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Individual problems don't defy solutions at child poverty hearing

OAK HILL, W.Va. -- Kimberly Goodwin Shrewsbury, 55, of Red Star, walked with difficulty toward the middle of a room full of people Wednesday night. Supported physically and emotionally by her teenage daughter, she spoke into the microphone handed to her: "I have been without heat for three weeks."

Outside the Historic Oak Hill School, steady snowfall covered the packed parking lot. Inside, people with and without warm homes sat and stood in an awkward and respectful silence as she went on.

"I have no money to fix it. I feel like I've let my kids down. I can't cook, clean, wash clothes or anything because I have no money to do this."

She and about 100 people squeezed into an old school cafeteria, now the Historic School Café, to speak to members of the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty. It is the first committee meeting outside of Charleston during the legislative session in anyone's memory.

For two hours, committee Chairman John Unger, D-Berkeley; and members Ron Stollings, D-Boone; Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier; Bill Laird, D-Fayette; and Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire, listened to residents of the 10th District describe conditions that conspire to keep children poor:

• When people suffer disabling injuries, there is no rehabilitation. There is no retraining for a new job. People may collect a disability check, but it's little wonder people turn to drugs and alcohol in their depression.

• Drug and alcohol dependence become their own disabilities.

• Children see parents not working or unable to work. They think that is how society is supposed to be. They see no reason to go to school or graduate and work toward jobs.

• Children come to the Southern Appalachian Labor School for tutoring. Children from some schools come with textbooks. But children from other schools are not sent home with textbooks. The attitude there is that those children will just lose the books or throw them away.

• Children are sent home with work to do on CDs or DVDs, even if they have no devices to use such tools.

• One child, a girl with a 3.7 grade point average, was tired of having no food and no water, so she called Child Protective Services herself. The CPS worker asked her where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. When the child said she wanted to go to WVU to study medicine, the worker told her to "get real."

• For students who do graduate from high school and want to go further in education, there is not enough financial help. Students are wary of taking on debt they won't be able to repay or embarking on a degree or trade program if they don't know how they will pay from the start.

• Money for school field trips is important to rural and poor students. A trip from Oak Hill to Charleston can be the first time some students see anywhere outside their county.

• Poor quality housing interferes with children going to school and learning. They live in places where roofs and doors leak. They frequently live without water or heat for periods of time.

• Some children get their only meals at school, including children of working parents who may regularly drive an average of 28 miles to work.

• Children are hospitalized with psychological problems and drug dependence. When their conditions improve, they are sent home to the same circumstances that led to their problems.

• Children arrive at hospitals sexually active as young as 10. Sometimes they are dirty or infested with lice. No one has taught them how to keep themselves clean.

• Children arrive in schools and hospitals and tear up walls. They have been abused, neglected or both. They're angry. They cut themselves for relief.

• People who want to work need more opportunities to train in useful skills, and could be useful in helping to fix problems, such as poor housing.

• In the past, when parents were unable to take care of children, families turned to grandparents, but increasingly, children have no grandparents to rely on.

• A vacation Bible school has changed in recent years to respond to hungry children showing up. The church offers more sessions and more substantial food for children who are hungry during the summer.

The meeting was hosted by the Southern Appalachian Labor School for the 10th Senate District, which includes, Fayette, Greenbrier, Summers and Monroe counties. Unger hopes to convene committee meetings in all 17 districts to hear from individuals about helping children in poverty.

"I have $300 a month," Kimberly Goodwin Shrewsbury told the committee. "I have three kids in school and one works here. I'm so proud of them. I can't walk like I should. It's hard. I can't do it anymore. I came here to speak and get a meal."

Her children "can only do so much and go to school," she said. "I'm disappointed in myself because I can't do any better. I feel like a sponge. I'm a bum."

As soon as she finished, a man approached her and said he had a spare circuit breaker box, which seemed to be the source of trouble with power to her mobile home. They exchanged phone numbers. He planned to install it this weekend. Several others came by to thank her for speaking and passed her some cash, maybe for some food or kerosene in the meantime.

Meetings of the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty, including Wednesday's meeting in Oak Hill, can be seen on YouTube.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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