The face of poverty isn’t always easy to identify.
It could be the new fourth-grader who doesn’t make friends for fear of discovery that her home is a car or church shelter.
Or the young mother or older gentleman who patiently wait in one of the county’s Food Bank brown-bag lines.
Or even a family scrambling for basic human needs of shelter, health care, nutrition and clothing.
We like to think we’re insulated from such scenarios here in San Luis Obispo County, but we’re not — not by a long shot.
About 300 social workers, educators, health care providers and community activists recently met at the Embassy Suites for a two-day symposium on creating a plan called Leading the Way to end poverty on the Central Coast. A tall order to be sure, but it’s a path well worth taking if it creates a bridge for a better future for at least one person.
Let’s take one such person’s story. Her name is Donna Beegle. The 50-something Beegle grew up in a generational migrant labor family that followed fruit harvests from Oregon to Washington to California.
She’s the only member of her family who hasn’t seen the inside of a jail or prison; she dropped out of school at 15 and got married so her family would have one less mouth to feed; she had two children and was a single mother without a job, education or skills by the time she was 25.
By most calculations, she should be another entry in a social service caseworker’s load, another in a long line of individuals who have eked out a hard subsistence that’s paid off in substandard housing, hunger and social apathy if not downright scorn.
Yet, within a 10-year period, Beegle earned her GED, an associate of arts degree at a junior college, a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in education. Her triumph over adversity will be featured in an upcoming documentary on PBS called “Invisible Nation.”
Beegle, who led the two-day workshop, went on to a college professorship for eight years and now oversees Communication Across Barriers and Poverty Bridge, a pair of non-profits dedicated to elevating people out of poverty.
By Beegle’s admission, her success began as a fluke. Her utilities had been turned off, and she visited a program called Women in Transition in Portland, Ore.
“Instead of telling me, ‘Here’s a box of food; good luck,’ they got me into a pilot program that starts with building a sense of self with the belief that you’re not the cause of poverty.”
It was the trigger of self-worth that she didn’t even know she was missing.
The local symposium was sponsored by two agencies that are on the front lines of poverty: the county Office of Education and the county Department of Social Services. Lee Collins heads up the latter.
Collins has a unique perspective on poverty. He not only deals with it on a daily basis in his job as the head of the county’s largest agency, he lived it as a youngster.
Growing up in Fresno, Collins saw his single mother work two jobs but still not have enough to put a roof over their heads.
He remembers sleeping in the family car, his mother parking behind service stations at night for safety, using a station’s bathroom sink as a make-do shower.
One day, after he’d turned 15, his mother was at work and he took a truck for a joy ride and promptly drove it into a ditch.
“As Marcus Aurelius noted, ‘Poverty is the mother of crime,’ ” Collins said.
Whereas Beegle’s “aha” moment came when she was recognized as having worth by Women in Transition, Collins’ moment came when he was shipped off to his father and his new wife, a college graduate. The rest is history: poverty alchemized into productivity.
Beegle’s program for bridging the poverty gap is twofold: First, a cadre of volunteers called “navigators” is educated on the broad social dimensions of poverty.
“You graduate people from college to be doctors and lawyers, but they’ve never learned Poverty 101,” Beegle says.
Once navigators are given Poverty 101 and other communication skills to better understand those who live without, they’re asked to commit to the most important factor in the program: agreeing to return phone calls for a minimum of six months, suggesting and making contacts for those willing to pull themselves up. Navigators meet their clients in a get-together called an Opportunity Conference.
“An Opportunity Conference provides child care and food, gift baskets and an address book to help them navigate through poverty,” Beegle says.
Communication Across Barriers has already held seven Opportunity Conferences around the country and is planning on holding five more before June. Collins is preparing for such an event in the fall and will be looking for navigators in the next couple of months. Check www.combarriers.com for more information.
The bottom line, says Beegle, is to “help people shift the paradigm away from blame and judgment to one of understanding poverty, unraveling the shame, and setting them up for success. No feeling can match making a difference in a human being’s life.”
Reach Bill Morem at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781-7852.