“I often ask my mom the question ‘how old was I when…’
The first memory I vividly have was of my grandmother who is a full blooded Cherokee Indian holding me and walking through a field picking strawberries and feeding them to me. I remember that she was wearing a red bandana, as she always did and that my mother was getting frustrated with her for feeding the strawberries to me because we had not paid for them yet. When I asked my mom how old I was when this memory actually happened, she was shocked, and told me that I was only just over 1 year old.”
On Wednesday, September 23rd our staff was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Alicia McGarrah, a stay at home wife and mother to her 3 year old son. She began getting involved with us after our Campaign Kick Off event in Siloam Springs where she saw the United Way Children Living in Poverty “Statisticks” video for the first time. The video really touched Alicia. Why? Because she was one of those statistics. Alicia was gracious enough to come share her story about growing up as a child, living in poverty.
Alicia states that she remembers everything, down to the smallest details of her childhood. She can remember the song that was playing when certain things happened, the smell in the air, or the clothes people were wearing. Her photographic memory has faced her with the challenge of accepting things from a childhood that was not always easy. We were able to ask Alicia a few questions about her life, and what she wants the community to know about growing up as a child in poverty.
1. Did you know that you and your siblings were different than other kids growing up?
My mom worked really hard to shield my sister, brother and I from our situation. She never wanted us to feel the fear or the stress she was going through. I remember her skipping meals so that she could put dinner on the table for us kids. I remember not understanding why she was always tired. It was not until we were a little older, and going to friends’ houses that I realized how different our situations were. I noticed the difference in the houses of my friends and the food on their table. It was in those moments that I began realizing that our life was different. My mom went without a lot so that her children could succeed. She always made sure we had books to read and school supplies. She did whatever she had to do so that we could be safe and cared for.
The situation that we were in really bonded my siblings and I. I have one sister and one brother, and when you are growing up in poverty you do not have the option to not protect each other. We were together 24/7 often in a house or apartment with a single room. Sometimes all we had was each other.
2. If you had to wrap up your childhood into one story, what would it be?
When I was a little older, 15 or so, my mom moved our family from Oklahoma to Siloam Springs, AR. We were in a really unsafe situation that had turned really dangerous for my family and my mom knew that she had to protect us. With the clothes on our back, we left her family and moved to Arkansas. When I was 5 years old my parents divorced, and between the two of them we had always had some semblance of stability. If my mom was really struggling, my dad would be in a better situation, or vice versa. At THIS point, for the first time, nothing was okay. Nothing was stable. We had no control.
We moved into a motel room in Siloam Springs. At first, we had one hotel room that housed me, my two siblings, my mother, my step father, my father, and my step mother. When you live in poverty, it doesn’t matter what your personal situation is, if your family is struggling you work together. At one point, the owners of the motel were kind and gracious enough to give us 3 hotel rooms, two for the adults and one for the kids. The only catch was that we had to help around the motel. I would wake up, go to school, come home and do the laundry for all of the residents.
This situation really was a turning point for us. We had hit rock bottom, and were not in control of any aspect of our lives. It was at this point that we began receiving assistance from local nonprofit agencies, like the Manna Center. We would get food, clothes and school supplies from the Manna Center. It was through another agency that my step mom was able to get a job, and through a friend that my dad got a job. Those, and several other agencies kept us a float when we were sinking which is something that I will always be grateful for.
3. What are some valuable lessons you want the community to know about children living in poverty?
When you donate to an agency, whether that be a donation of money or time, you are doing more than putting food on the table. You are giving a family a sense of relief when they are living in fear. You are giving peace to a family who knows nothing but stress. You are fostering a way for families to spend time together.
When you provide for a child, you are saving a family.
There are SO MANY levels of poverty. Just because we may not be able to see it, there are more people struggling in this community, and in this world, than we could imagine. There are so many people who fight to survive every single day living paycheck to paycheck. Just because you cannot see the poverty, does not mean it is not there. You never know who is struggling behind closed doors.
4. If you could negate any stereotype about kids in poverty, what would it be?
People think that poverty is a hopeless case. They think that the problem is too big, so they don’t try to make a difference. I am here to tell you that poverty IS NOT a lost cause, there is a way to breakout. But children and families cannot do it alone. We have to stop having a negative view of people who live in poverty. Poverty is a bad thing, the people who live in it are not bad people. They are mostly people who are fighting with everything they have to climb out of a dark situation. It only takes unlucky moment to turn what most people consider to be a basic need, into a luxury.
Alicia continued to tell us that after working to find a way out of poverty, everyone in her family now owns a home and all the children have remained best friends. Her brother, sister and she have all found peace in happiness in their lives and they all believe the importance of paying it forward. Alicia volunteers at several United Way events, and continues to donate and give back wherever she can. Throughout our entire encounter with Alicia, you could have heard a pen drop in our office. We are all so touched by her honesty and bravery in facing this issue. Her story is touching and a true testament to her strength as a person, a woman, and as someone who found a pathway out of poverty.
“If you can help just one kid get out of poverty, that is one less child who has to grow up knowing what it is like to live that life. That one child matters.” –Alicia McGarrah