My grandmother was an elementary school teacher in Cambria County, Pennsylvania (Read: poor!) for over 30 years before she retired. One of her more noteworthy memories happened at Christmastime nearly 40 years ago.
Her students participated in a “Secret Santa” gift exchange. While all of the other students were opening up neat presents like baseball cards, knock-off Barbie dolls, and Silly Putty in the middle of the class party (schools were allowed to have Christmas parties back then), one kid, John, gave his assigned pal, Donnie, a small bag of potato chips because that’s all his mother could afford.
Instead of being rude and appalled about receiving such a terrible gift, Donnie looked at an ashamed John and graciously said “Thank you, these chips are exactly what I wanted.”
Let’s raise our kids to be as compassionate and caring as Donnie.
There is a misconception that in America, one has to be essentially homeless to be considered impoverished. That’s not the case. Poverty exists everywhere and is in our own backyards. A few months back, I wrote about my personal experience with a childhood friend here.
Single parents are struggling to put food on their tables.
Millions of kids qualify for free school breakfasts and lunches.
When the new school year approaches in August, many children never have the luxury of going to the mall and shopping for new clothes, shoes, and school supplies. (Yes, that’s a luxury.)
Poor kids’ parents do not tell them about Santa because they don’t want them having high hopes on Christmas morning.
My new friend, Ann-Sophia Martinez, has been bold enough to share her own story of what it meant to grow up in poverty. In this story, she shares how small acts of kindness from various people in her life made a big difference over time. Here is Ann-Sophia’s story in her own words:
I recently came across a Scary Mommy article that focused on the heartbreaking Christmas wishes written by children living in poverty. Seeing handwritten tags where very young kids were asking for simple things that most people take for granted in everyday life, I was instantly propelled back to memories of my own childhood.
I grew up in the suburbs of the Bay Area in California during the 1980’s.
My family was small, just myself and a younger sister, my mom and dad. Silicon Valley was just beginning to welcome new technology companies and existing ones were growing at breakneck speed. I have fond memories of playing Oregon Trail on my elementary schools’ first computers.
I enjoyed being at school because my home life was pitiful.
My mother worked as a secretary at a computer manufacturing company. She had a very strong work ethic and it was important to her to dress and behave in a professional manner.
Unfortunately, it was all a ruse.
We were living in poverty.
My parents owned a small townhouse and my mother stretched her paycheck to cover all the household bills. My dad was a Mexican immigrant who became a U.S. citizen. My mom paid his way through college, but once he was finished, he could not find and keep a job. His “get rich, quick” schemes never amounted to actual cash in hand to help pay for anything. Over time, he became addicted to alcohol and drugs, leaving me and my sister to care for ourselves, even if he was in the house.
My mother struggled with mental illness; she dragged herself to work to earn money but then collapsed at night, unable to care for us or do any household chores.
To add to the turmoil, my dad was abusive.
My mom’s paycheck was insufficient to support our entire family, so while our house mortgage, electricity, and gas for her car to get to work were necessities to keep us going, so many other things were lost. The heater cost too much to run, so the house was always as cold as an ice box inside at night and during the winter. When our hot water heater broke, we took cold showers. We used to dread the freezing cold water coming down on our bodies, and not being able to properly warm up afterwards – especially in the winter. It was horrible. And it was at that point where we longed to have a high-quality heat pump and cooling system like our friends had to ensure that we had access to the right temperature as and when we needed it. At that specific moment in time, we would’ve needed it for hot water. You don’t realize how much of a blessing hot water is until it’s taken away from you. Even the smallest bit can make the biggest difference.
The biggest problem was not having enough money to buy food to feed all of us. My mom tried to ration what we did have, always shopping on the sale aisles and using coupons, but it was never enough. She sometimes volunteered at a homeless shelter and was able to bring groceries home.
Food pantries supplied much of what we had and strangers generously donated a random assortment of goods. We rarely had all the ingredients necessary to make a complete meal.
A can of tuna with peas would end up as a dinner instead of a tuna casserole. I often ate canned vegetables unheated, directly from the can. Our stove was broken and my mom didn’t have the money to fix it, so we relied on a microwave and a small hot plate for cooking. When we received sliced bread, we would eat mayonnaise sandwiches. I still have an aversion to anything grape flavored because it was the only flavor of juice or jelly we were ever given.
Not having enough food to eat and being hungry all the time was terrible. It was hard to hide once I started going to school. I was surprised to learn in Kindergarten that the milk my mom gave us was actually made from instant powder and water. One day at school, a snack helper gave me a small blue box of real milk, assuming I brought a quarter from home to pay for it, like all the other kids in my class. That first sip of real milk was a revelation to my 6 year-old self. Upon learning that I had to pay for it and telling my teacher that I couldn’t bring any money from home, she gave me a quarter for that first box.
I sat and colored while my classmates enjoyed their milk break after that.
We wore our clothes as long as possible; they were ill fitting and often fell apart. I never had shoes that fit properly or toys to play with. My sister and I were “latchkey kids,” walking home from school on our own and then waiting home alone until our mom returned from work. I watched countless hours of PBS programming on TV. I learned about sewing, cooking, woodworking, American Sign Language, and my favorite show was Reading Rainbow.
I tried to keep my little sister out of trouble, but a 7 and 4 year-old shouldn’t be home by themselves. We played with kids from our neighborhood and loved when we could have a real meal at a friend’s house.
My first grade teacher was a wonderful woman Mrs. Clancy. She had taught at my school for a long time and she noticed that I was different from the other kids. One day as she saw me watching the other kids eat their snacks during recess, she asked me if I was hungry. I told her that I was, but we didn’t have enough food for me to bring a snack to school every day. She came up with an idea and asked me to try to bring a piece of bread to class the next day.
When everyone ran outside for recess, Mrs. Clancy called me over to her desk, asking if I was able to bring the bread with me today. She opened up a drawer and pulled out a jar of orange marmalade jam. With a small butter knife, she spread my piece of bread with the marmalade, and then encouraged me to take a bite.
It tasted like sunshine as I chewed.
Mrs. Clancy told me she would keep the orange marmalade in her desk and give me some any day I could bring a piece of bread from home to eat for a snack. She gave me a big hug and I felt so happy that she noticed I needed help.
We would have conversations during snack time as the year went on. I shared how I loved to read but I didn’t have any books at home. Mrs. Clancy offered to let me borrow a book from her classroom shelves. I read the entire thing that night and she was very surprised when I returned it the next day. She offered to let me borrow any book that I liked in her classroom library.
I read my way across her shelves that year. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Boxcar Kids… if she had a book, then I read it. The stories transported me to other places and times as I huddled in my bed, trying to keep warm. Reading those books helped me feel less alone in the world and ignited my imagination.
As the years went by, my sister and I were able to eat a free hot lunch at school. Most days, those lunches were our only meals. Summertime was tortuous without them and we were so happy once school began in August. There were several people in our neighborhood and at a local church who helped us. We received bags of clothes, backpacks with new school supplies, and new coats.
My sister shared that we didn’t have hot water and a family bought and installed a new water heater for us. The church gave my mom a regular donation from their food bank and we learned how to cook spaghetti in the microwave. Sometimes we would open the front door on Christmas and find a basket full of gifts on the doorstep. Any time someone helped us, it would make us feel so loved and it pushed away the sadness in my heart.
Growing up in poverty and barely being able to keep the roof over our heads caused me to grow up quickly. My mom worked as hard as she could to provide for us, but often fell short. We were neglected and my dad abused us, but I held on and made it out the other side.
I share small bits of my childhood struggles with my five year-old son now.
I tell him how I didn’t have enough, but kind people gave time or money, and it really helped me and changed where I ended up.
We go through my son’s toys so he can donate some to needy kids.
We donate food to families who need it.
The elementary school he will attend next year just started a weekend backpack food program to help kids have meals while they aren’t in school. I am so proud of this program and excited to volunteer and show my son how to help families in our neighborhood.
I want him to grow up knowing that there are people in the world who don’t have enough, and we will do everything we can to help them.
Each small thing will lift them to a better life.
I am so grateful to people like Mrs. Clancy and the family who gave us the water heater and the church volunteers who made sure we had food. Each of these acts paved a way to a slightly better tomorrow for me and my family.
As the holidays draw closer, look around in your own community to see where you can help.
About the author:
Ann-Sophia Martinez lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and young son. She is a stay at home parent and also participates at her child’s cooperative preschool. Ann writes a family activity column for her neighborhood magazine. In her free time, she enjoys reading, crochet, drinking tea, and traveling. Her favorite jam is still orange marmalade.