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'What can I do?'

After reading in recent weeks about children and families in desperate poverty, a number of readers have asked me, "What can I do?"

Many were moved by the woman from Fayette County who, supported by her teenage daughter, told members of the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty that she had been without heat for three weeks. Others were struck by accounts of children who do not have textbooks or other tools they need to apply themselves at school. Or they were distressed that children do not have functioning parents or other reliable caregivers in their lives.

Of course, you can always write a check. Groups such as the United Way, Mountaineer Food Bank and Huntington Area Food Bank collect money year round to funnel toward food, clothing and shelter for people who need it.

"What can I do, besides give money?" a reader asked. Here is what I've collected so far:

• Call your local United Way, said Margaret Ann O'Neal, as she passed leftover food trays to a homeless man who had spoken at the Senate committee meeting in Beckley.

O'Neal, executive director of United Way of Southern West Virginia, said in her region, for example, there is a second-grade reading initiative that needs help, food pantries need volunteers and someone is needed to pack food to send home with children on school holidays and weekends.

"Be a Boy Scout leader or a Girl Scout leader," she said. "If you have an hour a week, we can find something for you to do. You can make a difference in an hour a week."

• Like O'Neal, you can help the person next to you. At the Senate committee meeting in Oak Hill on March 13, Kimberly Goodwin Shrewsbury said she could find no help to repair a damaged circuit breaker box and she and her four children had been without heat for three weeks. After she spoke, Joshua Parsons exchanged phone numbers with her and volunteered to repair the box that weekend.

Parsons and his co-workers labored that weekend and returned the following week to finish the job. An inspector waived his usual fee, and the family's power and heat was restored March 21, Parsons said later.

• Follow us on Facebook, said Erin Highlander, development director at Huntington Area Food Bank. When an urgent need for volunteers or donations arises, they put out a call. That goes for Mountaineer Food Bank, too.

"There's always the opportunity to donate to a food drive," Highlander said. "Put a box in your office. You'd be shocked how many people will bring things in, and it doesn't cost you a whole lot."

A few children recently have even turned their birthdays into little food drives by asking for food donations instead of gifts, she said.

Easy-to-open pop-top cans and single servings are in great demand for children. Peanut butter flies off the shelves.

"You donate it today. We can have it in a pantry tomorrow," Highlander said.

"We encourage people to have competitions with it, among classrooms, for example. Things like that, it gets everybody involved."

• Write the governor and support Medicaid expansion, said Sam Hickman, executive director of West Virginia's chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

"It is the single most important civil rights and social justice issue of our day," Hickman said.

"I tell social workers, 'You got into this field because you wanted to help people, and that's fine. But think about helping more people.'"

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, states may expand Medicaid to families making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, about $26,300 a year for a family of three. The expansion is completely federally funded for the first three years, and then requires 10 percent state funding. In West Virginia, it would mean health care for about 100,000 low-income working people who cannot get insurance through their jobs and who cannot afford it on their own.

• On a policy level, call the governor about Medicaid expansion, echoes Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.

But if you want to do something else, "Call me," he said, at 304-610-6512.

"If there is anyone out there looking to be involved as an individual volunteer, as a church congregation, as a community member, we would love to hear from them," Smith said.

"In addition to working on statewide policy, we've also been collecting the best ideas of what local people are doing to respond. I really would be happy to take that phone call."

• Lawmakers appear to feel a similar urge to do something. The Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty originated a bill this week that would offer another way to contribute.

The Feed to Achieve Act, passed by the full Senate on Friday, acknowledges that poor nutrition and hunger prevent children from learning. The bill would build on existing child nutrition efforts.

First, it would require school systems to spread statewide a successful pilot effort to serve breakfast and lunch to all students. The federal school lunch program reimburses states for each meal served, at higher rates for children who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and a lesser amount for children who don't qualify.

By serving more meals, the state would receive more money for schools with a high proportion of poor students. The bill would also require schools to develop alternative breakfast options and scheduling that lead to more students actually eating the meal, such as "grab-and-go" bags.

Second, the bill would permit counties and the state to collect private donations to buy food for children, particularly to take home or to have after school, when low-income children tend to go hungry.

"This is a direct impact of our meetings," said Sen. John Unger, chairman of the committee. "It's not only about feeding every child. It's also an opportunity for people, by coming together, to rally around their schools, to have a common vision and a common goal."

For people who want to do something.

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


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