In the early 2000s, I worked as a childhood development worker/early interventionist for an agency that served families of special needs’ children from birth to six years of age.
I remember each family, but one in particular, stands out in my memory — a single mother and her six children living in extreme conditions. The fathers of the children contributed nothing, financially or otherwise. The only source of income was the Canada Child Tax Benefit. “Poor” doesn’t begin to describe their circumstances. They lived in a constant state of crisis.
The oldest child in the family completed high school and had started college. The remaining children had a variety of diagnoses. One daughter had Asperger’s . A son had a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and was sent home from school frequently. I was in the home the day the school called for the children to be picked up because of the smell of their clothing.
Let me tell you a bit more about this family.
Providing the bare necessities of food, clothing and shelter was a daily challenge for the mother. They rented a house that should have been bulldozed years ago. It was owned by a true slum landlord.
“A slumlord (or slum landlord) is a derogatory term for a landlord, generally an absentee landlord with more than one property, who attempts to maximize profit by minimizing spending on property maintenance, often in deteriorating neighborhoods, and to tenants that they can intimidate.”
As soon as I entered the home, the stench of rotting garbage met my nostrils. I could barely keep from vomiting. Why were garbage bags piled in the front porch? Because garbage bag tags cost $2 each, no exceptions.
The child I was working with had head lice and had been sent home from junior kindergarten. (I had only worked at the Centre for a short time and was unaware that I was not supposed to enter homes with head lice. Ignorance is bliss?)
In order to rid a home of lice, the stuffed animals should be thrown out and everything, especially the bedding and pillows, should be washed in hot water and dried on the hottest setting. This poses a challenge for a poor family because it costs extra money to wash in hot water and more for drying. This could seem impossible for a family only a breath away from having their electricity cut off. Lice shampoo treatments are expensive and not always effective. In the end, the mother cut the little girl’s hair as short as possible and used a DIY vinegar solution to deal with the lice and nits. It was obviously not cut by a hairdresser. The child stood out even more as different.
- What happens to the child who is sent home with lice?
- What happens to the child who has an unpleasant odor?
- What happens to the child who wears faded, ill-fitting hand-me-downs?
- What happens to the child who never has money for pizza day, book fairs and other special events?
The answer is simple, but sad.
- The child is excluded from classroom and playground activities.
- The child is never invited to birthday parties and sleepovers.
- No one wants to sit beside him or her at circle time.
In time, the child does not want to go to school and is at great risk of dropping out.
I spent one hour each week with the 4 year-old child. We read storybooks, worked on kindergarten skills, did puzzles, made crafts, played games, and enjoyed music.
Friends would exclaim, “One hour! What good does that do?”
All I can say is that for one hour each week, one little girl received my undivided attention. It may seem like nothing to most people, but it meant the world to her.
Did my intervention transform this family and lift them out of poverty? Of course not, but I believe my presence had great value. Fifteen years have passed and I have no way of knowing whatever became of this child. By now, she should have graduated from high school.
- I hope she encountered a teacher who felt compassion for her and offered extra TLC.
- I hope the school system did everything in its power to make sure the child could succeed.
- I hope with all my heart that this child defied the odds because someone believed she could.
“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.”