I Think It Was His Eyes That Got Me

I think it was his eyes that got me. Deep brown, wide and curious with one a little lazy, I noticed he seemed a little lost in the mix. Or maybe what got me was that he was wearing the same Hulk Smash Halloween costume my kindergartener was wearing during their Halloween class party over two years ago.

I was there as a mom trying to help with the chaos of five and six-year-olds amped up on candy and holiday excitement when I noticed him. The teacher had a neat pumpkin game where each child was given a small plastic pumpkin with a lowercase letter on the bottom of it. Each child was then supposed to go find the uppercase match also on the bottom of a plastic pumpkin hidden in the field by the school.

I noticed the teacher quietly pull this precious boy aside and talk with him about what his letter was. He didn’t know his letters yet. His was a g.

I couldn’t get the boy out of my head, so a week or so later, I emailed the teacher and asked if I could help him learn his letters. I know nothing about the best methods for educating young children, but I thought I could at least spend a little time on letters. How hard could that be?

Two years have gone by. As you can see by this year’s Halloween photo, he trick-or-treated with us this year. His mom, my friend now, was working her second shift job and couldn’t take him. In those two years, we have learned his story, grown to love him and his family and are trying to help them with the challenges that poverty and, honestly, bad choices throw at people.

You see, not long after I started working with him at school, I learned that his father was in jail, his mother had been in and out of jail (mostly out since he had been born). All on drug-related charges. Although she’d worked briefly at a gas station, she generated money to live off through the only thing she knew how to do easily- sell drugs.

Over these couple of years, she’s opened her heart to me and I’ve come to see that things aren’t always what they seem on the surface. I’ve come to find that those that we most want to condemn in the world are in the situations they are in, yes because of poor choices, but also because of the lack of resources, and not just financial resources, that many of us often take for granted because they are so readily at our disposal.

I’ve realized that the barriers I learned about and taught people about through the Facilitating Career Development curriculum are real barriers and often stacked on top of one another.

Here are the barriers I’ve seen and the story of this family as we’ve tried to walk alongside them to overcome them:

1. Past mistakes that can’t be erased or overcome even once people make a choice to live a different way. My friend made a choice about a year ago to stop living the way she was living. She decided she couldn’t go back to jail, couldn’t keep selling drugs to keep a roof over her family’s head.  We went to lunch and I heard her entire story, surprised at how candid and honest she was about her mistakes.  And also, I hate to admit, surprised at how her anxieties and fears were similar to my own. Mamas really just want a good life for their kids; it’s what we worry about the most.

We went to the NCC after lunch.  There she got some clothes for a couple of her kids (she wouldn’t take any for herself because she said had what she needed) and we talked about a pathway out of her situation. Pamela and Tim and all the staff at the NCC are a great resource to walk alongside people to understand their situations, provide practical and accountable solutions, and have the patience and grace to stay the course with people.

She needed help with the utility bill, and Pamela told me that this was how she knew she wasn’t dealing anymore. If she wanted to, Pamela said, she could get money fast to pay to keep the lights on through dealing again. She wasn’t doing it though. The NCC provided support to pay part of the utility bill.

In between this happening and now, she’s been evicted from her rental home, lived with two of her children and a new grandbaby in an extended stay motel, moved in with her father where she and our brown-eyed boy slept on an air mattress in his one bedroom apartment and within the last month, they have moved into an apartment on their own where she is struggling to pay the rent.

She’s held down a job now for more than four months, but the news came that her court date for charges dating back to 2015 was on the settlement docket. We went to court and waited her turn only for her case to be postponed till next year. Tim with the NCC sat and waited with us.

It’s hard for me to understand how and why the judicial system takes so long. But even though she has started to make better choices, her past mistakes will shape her future. We don’t know what that will look like when her case comes back up again.

While I’m not in any way saying people should not be held accountable for their mistakes, the fines and fees and punishments that go along with the judicial system hold people back from getting to a point of self-sufficiency. So do predatory lending practices and government systems that incentivize the opposite of good outcomes and self-sufficiency. This is most apparent for those who are trying to lead a different life than the one that got them into these systems. Which leads me to my next barrier.

2. Transportation. I take for granted that I can get in my car at any time, never have a second thought if it will start and never worry about where gas money will come from. Transportation is a tremendous barrier for people trying to find and keep a job to lead to a better life.

Because of my friend’s past, she owes fines and has to have a special kind of insurance to get her drivers license back. We are working on this.  In addition, once that is taken care of, the cost of a vehicle comes in. The NCC is working with her if and when we can get her license squared away to provide her with a vehicle she can pay the center for weekly. She will have to participate in drug testing on a regular basis to keep the vehicle.

Right now, she is paying for a ride to and from work with a co-worker (at a price that is way more than what she should have to pay) and her daughter has a car that provides some transportation options at times.

3. Childcare. Ever wondered what people with kids do when they have jobs that aren’t at times most people work? Second shifts start right about the time kids are getting out of school. If you don’t have family or your job doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of child care, what do you do?  In addition, what do if you can find childcare and pay for it, but it ends well before your shift does?

We’ve helped my friend to work around this barrier, but have you ever thought about these questions before? It’s a conundrum to work through.

4. Finding and keeping a job (that also covers a minimum standard of living). I’m proud that my friend has been working towards sustainable employment. She worked at the chicken plant for a while but was let go for accumulating too many points for absences due to the health and legal issues of two of her children.

She has a job she really likes now. She got it by her own efforts through a temporary agency. She has been hired on with the company in a permanent role that will start next month, which also comes with a raise and benefits.

A weekly paycheck of approximately $300-400 might get you in a Kia, but it does not go far. It always seems to be a game of waiting for the next paycheck to come around because the money is always used to pay for basic necessities. And helping to understand what the most basic necessity is at the moment is also hard.

I will say, it is hard to understand the mindset of spending when there isn’t money to spend. The NCC is working with my friend to help her understand how to budget and to provide small amounts of support to provide necessities when needed. The budgeting problem is tied to another barrier as well.

5. Simply not knowing what you don’t know. I take for granted that my parents spoke openly with me as a child about what things cost and what we could and couldn’t afford. I had a savings account as a child, and my parents had incomes and saving habits that never led us to live paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t pick or chose my way into this, I was born into it. My friend was born into her situation and her brown-eyed boy was too. We are trying to create opportunities for exposure to a different way.

In addition, with every problem, my friend has brought my way I have at least one person I can pick up the phone and call about trying to alleviate the problem. Take her legal problems. I know her attorney and the judges in Morgan County, and I have no problem contacting them due to our personal and professional connections.  If my friend has problems with school for one of her kids I pick up the phone and call my contacts at the central office or the principal of the school that her children attend.  I have known someone in my network I can immediately pick up the phone and call, and the NCC has been the most called upon resource. Again, I didn’t choose these connections, I was born into most of them.

I thought everyone could just pick up the phone and call someone they know. They can’t, because they don’t know who and what they don’t know. I thought most everyone knows how to live within their means. When the means are so small and no one has taught you how to do that, a lot of people don’t or can’t.

In all of this, the NCC has been the avenue of hope, prayer, accountability, and patience for my friend and me as we try to navigate and overcome these barriers. There are people in our community that are honestly trying and are overlooked or judged because of past mistakes and the environment they were born into. They just need a hand, a prayer and someone to walk alongside them to be their neighbor.

And walking alongside people requires financial resources. Not handouts but hands up. I’ve found the NCC to be the best source for a hand-up for our neighbors.

As we do at Horizon Point each year, we try to live our value of giving back. In an effort to continue to help people like my friend with the life skills, workplace skills, and love needed for success, we’ve chosen to partner with the NCC for Giving Tuesday.

Horizon Point will match every donation dollar for dollar given to the NCC on Giving Tuesday up to $5000.00. We hope you will join us in changing our community one relationship and hand-up at a time. Help us make a big difference, please donate here.

For more information on the Neighborhood Christian Center of Alabama, Inc. (NCC), visit their website here.



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Mary Ila Ward