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How we can help others make it out of the spiral of poverty and hopelessness

A few weeks ago, United Way of Central Georgia held a summit to discuss how to address Macon’s serious and pervasive poverty. It was well-attended, diverse and interactive. We heard about national best practices, brainstormed together and made plans for follow up.

One of the most compelling sessions was a keynote address by Sheknita Davis, a student at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and founder of In His Image Agency.

She spoke toward the end of the day, and busy attendees’ phones were buzzing, reminding us of other obligations and claims on our time. I was sitting at one of the back tables, and as Davis began to tell her story, I watched everyone pause, lift their heads, put their phones down and really listen.

She spoke growing up in a loving family in Macon — one with family dinners and affection. She described how all that changed when her mother and stepfather became addicted to crack cocaine.

“I remember being 12 years old and hungry with no food in our home. My younger siblings were age 6 and 7. I was scared, angry, bitter, frustrated — a range of emotions — but mostly I was hurt.

“I wanted to know where all the people were that should have been helping us knowing my mother was on drugs. No one came to make sure we were OK, and as a child I was afraid to let anyone know about what was happening in my home.”

She told us about taking care of her brother and sister and reassuring them when they were hungry that they could eat at school the following morning. She told us about making sure her siblings got on their school bus and then walking to school at Miller (late and alone). She told us about getting pregnant and dropping out of high school.

“I felt my life was over,” she said. “And I would ruin the lives of my children.”

Since that summit, I’ve had a chance to correspond and speak with Davis about what she thinks made a difference in her life — and what we as a community can learn from her experiences.

How did she make it out of a spiral of poverty and hopelessness when so many others can’t? What made a difference for her? How can we replicate that for others?

Davis points out that even those providing services need to be careful not to impose middle class values on those who have less than we do. She asked, for example, if people really know how many hours it adds to your day to take a bus to work if you don’t have a car. And what it means for your ability to work if the daycare doesn’t open till 7 a.m., but you have to leave at 6:30 a.m. to catch the bus.

Since there are a number of entities already helping those in need, rather than duplicate services with new organizations, she urges us to look for ways to support organizations that already exist and do good work.

As someone who has seen Macon poverty from both sides, she reminds us that the most important thing is to see the human being before us and not just treat people “like they are a problem to be solved.”

“We are responsible for one another in this community. And everyone,” she said, “needs hope.”

Sarah Gerwig is a law professor and word enthusiast raising her two sons in Macon, Georgia.

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