In January, I celebrated my grandson’s first birthday, a momentous event joined by grandparents, parents, sisters, and friends. An abundant variety of food and a stack of brightly-colored presents waited in the living room for my grandson, whose lack of understanding of opening gifts gave his older sisters a chance to show him how it’s done. Needless to say, my grandkids don’t lack creature comforts or love, and the opportunities available to them are endless.
But I know that’s not the case for many children growing up in impoverished communities, even in the United States. More than 8 million families in the United States live in poverty, defined as a family of four living on less than $22,050 annually. Parents everywhere are desperate to provide a better life for their children, but their choices are limited because of poverty.
As a World Vision photojournalist, I am blessed to travel to many areas across this nation and to witness the deep need that exists in this country. Budget cuts and a poor economy result in fewer donations, which takes a toll on local organizations that are helping to improve the difficult circumstances of families. World Vision seeks to step in the gap and make up some of the shortfalls by providing supplies and training to nonprofit organizations like St. Anne’s Place in North Minneapolis.
Last year, I met 2-year-old Quincy, who lives with his mother, Shemika, at St. Anne’s Place shelter. Shemika, 31, was married on February 13, 1999, and on that same day four years later, her husband was killed in a car accident. Finding nothing but a life of nightmares on the streets in her hometown of Baton Rouge, La., after turning to drugs and alcohol, Shemika left home to stay free of the addictions that threatened to consume her.
Shemika was upbeat when I met her, with a ready smile that lit up her face. For now, she and Quincy had food and a place to stay at the shelter, but she needed to find a job and a permanent home to provide for Quincy. St. Anne’s Place offers a daycare for the children while parents spend days looking for jobs or attending school.
St. Anne’s staff members also help parents get the age-appropriate medical tests and assessments to see where their children rank developmentally. That way, they can address any problems at an early age. In The State of America’s Children, a 2010 report by the Children’s Defense Fund, it says that by the age of 9 months, American children born into poverty are already behind their higher-income peers developmentally. By kindergarten, it’s difficult for children to catch up.
At St. Anne’s, staff encouraged Shemika to spend time reading to Quincy to help with his intellectual development. “[What] I want him to have is a great education,” said Shemika, “because he’s a very smart little boy. I want him to get all the education that he can have just so he can grow up to choose to be what he wants to be.”
Having that choice can mean the difference for Quincy’s future. But across this wealthy nation, families continue to struggle, and children’s opportunities for choice are buried beneath low-wage jobs, no transportation, no affordable housing, and limited education.
We believe in the power of young people to change the world. The fact is, many children in poverty face difficulties that severely diminish that power.
As I watch my grandkids grow, and another birthday comes to pass, I have great hope for what they might do with their lives. They can be whatever they want to be. My prayer is that children like Quincy might have the same wide-open future opportunities. Then, the future will look brighter for us all.