'So many people believed in me': Mentors, education are keys to escaping poverty
Neighborhood kids chased each other around the playground, enjoying the warm, sunny summer weather after a morning picking up garbage and planting trees. Kathy handed out hot dogs to her children and anyone else around.
Through a mouthful of hot dog, Keegan McAdory, Kathy’s 5-year-old son, explained how he helped clean the park.
“We picked up everything!” he shouted.
Kathy wants to make sure her children—Keegan, 7-year-old Kiara, 8-year-old Cullen and 10-year-old Carl—know the meaning of gratitude, she said.
“I like going to the clean-up because it teaches the kids to give back,” she said. “I know it sounds cheesy and all, but the kids know a lot of people have helped us.”
In the Fourth Ward, one of the poorest areas in the city, people watch out for each other. Kathy let a friend stay with her while the friend looked for a job. In turn, a neighbor invited Kathy and her children to a cookout on a warm Saturday night.
That same community spirit has brought mentors into Kathy’s life who are helping her overcome her poverty through education.
And it’s that community spirit in Kathy that makes her want to give back, both now and after she earns a degree in social work.
“I just want to work with people where I’m helping somebody,” she said. “I don’t want to be sitting in an office.”
People leave poverty for one of four reasons, writes Ruby Payne, a nationally known author who studies economic classes:
-- A situation so painful that anything would be better.
-- A sponsor such as an educator, mentor or role model who shows the person a different way of life.
-- A goal or vision of something the person wants to be or have.
-- A specific talent or ability that provides the person an opportunity.
Those first two reasons helped put Kathy, 36, on the road out of poverty.
Five years ago, she hit rock bottom. Her children had been put in foster care, and she was unemployed and homeless, staying at the House of Mercy emergency homeless shelter.
“That was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Kathy said of losing her children. “I just thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to have to go through anything like that again.’ So I just decided to change.”
At House of Mercy, Kathy met Shirley Van Horn, shelter coordinator. Van Horn encouraged Kathy to get her life together and get her kids back.
“She gave me the strength to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to stand up for yourself; you’ve got to believe in yourself,’” Kathy said.
Van Horn believes the best thing the House of Mercy did for Kathy was get her into the YWCA Transitional Living Program. The program offers up to a year of stable, subsidized housing for homeless women who have been abused.
The program allowed Kathy to improve herself without worrying about making rent, Van Horn said.
An experience with a mentor, such as Kathy’s experience with Van Horn, is key to a person moving out of poverty, said Lisa Furseth, executive director of Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.
“It’s always a variation on the same story, and that is ‘Somebody helped me. They saw something that made them believe in me and made me believe in myself,’” she said.
Van Horn wasn’t Kathy’s only mentor. A YWCA worker encouraged Kathy to become involved in politics, opening a whole new world for her. The woman took her to vote for the first time, Kathy said.
The exposure to politics and learning made Kathy think about her future. She got involved with Project Ahead, a program through UW-Rock County that helps low-income adults return to school, and she enrolled at the school in fall 2006.
“You know I really grew up,” Kathy said. “It took a network of people to believe in me and have faith in me to get me motivated and get going. Cuz I would’ve never went to school. No way.”
Education is key
By enrolling in school, Kathy took the most important step toward leaving poverty, Payne writes.
The median income for a full-time worker with an associate degree was $740 a week in 2007, 23 percent more than the income for someone with a high school diploma alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A worker with a bachelor’s degree earned $987 a week.
School hasn’t been easy for Kathy. She has struggled to balance classes with work and caring for her four children, she said. She has to schedule her classes during the day while the children are at school and find day care for her youngest son, Keegan.
Last fall, she had to drop all but one of her classes after she lost her car. A friend’s boyfriend “borrowed” the car without her permission and crashed it into two SUVs, she said. Because Kathy didn’t have insurance, she believes she’s on the hook for $30,000 in damage to the vehicles.
“I’m never going to have $30,000, so I’m probably going to have to declare bankruptcy,” she said.
Meanwhile, she only had the bus to get to class, and she couldn’t work out the schedule to pick Kiara up from day care after school.
Yet Kathy doggedly continues with her classes. The lowest grade she’s received so far is a C in biology, though she’s nervous about taking math in the fall. She plans to earn a degree in social work.
“I should be graduating next year with my associate’s,” she said. “No, I’m going to reword that. I am going to graduate next year with my associate’s.”
That education should open doors for Kathy, Furseth said. Two-thirds of new jobs created between 2000 and 2010 that pay family-supporting wages will require post-secondary education, she said.
“If we could get every child successfully through high school and get them some (post-) secondary education, our poverty levels would start to be impacted,” she said.
Kathy’s thinking about moving to Milwaukee or Madison after she earns her associate degree to earn her bachelor’s degree and start a career in social work. She hopes to work with inner-city kids or people in the criminal justice system, she said.
“The reason I want to do social work is because, like I said, so many people believed in me,” she said. “And I know that if I can do it … there’s so many people out here that could do it, too. But they don’t have nobody to believe in them.”
View the special section on poverty at gazettextra.com/poverty