Surely, you and I can agree on this: No child in America deserves to live in poverty.
Yet a record number of children in this country — experts say nearly 25 percent — will not have enough to eat or a place to call home at some point this year.
We know this is wrong. We also know how to help — even if we don’t yet realize it.
Last Sunday, CBS’ “60 Minutes” reporter Scott Pelley told the story of poverty in America by digging deep into the despair of Seminole County, Fla., which is one county away but worlds apart from Walt Disney World. Seminole has so many homeless families that school buses now stop outside cheap hotels to pick up and drop off hundreds of children.
If you haven’t seen Pelley’s report, you can watch it online at tinyurl.com/4k53ggk.
Warning: He talks to a lot of children, and their hard-earned wisdom might bring you to your knees. As Pelley admitted in an online interview, he fought tears after asking a diverse group of children whether the electricity ever had been turned off at their homes. Virtually all of the young hands shot up in the air.
Pelley blinked, cleared his throat and asked how they do their homework.
The children rattled off their makeshift alternatives: Emergency flashlights. Candles. One boy explained, “I go out to the car and turn on the overhead and read out there and study.”
After watching Pelley’s report, the question loomed: How can we help?
There’s always the political route. We can pressure elected offi cials — through calls, letters and protests — not to slash funding for programs that offer vital lifelines to these children and their families. That is a necessary but prolonged battle, waged by sturdy souls. It’s not for everyone.
We can give money. If you want to contribute, search online or call any house of worship for the nearest shelter or food bank.
But here is a third option, particularly for mothers who never have spent a day worrying about how their children will eat or learn: We can share our time and our experience.
We can be sisters to women we’ve never met.
Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, president and founder of the National Center on Family Homelessness, said in a phone interview that poverty disproportionately derails the lives of single mothers.
“To a large degree, this is a gender issue,” she said. “Family composition has changed. The number of women heading households has grown, and so their numbers in poverty have grown.”
The trend of families crowding into cheap hotel rooms should alarm us, she said.
“Nobody sees them, and so they may be at greater risk,” she explained. “They aren’t visible like they are in shelters. They have no protection, no services.
“They have no access to cooking facilities, either, and no place for kids to play. And there are a lot of mothers with newborns and infants. They put the bottles in the back of toilets to keep the milk cold. When the baby’s up, everybody’s up. The mothers never get a break.”
That’s how other mothers could help, Bassuk said.
“A lot of women are good mothers,” she said. “They know how to care for kids. A group of mothers could volunteer to read to the children. They could create developmentally appropriate play spaces at shelters or create after-school programs.”
Most shelters and school administrators would welcome such efforts, she said, and provide guidance for setting them up.
Doing this would help children and their mothers.
“Volunteer mothers could offer a much-needed respite for these mothers,” she said, “and give them some space.”
Any devoted mother knows the restorative value of a brief break from the children she loves.
That’s why mothers take care of mothers. We always have, and we always will.
Surely, on this we can agree.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. ©2011 Creators