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A poverty beyond money

BECKLEY -- It was a largely professional crowd gathered at Wednesday night's meeting on child poverty, full of business owners, educators, social service providers, lawyers, doctors and retirees. A couple common threads wove through more than two hours of testimony to the state Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty.

First was the number of people who stood up, introduced themselves and said, "I grew up poor." Or, "I remember what it was like." Or, "I am a first-generation college graduate."

Second, was the observation by many of those same accomplished community members who said too many children today don't have even the advantages they had - particularly parents, single or married, or any reliable, caring adults in their lives.

Families today are torn apart by a rate of substance abuse, addiction and imprisonment that previous generations did not know.

Katie Gleasman, a Fayette County teacher, told the committee of one of her students, both of whose parents are in jail. He lives with his grandparents, so he has a home and people working hard to take care of him. In that way he is fortunate.

More money would doubtlessly help this struggling family, she said, but that isn't this child's greatest need.

"He simply doesn't care. He needs someone more than me to show him how to care. He needs someone to show him how to dream."

Another student, moments before a class change, pushed up her sleeve to reveal razor cuts up and down her forearm, Gleasman said. One class streamed out of the room, and the next one flowed in. What do you do?

"I taught for the next 49 minutes," she told the committee. "Then I talked to my principal for my 40-minute planning period." Then she talked to two counselors. She called the student's mother. She found a health professional who would bill the state Children's Health Insurance Program. She called to make sure the appointment was made. She made sure the family had a ride to the doctor. She took a breath. The room of 75 listeners gave her a standing ovation.

This was just one of her students, in one occurrence, during one 10-hour day, she said.

Her students need more adults in their lives looking out for them, and she needs more volunteers in her classroom -- community members who visit and talk to students about their work or career. Such adults could turn into connections for students. But some school policies that require costly background checks in the name of safety stifle volunteer efforts and deprive students of healthy mentors and support.

Margaret Ann O'Neal, executive director of United Way of Southern West Virginia, described using "The Sad, Mad, Glad Book" by Chuck Stump and Jim Strawn with a group of second-graders. They paused over a picture to discuss why a child might feel sad. "What makes you feel sad?" she asked.

"My mommy died," one child said.

Later, O'Neal learned that three mothers at that elementary school had overdosed and died within the year.

"They need parents," O'Neal said.

You can follow meetings of the Select Committee on Children and Poverty at YouTube.com/wvsenate.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at gazette@wvgazette.com.


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