Recently, United Way of Northwest Arkansas decided to switch to an issue focus. The focus we chose is children living in poverty. There are 26,000 children living in poverty in our own community! Many times people don’t want to believe it could be that bad in their own community, BUT IT IS.

I know because I was one of those children.

When I interviewed for the graphic design position a few months ago I had no idea that United Way was changing their focus or that it would hit especially close to home for me. I had no idea that once I graduated from college, I would have a job working on an issue that I feel so passionately about. United Way of Northwest Arkansas’ bold goal is to provide every child a pathway out of poverty.

My story is different than maybe you would expect of a poverty stricken family. It wasn’t by choice, bad decisions or lack of education that we ended up in poverty. It was unavoidable. Growing up, my mom had a lot of health issues, including kidney failure, which eventually led to her not being able to continue being a nurse and being put on disability. My mom, brother and I lived on an average income, including the few times we qualified for food stamps and child support, of around $19,000 a year. This is considered poverty level. Food stamps comprised about a fourth of that, which left around $14,500 to pay bills, rent, gas, car payments, car insurance, school clothes, etc. I got free lunches at school and free health care because of our income level.


I grew up with two parents who loved me and despite our low level of income they gave me anything they could afford. Every extra penny my mom had went to my brother and I, so that we could be involved in sports, clubs, 4-H, go on field trips, etc. She would go without so that we could have.

There were many children in our area that lived in much worse conditions than I did.

As a child I never realized we were poor. There was a time when we lived in low income housing. I just thought, “Cool! This apartment has a playground.” It wasn’t until I got older that I realized all my mom gave up for my brother and me. When I was 15, I got my first job. I worked because though my mom gave everything extra to us, it wasn’t enough for all the activities I wanted to be involved in. I knew I could help ease some of her stress if I could help pay for my own activities. In high school there are many expenses: going out with friends, school t-shirts, class rings, prom dresses and letterman jackets among other things. I knew if I could help to pay for those things, it would help my mom.

Obviously, life would have been easier if we had had more money, but growing up in poverty taught me to value the important things in life. I grew up rich in love and family. My parents gave me the tools for success. They encouraged me, inspired me, focused on my education, and gave up what little they had so that I would have a pathway out of poverty.

United Way is now focusing on how we can make a difference in children’s lives and provide them with a pathway out of poverty. I am blessed to work for a company in which I can so deeply relate to the goal we are working towards.

Kayleigh Cooper