Photograph by Macaulay Lerman
Audio by Vermont Folklife
1. "Sometimes a simple act of kindness means a lot more..." (2:12)
I remember being approached by a gentleman once, a young gentleman with a wife and a small, very small child, a few months old. And we were chatting about some situation or another or something that they had requested assistance with. And at one point he smiled and he said, "You don't remember me, do you?" And I went, "Oh, I'm sorry. I see so many people. I'm so, so sorry." And he said, "No, I came in here like five or six years ago,"-- more than that, really, because now he was a young gentleman with a wife and a child of his own. But he said, "I came in here five or six years ago with my mother and I was just a kid. And we were talking and, and I remember you talked to me like you were talking to my mom about why we came in and what she needed. But you talked to me and you found out that I liked seashells. And then, like, a week later, you called my mom, and she came in to see you. And you gave me all of these seashells that you had collected when you were a kid." And I just thought that's really that was really sweet, that that meant something to him. And I'm sure that I was hoping that he would like them in the moment. But as he was telling me, I kept thinking, I vaguely remember that. And it just reminded me that sometimes a simple act of kindness means a lot more than you think it does in the moment. But again, that goes back to at the very least, what we can try to do is, is treat people around us with compassion, treat people around us with kindness. And it's important to remember in this field because the stress of going through poverty, the stress of being homeless, the stress of fear around how you're going to put food on the table or keep a roof over your head for yourself, much less your children and your loved ones, sometimes means that the folks that are going through that experience don't always show their best selves. And it's important to remember that. Now we use terms like trauma-informed conversation and things along those lines. But at the heart of it, it's just remembering that we're all people and we don't always put our best faces forward and that shouldn't be how we are perceived forever, you know?
2. "She never, just never, anticipated being poor..." (2:22)
I remember one lady, who was an older lady, and she had said that they never, they just never anticipated being poor. Her husband had worked his whole life. She had been largely a homemaker because that was her role at that point in time. And they just never thought that they would need our type of services. But her husband got sick after they retired, and at one point she had said to me, "When he retired, we owned the mobile home and we owned the little plot of land that it was on. We didn't owe anything. We had $24,000 in the bank, and that was more than we ever had saved before. And I just thought this is, this is what retirement is. Like, we own our home, we're safe. We've got a little bit of money in the bank. It should be enough to last us." And of course, when I'm hearing that I'm thinking, no, $24,000 is not a significant amount of money to get through retirement with. Everybody's perspective is different. Everybody's reality is different. But he got sick. He got sick, and there were lots of expenses that weren't covered by their insurance. And that $24,000 simply did not last. And the reason that I remember her in particular, is because she said "We've been trying to do everything we could to not have to ask for help." And what she meant by that, as we dug a little deeper, was that her husband had a collection of books because he had been a teacher and she sold off all of the books and she sold off his tool kit and all of those things that had represented an important part of his life and his history. And they were selling them off to try to pay basic bills like home heating fuel and putting food on the table, so. That's a sadder thing to remember, I suppose. But again, that's something that I distinctly remember is having that conversation with that lady and, and just the, the sort of shock and loss in her eyes and in her voice as she was telling me what they were having to do to try to survive. And unfortunately, that happens all too often. You know, a lot of folks would rather talk about anything else under the sun than to talk about their personal finances and struggles that they might be having.
3. "It's a very real life for many, many people..." (2:04)
I honestly don't know what it's like to live in poverty. I only know based on the experiences that are shared with me by the people we work with. And again, it goes back to those things that we've already talked about. Living in a constant state of stress. Not all the time, of course. You hope that there are moments of joy--that there are, are good things that come out of it. And living in poverty doesn't mean you have a horrible childhood or the horrible life, but it does mean that you're worrying more around how to put food on the table. Around what you're going to eat. You know, you end up spending more just to have the basics. It's expensive to be poor. It's expensive when you have to shop at a convenience store because you don't have the money to afford reliable transportation to go to a grocery store. You end up having more expensive food that is of lesser quality available to you. And then all of the ramifications of a long-term diet that's based on that. As I said, I can't tell you literally what it's like to live in poverty because I am grateful that I've never had to do that. But I know that it's not easy. I know that, that you can experience living in a food desert in the middle of a city if you can't have access to affordable, healthy options. Struggling to understand how you're going to pay the light bills. It's, it's a very real life for many, many people in Chittenden County and across Vermont. The data, the statistics, the number of people that we work with every year shows that. And as I said, going back to it, realizing how many of the people that we work with, that we provide services to get by--struggle to get by, but get by in general--on less than $1,000 a month.