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Let’s honor our children, too




Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz

It’s starting to look as if the heartland may be losing its pulse.

This latest Code Blue is brought to you by Michigan, where state elected officials are debating whether foster children deserve to wear new clothes.

State Sen. Bruce Caswell wants the government to pay only for used clothes, insisting that the retreads of thrift shops are just fine for children who already have lost their homes and the parents who were supposed to love them.

Worked for him, Caswell says. The used-clothes part, he means. He had a father — and a family, too.

“I never had anything new. I got all the hand-me-downs. And my dad, he did a lot of shopping at The Salvation Army, and his comment was — and quite frankly, it’s true — once you’re out of the store and you walk down the street, nobody knows where you bought your clothes.”

Nobody but you, that is — “you” being the children who already feel like traded goods.

Gilda Jacobs is executive director for the Michigan League for Human Services. Caswell’s proposal left her “flabbergasted.”

“I really couldn’t believe this,” she told Michigan Radio. “I think that there’s the whole issue of dignity. You’re saying to somebody, ‘You don’t deserve to go in and buy a new pair of gym shoes.’ You know, for a lot of foster kids, they already have so much stacked against them.”

Five days have passed since I first heard about this, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of lucky children. Easter weekend brought my grandson to our door. Then I traveled for work, so I’ve crossed paths with dozens of kids in airports.

Without exception, they had grown-ups hovering nearby as they hopped, skipped and sometimes screamed their way toward airline gates. Contrast those young fliers with the little ones sorting through used T-shirts from The Salvation Army and you have a pretty good gauge of my mood.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the issue of dignity. I’m drawn to people who embody it. Some of their stories floated to the top of my memory this week:

— In 2004, Iraq War veteran Sgt. Cheri L. Brown donated her dusty desert boots to a traveling exhibit of 800 pairs honoring America’s fallen. “Could you straighten them out, make sure they’re placed together right?” she asked the exhibit’s organizers. “Whenever we stand together, that’s how we do it, in formation.”

— One Sunday, I was sitting in church, when my cellphone rang during the sermon. Pastor Woody gracefully segued into an anecdote about a woman who once answered her cellphone in an inappropriate setting and held a conversation. Then he smiled at me and added, “I’m not talking about when we forget to turn off our phones. That can happen to anyone. We all make mistakes.”

— In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, horrified Americans watched TV images of bloated bodies floating facedown in flooded streets and thousands of adults so hungry and thirsty they were incoherent. Cleveland resident Katherine White called me, outraged that the media were calling the victims “refugees.”

“Those are poor people, poor people who are citizens of the United States,” she said. “They aren’t refugees; they aren’t running from their government. They had no means to get out — no car, no money.”

That same week, The Plain Dealer — the newspaper for which I work — joined The Washington Post, The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe when we announced we no longer would refer to the hurricane victims as refugees.

Finally, I am reminded of a story about another group of children. They attended a school in my old neighborhood. Every day after school, they would cross the street and greet an orange cat named Tim-Tom, who waited for them in his owners’ driveway.

One day, he was suddenly gone. When Marianne and Paul Carey looked out their window and saw the children searching for him, they posted a photo of Tim- Tom — and his obituary — on the lamppost:

“We would sadly like to let the neighborhood know that our dutiful Tim-Tom passed away on Sat. at age 18 years and 2 months. He is peacefully resting in our garden.”

Hours later, the children’s letters of condolence started showing up. They piled them on the grass beneath their old friend’s picture.

Children notice, Sen. Caswell. Children notice everything.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. ©2011 Creators


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