrounding community. The whole operation was quite impressive. However, the reasons why this centre was necessary in the first place are devastating. Extreme poverty, unemployment, lack of seasonally appropriate clothing, cultural and racial tension, no food, bed bugs, lice, abuse of every kind, drugs, gang activity — you name it, this community is deeply entrenched with the whole lot. The trip was a heavy dose of perspective, making so many of the problems we face in our classrooms suddenly make sense.

That night I went home with a sad heart. I wrote a Facebook status about cold hands and empty lunch boxes, which definitely broke my “funny things only” status rule. I don’t know why I did it, really. But then I received a few messages from unexpected sources all saying the same thing: how to I get mittens to these kids? What can I do to help? Where can I donate food? My heavy heart was lightened a little. I cried because it felt a little less impossible.

The next morning, a few of my sweet little ones came in the door in tears. The nearly 20 below wind chill was too much. They were cold. I spent the entire day with a lump in my throat. At recess time, there were more tears. One little boy didn’t want to wear his snow pants when he left the house that morning, and no one had bothered enough to make him wear them. So he shivered.

The mood in the staff room was different than usual, too. Forget establishing learning goals or teaching the curriculum effectively. We need to figure out how to get mittens on their tiny hands and boots on their feet. How can we talk about iPads and technology in our classrooms when our kids aren’t even warm and fed?

I’m learning that I don’t have to leave the country to go on a mission. I don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. These kids that I see every day are the very ones Jesus was talking about. Feed them. Clothe them. Love them. Do whatever you can – just do something.

As Christmas approaches, programs that help families in need start ramping up. Everywhere you go, you see flyers for toy drives and holiday parties for families who need a little extra help. Christmas is one day of the year, but poverty sticks around for the other 364. The toys under the tree aren’t going to keep hands warm and bellies full. Oh yes, how it will make them smile – but how much joy can you feel when your tummy aches? How long can the thrill of a new toy last when you’re shivering?

I’m going to buy socks this Christmas. And mittens. Lots of them. They won’t get wrapped up and put under a tree. They won’t bring screeches of joy or smiles to children’s faces. In fact, it will most likely be a rather boring affair. I will put them on little hands before recess. I will put them on cold little toes after a romp in the snow. I will smile and offer a quiet word of encouragement.

I’ll put them on in a very ordinary way, in hopes it will drown out the yells of poverty — the frozen hands, the quaking blue lips — even if for only a moment.

Photo by  Charlotte90T, Flickr CC