Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: All of us see things in ways that are familiar to us. Everything is filtered through the lens of where we grew up, what our family was like, who our friends were and what experiences we have had. While we may think we understand what others are going through, to actually live it is another story. For many, when we think about people in poverty there is an element of judgment. It can be difficult not to think that “if they did this, they wouldn’t be in this predicament.” Listening to the stories of people who need help with food has greatly changed any judgment I may have had remaining.
The majority of the people we serve are senior citizens and children. Some of the people are disabled because of disease or injury and others have mental health issues like depression. Most of us agree we need to care for the elderly, children and the sick, but people raise questions about why we need to care for those who they feel aren’t trying hard enough to care for themselves. I found that talking to someone who has been there quickly puts things into a new perspective.
Someone I met through my work at the Food Bank shared her story with me and it spoke to a series of bad events followed by more of the same for their comfortable two-income household. It began with one of the family cars breaking down and needing $2,000 in repairs. Two weeks later, an auto accident totaled the other car, so they had to buy a $1,000 clunker. They were keeping their heads above water when the husband’s hours were cut because business was down. Parents helped with bags of food, but couldn’t do much more on their retirement income. When money got tight, they started selling household items to buy food and gas to get to work.
As bad as it was, things got worse when the wife lost a job she had held for over twenty years referring people to emergency food and shelter resources. She knew the system well and went to one of the Food Bank’s Community Produce Program sites where she got much-needed fresh fruits and vegetables for her family. Going to the site brought her to tears, not because she was treated poorly “the people who helped me were incredibly nice,” but because the reality of being on the receiving side was so much harder than she imagined. It was scary to know that the person needing help was her. Knowing that she was asking for help for her family was more than she could bear. She desperately wanted to think of herself as a contributing member of society, not someone who had to take. She now has a part-time job and things are going the right direction for her, but she feels like she is trying to manage circumstance she cannot control.
Listening to her story made me wonder. I like to think that I have job security, enough savings and a strong enough support system to never be in this situation, but stories like this remind me that anything could change and I might need help. How would I feel if it happened to me?