Poverty’s toll ‘unignorable’: United Way rep

Debora Van Brenk//Western News

Sometimes the only meal in Jasmine Ball's home when she was growing up was a few crackers, and an apple divided four ways.

Jasmine Ball is an administrative co-ordinator in the office of the Associate Vice-President (Student Experience). She is a sponsored employee to the United Way Elgin Middlesex, and she shares this personal story of why she is involved … and how you can help.

One sentiment I’ve heard a lot recently, is that everyone knows about United Way, but not everyone sees its impact. Our community has the third highest rate of child poverty in all of Canada; that’s one in five children living below the poverty line. If this comes as a surprise to you, you’re in good company. It’s a surprise for many. The truth is, poverty is something many children learn to conceal.

Growing up in poverty taught me about community needs, and how they are often hidden. We learned early on that there are things we don’t talk about, experiences we don’t share. We’re afraid that acknowledging our struggles will expose us and we’ll be seen as deficient. But hiding these experiences – and their prevalence – makes them too easy to overlook.

Jasmine Ball

I have a vivid memory of myself as a high-school student, standing in line at Subway with a group of friends, frantically tallying up the menu items in my head and measuring them against the coins in my pocket. When tax was added, would I have enough to cover even the cheapest sandwich? A few cookies, maybe? I was desperate not to lose face in my social group. I couldn’t let on that money was hard to come by in my house, even with my sister and me working part-time to help cover the rent.

‘A tight month’

I learned from my mother how to hide any sign of struggle. She put on a brave face for the world, while she balanced two to three jobs to support her three daughters. And at home, she put on a brave face for me and my sisters. “It’s going to be a tight month,” she would say, seemingly every month. That let us know there wouldn’t be much food in the kitchen.

But she worked hard to put a positive spin on things. When the cupboards were bare, we would have what we called “funny suppers” which consisted of whatever we could scrounge together: pickles, store-brand cheese slices, crackers, a couple of apples split between the four of us – all arranged neatly on our plates.

At school I came up with tactics to hide the meagre contents of my lunchbag from my friends; I pretended there was more than just margarine in my sandwich;

I ate slowly so that an apple would last me until recess; that way my classmates wouldn’t see that there was nothing else in my lunch.’

As I grew older, I began to catch glimpses of the toll that all the strain was taking on my Mom. It pained her to ask her children to endure hardship for what she assumed were her personal failings. We moved 12 times, that I can remember, always chasing cheaper rent. I attended six grade schools, ever the new kid. Not having many friends, I became my mum’s confidante. I learned that she was chronically depressed, though high-functioning – driven by the need to provide for her children. Some nights I would sit on the floor by her bed for hours while she cried, and try to cheer her up with stories and songs.

When I think of those times, I’m that scared kid again, not knowing how to help.

‘They know how to help’

One thing I find remarkable about United Way, is that they know how to help. They conduct comprehensive consultations to identify key challenges specific to our community and then fund programs that tackle those issues from a number of different angles, creating a wraparound effect that supports lasting change.

United Way works to uncover the challenges faced by our community and recognize them as unignorable—because only when our community’s needs are revealed can we invest in the most effective solutions and create lasting change.

And thanks to the network of 96 United Way-funded programs operating in Elgin Middlesex, our neighbours don’t have to hide in times of difficulty or isolate themselves from the services that help them thrive. Through these diverse programs, a family can access supports for parents and children, to provide immediate relief, but also to develop a plan to improve their circumstances.

One example that struck me as I visited partner agencies, is how United Way-funded programs are working to break cycles of abuse by recognizing and responding to root causes. These agencies facilitate support groups for offenders who often learned abusive behaviour from parents and don’t want to cause any more harm; simultaneously programs provide social and financial support for victims of domestic abuse, and counselling for children who’ve experienced trauma so they can learn about and develop healthy relationships.

Long-term impact

Think about the long-term impact of that kind of support, on the individuals and on all of the people they interact with. That ripple effect will improve lives for generations. The same wraparound approach is applied when addressing issues like mental health and wellness and poverty, ensuring that community members can fully benefit from programming that’s designed to support their success.

The United Way vision is a community where everyone matters. Doesn’t that sound like a city you want to live in? A place you can be proud to call home? Because of its unique vantage point, United Way is able to review evidence and bring together the right organizations and people to solve local problems that are so often hidden from view. They’re able to see what’s needed, and who is needed, to make their vision a reality.

We make that community real by playing an active role in it. Now that you’ve had a glimpse of what the work looks like, I invite you to show your local love and invest in positive change with me and all of the donors on campus.

How to help:

  • Go to Western’s United Way site for details on the campaign and local events.
  • Look for an email on Nov. 4 that outlines how you can support the campaign
  • E-pledge, to make one-time or regular donations to the United Way.
  • Climb stairs and get pledges for One London Place Stair Climb on Nov. 8.
  • Attend ‘local love’ event on Nov. 14
  • Order a coffee, large or extra-large, at any coffee spot on campus on Nov. 15 – and 25 cents from each will be donated to United Way.
  • Bump, set, spike at the United Way beach volleyball tournament Nov. 24.
  • Look for special events taking place in your faculty or department.
  • Check out more stories at the United Way Elgin Middlesex