A rubber biscuit

For a lot of people who have met me in the past decade or so, it might seem like I don’t know anything about poverty first-hand. After all, I’m a white, stay-at-home mom in the suburbs. It doesn’t get more stereotypically middle-class and conventional than that.

But anyone who reads The Sin City Siren with any regularity knows I am anything but conventional. And the truth is, I struggled in poverty for most of my life. Poverty has been one of the strongest and most lasting influences in my life — as much or maybe even more of a factor in my identity than being a survivor of sexual abuse. And that’s saying a lot.

I was a child during the Reagan era (which explains my constant annoyance of the “80s retro” thing happening now). And as my family moved through more than a dozen cities in hopes of better work and a better life, we bounced on and off welfare, food stamps, and other assorted assistance programs. I’ll never forget the day a girl at school pointed and laughed as she recognized one of her old shirts that I’d gotten from a thrift store. (Although, conversely, you can imagine my immediate and enthusiastic embrace of the grunge movement as a teenager. My prom dress cost $30 — a source of pride to me in those days.)

Indeed, there is no part of your life that is not touched by poverty if you have the displeasure of experiencing it. For me, the constant little (and sometimes big) humiliations — from separate but equal “free lunches” at school to government cheese to a Christmas present you know was an “extra” in someone else’s life — became a drumbeat echoing in my chest. By high school I would often survive an entire day on one sandwich (the worst part was deciding when to eat it), unless I could invite myself to someone’s home for dinner or score free breakroom snacks at work.

Hunger and desire are powerful motivators.

When it became clear that I was a contender for some serious college scholarships, I put my considerable determination to the task. When I was in high school I didn’t go to parties or hang out in parking lots getting wasted with my friends. And it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy a good time. I was too busy hustling for my future. I worked two after-school jobs so I could afford to take music lessons (for band) and advanced courses (those aren’t free). The rest of my money went toward helping my mother pay the bills. (We also ran a maid service on the side.) When summer came, I worked seven days a week at any job I could get. One summer I ended up with a full-time job during the week and a part-time job Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. My friends basically stopped calling me, not because they didn’t like me, but because they knew I’d be working or asleep.

You might think with all that work, I had a nice little fund to take with me to college. And you’d be wrong. The day I moved out of my mother’s apartment (which was directly above the one where a drug dealer was shot dead one night), I had about $100 to my name. All that money I had worked so hard to earn had gone to so many luxuries — keeping the heat on (in Alaska that’s serious business), bus fare to and from work, bread for my daily sandwich.

As I stepped out into my own life, I had nothing but a college scholarship and the willingness to beg, borrow, and yes, sometimes steal to survive. I’m not proud of that last part. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do to survive. I’ve taken food out of the trash. And I stole food from grocery stores. Like I said, humiliations.

Always I had with me hunger and desire. Of course, there are a lot of kinds of hungry, but I was usually the very literal kind. I once passed out in class because I hadn’t been eating enough. That’s not good. But being hungry — for food and for a better life — is what motivated me through so many hard times. So I worked two or three part-time jobs, went to school full time and tried to plot out ways to get enough food every day. So, college was a lot like high school, in that I didn’t have much time to enjoy life.

I worked very hard to get my college degree — becoming the first in my immediate family and one of the first in my entire family to get one. It was an all-consuming goal for me. To be a college graduate was, in my mind, the first step toward breaking the cycle of poverty in my family. (One of the others was NOT becoming a teenage parent.)

But, of course, it wasn’t that simple. Just having a college degree wasn’t going to magically save me from poverty. And, in fact, I struggled for quite a long time after that. There were many hard years of paying rent in one-dollar bills from my husband’s bartending tips and both of us working multiple jobs just to stay alive.

And this is something that many people in our community know a lot about first-hand. Las Vegas has been hit hard in this recession, by most factors harder than most places in the country. On my block alone, mine is the only house that did not go foreclosure in the past three years. I know a lot of people who have lost their jobs, their homes, their everything. And, in fact, unemployment rather than poverty alone is the single biggest indicator of going hungry.

We all like to talk about how hard work will fix almost anything. But the truth is, what has made the biggest difference in my life was when I got help during desperate times. Food stamps and government programs put dinner on the table (and lunch in my belly) many times in my childhood. Sometimes it was a loving neighbor or family member who invited me over for dinner. When I was in college, I was in danger of having to drop out because a paperwork problem caused my scholarship to run short of my tuition and I didn’t have the difference. My college career was saved in that moment by some generous people (who later became my in-laws) who loaned me the money.

Hard work and determination are powerful. But many times they are not enough.

If you have never experienced hunger, poverty, or even homelessness, it might be hard to imagine living on just one sandwich a day. It almost sounds like one of those late-night ads for a charity in a Third World country. But it’s happening right here, in America, every single day. And you might not even know it. I was very skilled at hiding my poverty by the time I was a teenager.

So, today I am asking you to help someone who is hungry by donating to God’s Groceries, a local non-profit that is entirely volunteer-run by two local churches. It is an agency partner with Three Square and is dedicated to feeding anyone who is hungry in Southern Nevada.

Be the person who makes a difference in somebody’s life today.

Donating is easy:

  • You can drop by Albertson’s on Tropicana and Jones and make a donation of food or money.
  • You can donate online via Paypal.
  • Or, you can write a check and send it to: God’s Groceries Food Ministries, 101 South Rancho, Las Vegas, Nevada 89106.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of Northwest Community Church, which is one of the two churches that run God’s Groceries. But I did not vote in the poll that picked the organization.)

6 thoughts on “A rubber biscuit

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  2. I am reading this aloud to Teresa. Rich P. (Gods Grocery lay minister) told us about this yesterday and said be sure and read it!! Thank you for sharing your vulnerability in your past, reminding some of us or our roots in neediness, and making hunger and starving people more real, flesh and blood. OMG, that’s Emmily and I know her personally! Rich said on days we open God’s Groceries there are people who immediately go outside and eat the food, and we don’t know how long it’s been since they have eaten. Thank you for blessing us. Pastor Sarah

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