Poverty has a face. Well, Thursday night it had four faces.
The Stevenson family story is a recession story, and it is one they shared during the Face to Face Poverty Town Hall at Blue Ridge Community College.
The family had always been financially secure until Chris Stevenson lost his job. Suddenly Chris and his wife, Cristy, weren't sure how they would pay the rent and the light bill and feed their two children.
"We had never faced poverty before," said Cristy, 27.
Chris, 38, enrolled in a retraining program at Blue Ridge Community College, and now works for a heating and air conditioning company in Candler. Cristy, a fulltime student at Isothermal Community College, works weekends as a cashier at Food Lion in Mills River.
"When I was working and making good money, and trying to establish credit, we said, OK, we'll get some credit cards, because I've never had credit before. Once that happened and I got laid off, all that stuff had to go downhill."
The credit card debt piled up.
"It was not anything that we could avoid," Cristy said. "It was a choice between eating or paying our bills and of course we chose to eat."
Chris added, "We had to have a stable place for the kids, had to have a place to live, power, transportation."
The Stevensons are a success story in the making, the kind of family that Community Action directors and workers point to as both the reason society needs public help and a positive outcome from public help.
The Poverty Town Hall attracted representatives of antipoverty agencies across the mountains, including Hendersonville-based Western Carolina Community Action, the United Way and health care agencies.
It was part pep rally for antipoverty efforts, part sharing of programs that work and part exploration of what help is needed. After opening remarks, participants broke into groups to talk about needs and solutions for jobs, housing, transportation, health care and education.
"We've been so busy doing the work that we haven't had time to tell our story," said Sharon Goodson, executive director of the North Carolina Community Action Association, an umbrella group of anti-poverty agencies. "It's time that we start talking and speaking up and speaking loudly about the impact we're having across North Carolina and across the country."
The poverty town halls held across the state are meant to create awareness of poverty, she said.
"We've been through a great recession and we've got the newly poor, people that have never been impacted, that have been laid off from their jobs. We are all one or two paychecks from poverty, one accident from it, one bankruptcy. Poverty can happen to anybody. So we all need to be aware about the vicious grip," Goodson said.
When President Johnson initiated the war on poverty in 1964, the nation's poverty level was at 19 percent.
"Some people say that poverty won but I have to tell you that poverty declined from 19 percent to 11 percent," Goodson told the audience. The rate has climbed back up to 15 percent nationally. It's 17 percent in North Carolina.
State Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, told the crowd that he has noticed two recurring themes when it comes to agencies vying for money: agencies don't work together and they don't effectively tell their story. Turnover will make half the Legislature first or second term lawmakers next year, he said. That means agencies hoping to get help from the body must tell their story again and again.
"It's important to work together and please continue to engage at all levels in your community," he said.
What can people do about poverty? "We believe that everybody can give something, they can donate clothing to their local shelter," Goodson said. "We can all volunteer.
"I'd much rather help somebody to get off the rolls of poverty and become a taxpaying citizen, to own a home in the community and to add some tax value than for us to just not have that, where we have to pay money in another form. That's what community action programs do. We try to make them productive citizens."
The Stevensons have used Western Carolina Community Action and other public aid for everything from day care to college.
"We know better than anybody how poverty really hits you," Cristy said. "We're using the WCCA Self-Sufficiency program, they're helping me with my education. The lady I'm working with, Kathleeen Carr, is an inspiration to me. She's a Godsend." Carr was at that moment skipping up and down the corridors of BRCC's Conference Center with the Stevensons' two children, Emma and Caleb.
"She wants to make sure I do the best I can do at all times," Cristy said. "We're doing Head Start for our son, and we're doing a homebuyer savings account where we can get ourselves to where we can eventually become homeowners. We wouldn't be where we are today without the help WCCA."
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