MY FRONT PORCH VIEW - A look at an impoverished rust-belt town
by Cindy Miller
In the previous issue of "Cleveland Street Chronicle", I wrote about the challenges faced in keeping the food pantry open in my hometown of Toronto, Ohio, located in Jefferson County, southeast of Cleveland. I am happy to report that $3,200 in monetary donations helped keep His Hands Extended Food Pantry open and monthly donations from the many local churches, local organizations and private citizens are helping this food pantry continue food distributions to the 150-plus families it presently serves.
In Part Two of this series, my focus is on helping the kids in need in this town with a population of slightly over 5,000 residents.
While growing up in Toronto, Ohio, I was aware of some of the kids in town who would have been considered 'poor'. Some had an alcoholic father who couldn't maintain a job or drank away the paychecks leaving the family without. Others lived in a large family where the head of the household may have had a good paying job but could barely support their small children, along with the additional burden of having adult children and their kids all living under one roof. I knew kids whose fathers had died; their mothers took in sewing or did housekeeping to supplement the monthly Social Security and/or veterans survivor benefits their families received. Section 8 housing units for Toronto's low income families did not become available until about 1970.
I posted a query on my personal Facebook page, asking if any of my local friends could recall instances of knowing kids who were considered to be 'poor' or if they felt they could have been considered as being 'poor' while growing up in Toronto in the late 1950's, 1960's and early 1970's. I received three responses, all from women who grew up in other areas of town.
One longtime friend I have known since we were 6 years old responded by saying, "My dad worked, but we always seemed to live in the "dumpy" type homes and we didn't have the "nicest" clothes, shoes, etc. Then I thought of (another family of kids), whose parents were alcoholics and those kids had even less than we did. I don't think it was noticed quite as much then as it might be now. I feel like people see me differently now than when I was in school."
One interesting perspective, from a woman I met five years ago, began with this question, "How do you classify poor?" She continued, "My parents worked hard on the farm and grew all the veggies that went on the table. We butchered the cattle for meat. We had a roof over our heads and full tummies. But money-wise, we didn't have it with six in the family. We made our clothes and baked our bread. I traded homemade dill pickles at lunch time for a Twinkie; something my mom never bought. Poor, yes (and) no extra money BUT rich with family values and what was important in life. I wouldn't have had it any other way growing up! We didn't know what poor was for the richness my parents gave us."
The most heart wrenching response came from a woman I knew in high school; telling me of circumstances I was totally unaware of until now. She was eight years old at the time her father became ill and could no longer work. It wasn't until she was in high school that her father was finally awarded Social Security disability benefits; a struggle that took nearly a decade to get. She described to me her life of growing up in severe poverty; as one of seven children ranging in age from infant to 17 years of age, living with "the stigma of having a parent that was deemed mentally ill" while watching her mother carry "the burden of coping with a spouse who was ill". She remembers the toll this took on her mom.
She continued, "I have no idea how people, who today work minimum wage jobs, can raise a family. Hell, not just minimum wage jobs, people with decent paying jobs have a hard time. I don't care what people have become as adults, being poor as a child has a profound effect of some kind. When I was younger, I was kind of oblivious to some things. When I got older is when I really became aware of how touch things were."
In the 50-plus years, since my three friends and I were small children, there have been changes, additions and restrictions to the federal safety nets that help the impoverished, some of which were not even available when we were growing up. Here is an example.
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) which provided financial assistance to children whose families had low or no income was replaced in 1996 by the more restrictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program also known as TANF. Often referred to by many as welfare, TANF allotted time limitations for able bodied adults to return to the workforce varies state to state; a condition not required under the previous AFDC program. In Ohio, there are very few exemptions to the life time limit on assistance while other states are more generous with the hardship exemptions.
With the decline of manufacturing jobs throughout the upper Ohio Valley, the need for assistance to families with dependent children is much greater than it was when my friends and I were growing up here. In Toronto, a number of churches, organizations and businesses have stepped up to help. What follows are a few examples of events that focus on helping children in need and the groups that organize them.
Riverview United Methodist Church Plays Pivotal Role in Helping Kids
For the sixth consecutive year, the Methodist Women's organization purchased backpacks and, following a list provided by the city school system, filled them with the necessary school supplies needed for each grade, from pre-school through high school. This year, 200 backpacks were filled with supplies, with a majority distributed at this event. The backpacks, limited to distribution to Toronto City School district children, are set out according to grades pre-school, elementary, middle school and high school. Parents are directed to their child's grade or age group and must sign in, at the event, for each child receiving a back pack which, in turn, helps in collection of names for the Toys 4 Toronto Christmas distribution.
It was 2011 when Pastor Josh Elliott and church administrative assistant Lu Ellyn Dallas approached the American Legion Post #86 asking if the annual Toys 4 Toronto Christmas toy distribution could become a community project with the church's assistance. Many businesses, clubs, churches and organizations joined forces to help raise funds, collect toys and volunteer in setting up and serve as personal shopping guides for parents who need assistance on toy distribution day held in December a the Legion Hall. One added bonus is that parents can enter a drawing for any one of many new boys and girls bicycles on display, provided through the courtesy of Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla.
Partnerships & Events That Keep Kids Warm
For years, Toronto Kiwanis Coats for Kids program has received some funding through the Toronto Services Committee, an affiliated United Way of Jefferson County agency. Over the years, money was raised to help support this Coats for Kids program through fun events such as a dunk tank at the Toronto Festival of the Arts and the now defunct Jingle Bell Run which also benefitted Toronto athletic programs. In 2011, Toronto Kiwanis teamed up with the Toronto Coalition for Revitalization, the Goucher Haunted Hotel and television sponsor WTOV9 in raising even larger amounts of money to help keep Toronto kids warmer each winter.
Since 2011, the husband and wife team of Buster and Tiffany Bowman, owners of the Goucher Haunted Hotel, have donated over $6,000 to the Toronto Kiwanis Coats for Kids program. The Bowman's unique haunted house offers visitors a form of theater, following a storyline centered around the real Samuel B. Goucher; original owner of the structure built in 1892. Visitors are escorted, through the many rooms within the 'hotel', by a spirit guide who tells them the story of the real Goucher family and the tragic fate each met within the walls of this historic building. Primarily sponsored by the Toronto Coalition for Revitalization, with WTOV9 as a television sponsor, attendance increased each year, as did ticket sales from which a percentage of proceeds is donated annually. The Bowmans, on behalf of the Goucher Haunted Hotel, also contribute to the Toys 4 Toronto fund.
For the past two years, the grandmother/granddaughter duo of Doris Matyas and Tiffany Bowman have set aside a fun day in November when families can decorate gingerbread houses with proceeds benefitting the Toronto Kiwanis Coats for Kids program and another cause in need. Doris bakes 40 gingerbread houses, assisted by granddaughter Tiffany who helps assemble and transport the newly constructed houses to another location where those who have pre-registered can decorate and keep the finished houses for $10.00. Materials are paid for by the Toronto Coalition for Revitalization of which both ladies are members. To date, this event has raised over $400.00 for Coats for Kids.
In this small town, without public transportation or personal transportation for many low income families, Toronto his become rich in providing help for kids in need simply due to increased necessity.
Copyright Street Chronicle October 2013 Cleveland Ohio.