Monthly Archives: May 2016

Working Poor

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Working Poor

Imagine what it’s like to raise your family in a motel. The academic, nutritional and social consequences for children abound. It’s only a step above homelessness, but so many are cycling through seedy motel rooms because of the lack of affordable housing in Central Florida… Yesterday, my friend Jen and I volunteered to survey the occupants of some of these motels. We met both families and individuals with interesting stories of how they ended up in this situation, and most interestingly – they were all employed. I’ll share a few of their stories here.

First we met Mr. Ulrie, who was a Vietnam war Veteran that had worked for the IRS for fifteen years before moving to Central Florida. He now works full-time at a popular hotel chain, but has lived in the motel where we met him for the past 3 years. He swore to us that he was not on drugs. He had just returned from his shift and was sipping a Bud Light. “This is my only drug,” he said as he tapped the can. Because of health problems, he hadn’t been able to work for a month and that’s how he ended up in a motel. He’s been on a waiting list for an apartment complex down the street, but they won’t call because he has an eviction on his record.

Next, we met Lexi who was living in a motel room with 4 children and her significant other. Her one year old little boy chased an inflatable ball outside the room as we asked her a few questions “to help us do a better job with programs and services for people without stable, permanent housing.” She was so grateful – you could see it in her eyes as she said it was a “really good thing that y’all are doing.” She was 20 years old with two small children, and raising her boyfriend’s teenage sons as well. She worked part time as a waitress, and she guessed that they had lived in 20 different motels in the area, also because of past evictions. She was still so young herself, but as a product of the Department of Children & Families, she had no other family or support system to rely on.

Similarly, Chayew did not have any family to rely on either. All of his relatives had died from alcoholism, but he said he had been sober for 20 years. He was a Native American from the Seminole tribe, and he didn’t even want to talk to us because he was used to the government wasting his time. After a bit of coaxing, he opened the door and came out to share his story. He was a product of the Government Boarding Schools Program, and he said he had lived in every motel along the I92 corridor where we were surveying. He called his motel room his “kingdom” then pointed to an old van in the parking lot, which also sometimes served as his “kingdom.” He had been working as a plasterer at a local theme park, but was suddenly out of work. He might end up sleeping in his van or in the woods nearby soon.

We met another man named James, who also worked full time in construction and didn’t make enough money to afford a security deposit, on top of first and last month’s rent at an apartment. This was typical of most. Someone even stated that the price of renting was so high that you might as well buy a house. While unemployment is at an all-time low in Floridathe median price of housing is rising; and this leaves many of the working poor with few options other than to throw away the little money they have on rent, or live in these motels. In the worst case scenario, families end up living in their cars or even in the woods.

In the best cases, they end up in these shady motels, where their children might witness some of the most hopeless forms of human activity from a young age. And as Lexi’s case shows, placing these children in DCF might only perpetuate this cycle. The amount of strain that living in these close quarters can put on a relationship or family dynamic is bad enough on its own. And the degree that this kind of environment can set back a school-aged child is catastrophic to their future development. Something needs to be done. Giving these families affordable housing options is the only way to give their children the equal opportunity that they deserve to go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives. Whether privately or publicly funded, they need affordable housing now.

Key Lime Love Tree

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Key Lime Love Tree

Today is my parents’ 31st anniversary. They first met because of a key lime pie, which makes me a key lime pie baby – sweet and tart. The setting was Southern Belize, where my mother was living with a Catholic nun and teaching home economic skills to Mayan Indian women. My dad was living just one village away in Big Falls running crews at his parents’ saw mill. The first time she saw him, he was erecting a radio tower at the age of fourteen. No one could compare. He was so mature for his age, but still she was cautious because she’d had her heart broken before.

They finally interacted one day because my grandmother wanted to bake a key lime pie, so she sent my dad to the nun’s house to trade eggs for key limes from their tree. The nun wasn’t home, so my mother answered the door when he arrived. She wished he’d go away, but felt obligated to help him. As they picked the key limes together, he spoke to her and she laughed because he is a total ham. He eventually asked her to go with him to a dance at the community center that weekend, so she said yes. They have been together 37 years since.

At first, my mother didn’t want to pursue a relationship with my dad. He  would throw flowers at the car as she rode by, but still she wouldn’t budge. He even bought her a ring with a tiny diamond in it. Sister Marianne Joseph wanted my mother to become a nun, and she didn’t want her to have anything to do with my father. She made her return the ring. And even today, the Sister blatantly states, “This is one marriage I never expected to work out.” For a whole year, my father kissed the dimple on my mother’s cheek without the least bit of encouragement. And finally, she fell for him when she was about to leave for nursing school in Belize City.

For years, they dated long distance. He would ride along on sugar cane trucks, or any chance at transportation he got, to visit her in the city – on treacherous roads that were so primitive, they flooded between rivers in the rainy season. She gave him back his ring so many times, but still he persisted. Even when she tried to pawn him off on her friends, he always came back, and the ring always returned with him. When I was little, I would wear this ring whenever my mother would let me, just hoping that I would have a story like theirs someday.

When I graduated from college, I decided to move to Belize. Partly because I wanted to become a dive instructor, and partly because I had this romantic notion that I would meet someone in the jungle who would love me as much as my Dad loves my Mom, despite the hardships and pain. I thought that living in a developing country entailed hard work, and I might find someone with a work ethic like my Dad’s, his father’s, and his father’s before him. Obviously, it didn’t work out the way I had planned. But I still hope to find real Love, somewhere, someday.

Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad. I’m sorry that I couldn’t think of anything to give you, but hopefully one day your key lime love tree will have enough fruit to bake a pie.

Learning to Read

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On my first day of kindergarten, I came home from school crying because I didn’t how to read. When I had asked my parents when I would be able to read like my older sister, they had said ‘kindergarten’ and I thought that meant immediately, on the first day. I was so disappointed to know that there was no magical trick that enabled me to read by virtue of being in Kindergarten. But by Christmas of that school year, I knew how to read books. By 4th grade, I was reading at a 9th grade reading level and I still like to read novels when I have time. However, so many children never reach full proficiency in reading by 4th grade, and will never enjoy school because of this disadvantage.

On a recent Facebook post about adult illiteracy, a friend asked me why I think it is that so many children do no learn to read in school and need remedial tutoring. I told her that I think it’s because of the lack of resources to so many single mothers who are working so hard to support their families. In fact, when I was living in Central America, I had a friend who fit this exact mold. Her son Jared was in Standard 1 (about 3rd grade) and he had never mastered basic phonics. His mother managed a hotel, owned her own business, and had two other children to care for. Jared was lost in the chaos of her life, as are most middle children. His grandmother watched him after school, and the group tutoring sessions he went to simply weren’t enough.

I started tutoring Jared 3 times a week after work, because he had fallen so far behind that he might be held back. Some thought that he might be disabled, because he would just stare at his tests. But really, I’m pretty sure that it was because he just couldn’t read them. Word problems in math were impossible for him too, because he couldn’t read. Taking notes from the blackboard was a jumble of confusion. And reading comprehension was simply out of his league. We began working together using hooked on phonics. After taking time to go back to the basics, Jared eventually began to pass his spelling tests. We were reading small books together by the time I left in December, and it was so hard to leave knowing that his mother would not have time to continue his tutoring.

There are so many Jareds in the school system in the United States, with single mothers who struggle to keep their families housed. They may not receive child support, might be working three jobs, and have zero spare time. It seems impossible to prioritize reading with their kids,when they are struggling so hard to survive. And their children will most likely never excel in school, if they don’t have a basic understanding of phonics before they reach that decisive age. It’s literally sink or swim. As one teacher in Orlando puts it: “Lack of access to quality education – you might as well be drowning in a pool.” Now that is something to cry about.

Happy Labor Day

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Today is May Day or International Workers’ Day in most other countries except for the United States, where “Labor Day” is celebrated on the first Monday of September. This is ironic because International Workers’ Day actually began in the United States on May 1, 1886 when 300,000 workers from 13,000 businesses across the United States walked out on their jobs to demand an eight hour work day without a cut in pay. This led to violence and retribution from industrialists and the ruling class, and Labor Day was eventually established in September as a day “to celebrate labor.” But in reality, it is a day to separate labor because nothing scares governments more than the thought that one holiday could be the unifying impetus that brings together International Workers of the World to Unite. And the Red Scare’s legacy, in its elimination of this story from our history books, continues to weigh heavily on the backs of soldiers, workers, and the poor.

At present, things have changed greatly since 1886. People still work over eight hours each day, but they are asked to sign contracts that sell their personal lives in exchange for a salary instead. The federal government is still dominated by lobbying groups connected to large industrial concerns including the oil industry, defense contracting, and especially international finance. The recent financial crisis in 2007 and the ensuing Arab Spring, M15, and Occupy Movements across the world are the closest that international workers have ever come to uniting. But because of the lack of leadership and real understanding by the common man about what exactly needed to be changed and how, these movements lost their voice by not coming together to make a common demand.

This brings into question a statement by Diego Rivera on this mural (pictured) that was chipped out of Rockefeller Center: “The liberation of the workers may only be the work of the laborers themselves.” But are the workers educated enough to liberate themselves? Do future workers graduate from high school with an education that equips them to understand the complexities of our interdependent world? Are they enabled to make good decisions when electing our future leaders, let alone make their own financial decisions? For me, and in light of the soundbites that I accidentally hear from the current Presidential debates, the answer is no. They are not. And as a believer in the potential for art and culture to produce real social change, I would go so far as to state that Diego Rivera actually did us a disservice by not producing the fresco that he was originally contracted to paint in Rockefeller Center. He missed an opportunity to unite  international workers of the world with the people who want to help them most, the industrialists, financiers, and business class.

Diego Rivera’s mural was chipped out of the wall at Rockefeller Center, due to its strongly communist overtones because he succumbed to peer pressure by his contemporaries who called him a sellout for painting for the Rockefellers. The fresco he painted, with a portrait of Lenin and an unflattering depiction of Rockefeller Sr., is much different from the painting that he originally proposed. And Rivera expert Linda Downs explains the unifying message of the original sketches: “He had this vision of the importance of technology in the future and the hope that there would be a coming together of workers and industrialists and businessmen to further mankind in general … It was a very hopeful mural.” The proposed fresco, as depicted in his sketches, remains a missing piece of history that could have depicted hope, and possibly instigated collaboration amongst these disparate classes that are hardly ever brought together by any networking group or chamber of commerce.

But the frequent inability of revolutionaries and politicians to collaborate with their contemporaries continues to weigh heavily on the working man’s back. Their lofty goals and ideals are incapable of translating into real change that will further the best interests of everyone, not just either the workers or the ruling class. When international workers of the world do unite, whether behind a protest like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement in 2011, or behind a bigoted billionaire running for the U.S. Presidency; the results tend to be detrimental to societies at large. Just look at Lybia, Egypt or Germany after World War II. A lack of access to quality education continues to oppress so many in the United States who are not given an equal opportunity to succeed. But beyond quality education, the real problem is that our true history is not taught to children at all. Like the celebration of Labor Day, so many other holidays and story tales obfuscate the truth behind our history. And this makes us doomed to repeat it.