5 Questions about Poverty: Hampers for Health, part 1

On the blog this week we are pleased to have Heather Howard from Hampers for Health. Heather’s perspectives is unique from our last two contributors because she speaks about poverty from a very personal perspective. Heather’s answers are longer but worthy of your time to read, so we are going to break up this segment of 5 Questions into 2 parts. I hope you take the time to read and reflect, and as always, take the opportunity to share your comments and experiences below.

How does poverty impact on your work?  How does it play out in what you see everyday?

Poverty affects me in EVERY part of my life EVERY day. Not only in the work I do for the hamper program, but, also in my own personal life. Growing up, my family was poor. It’s even hard to say that today. Just the word evokes images of starving people in dirty clothes who have nothing….so were we really poor? We had clean clothes that fit, a home, we always had food on the table (well rounded meals I might add), always had a car, a pet, got treats here and there, participated in sports, etc etc. Some would say we weren’t poor at all. But, growing up, you tend to feel the burn of stigma much before you realize and even know what the word means, it’s there eating at you…breaking your innocent soul down..am I a bit melodramatic, probably…but, in all honesty, that feeling NEVER goes away. I can remember longing to have the same toys as some of my friends (yet being happy to make due with ones I had; Example: I wanted the store bought paper dolls to play with…but, instead, cut people out of the Sears catalogue and used them as my paper dolls). I wanted to go on trips like my friends, I wanted to have fashion named clothes (L.A Gear being a big one back then)….it really brought my self esteem down not having those things growing up. Not because I didn’t think I was a good person, but because I desired so much to fit in and be liked. I used to go visit my grandmother at Mountain Lea Lodge (from the time I was 6yrs old) and I used to sit and play games with the seniors. I had friends, but, I always felt more at ease, accepted and unjudged by these residents. So, I spent alot of time there visiting them instead; to me, that realization is pretty sad. How cruel kids and even adults can be, and so very quick to judge each other based on social status/income level.I swore growing up that I would never end up being poor….yet, right now…my family sits on income assistance, trying desperately to stay afloat and sane. We all make poor choices, and unfortunately I made poor choices when it came to furthering my education as well as to debt I ended up incurring because of not finishing school (twice), and using credit cards to fly home for visits after moving out west. I went bankrupt in my early twenties. That’s a pretty scary thought. Especially now having children of my own. I eventually was making good money out west, though physically it was rough….and then….I became pregnant and moved home to have the support of my family. The baby’s daddy also came with me and we have since had two children and gotten married.  When we first moved here, we both had good EI, so, for a year we didn’t do too badly….it was tough with a new baby but, with the help of my family we were able to keep our heads above water……until the casual part time job my husband had gotten, kept scheduling him for night shifts (which he could not get to because they started after transit was done and he couldn’t drive!) so, he ended up losing his E.I and social assistance wouldn’t help us because he “quit” his job and that family better help us out, even though they were not really in a position to do so. Then, I found out I was pregnant again….so, we moved into what we thought would be a better rental arrangement, only to sink ourselves into a big debt because of the cost of oil, and having to pay for our heat. Then we finally got into low income housing. Which has been a help as far as rent costs are concerned, but the health issues that have come since almost outweigh that benefit.

The first time we were on assistance, my second baby was about a year old and I was put into their work program to search for work, not my husband…..me. Which I did, and at the time came up empty…I applied to over 30 jobs! Luckily, my husband got into school for that fall and received funding for it. Now, two years after being in school, we are back on assistance because he cannot find work because they have started cutting all the positions of what he went to school for! (Human Services 2yr – Educational Support – Teachers aide) I have applied to go to school in the fall as my opportunity for funding will run out but, I am still not sure of exactly “what I want to be when I grow up”….but, I do know I have to do something…or my life will never change and get better, which is ultimately my goal. I want to be debt free some day…I want to live in a house and not struggle to maintain it. I want to be able to buy necessities that I usually right now put off buying (socks and shoes for example)…I want all that inability to have the things I need..and even want…to disappear.

So, to now hopefully actually answer that first question…. poverty impacts my daily life because I am living in it, not to an extreme, but, we struggle..and we shouldn’t have to. With the hamper program I am faced by families who also share in my struggles of keeping clothes on our kids, food on the table, trying to maintain a vehicle ( so we dont  lose that part of our independence), keeping our phones and internet hooked up(because, really, when you can’t afford to do anything else…THOSE are your sanity(life) lines)

I am also faced with stigma regarding the hamper program….producers do not want to donate because of the “people who take advantage of programs like this” and “do they get food from the foodbank too?” and “how do you regulate who gets help?”   My brief answer is: anyone who asks for help will receive it. We are trying to create a program where stigma does not exist. Food is a necessity and noone should go without it. It is not up to me to decide who “deserves” help.

My lengthy response might sound like this: how dare you. Would you let your own child/spouse/family member go hungry or without good clean clothing? What gives you the right to decide who gets help and who doesn’t? For the 1% that might be taking advantage of the program, 99% are truly getting the help they need. And I most certainly would rather help everyone, then none. If someone asks for help, why should they not receive it? How can you, in your heart feel okay by telling someone that you don’t have a spare shirt you can donate, or a bunch of bananas, or what have you… everyone can give something to help another person out….even it is just time to help teach them about how to plant a small garden and maintain it. It is very sad in the world we live in that stigma still gets in the way as much as it does because every one at some time, needs help for something….and yet…many people do NOTHING. Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away….fat chance there. The truth is, there will always be people asking for help because they need it….and there will always be people who ask for help that you do not think, need it. When in actuality they do. Now, keep in mind, they may be asking for the wrong type of help and for that reason alone, no one should be turned away…sometimes that request for help, is actually a CRY for help…and if we turn our backs and don’t listen and offer assistance, that person could be lost forever.

I have to ask this:

How would you feel if you went into your Doctor’s office and asked for help with your cold and he told you he couldn’t spare the medicine? Or he didn’t feel you were sick enough to deserve treatment…

Thanks to Heather for sharing her experiences…we’ll continue with part 2 on Friday.

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