, Newburyport, MA

January 16, 2013

Opening eyes to poverty

Students push for poverty awareness

By Lynne Hendricks

---- — NEWBURYPORT — The city’s property values are higher than the state average and a majority of people who live here make more than $100,000 a year, yet not everyone in Newburyport is living the good life.

But thanks to some students at River Valley Charter School, who successfully petitioned the city to officially mark Jan. 15 as Poverty Awareness Day locally, there’s greater hope that residents struggling to make ends meet will get the help they need.

Nearly 100 RVCS students turned out to see their civic-minded initiative pay off yesterday during a ceremony at City Hall.

They came bearing gifts in the form of 94 brightly colored scarves and 18 blankets — all hand-stitched by the youngest students all the way up to middle school, and even RVCS Executive Director Jeanne Schultz.

“At River Valley, the children all do service learning in our community — that’s just a part of our curriculum,” Schultz said.

The poverty awareness initiative started with the making of the blankets and scarves. But somewhere along the way, as the reams of fabric gifted to them by Polartec began taking shape, two children in Laurie Ingersoll’s Lower School classroom queried their teacher about the possibility of repeating efforts like theirs annually.

From that seed — planted in a letter to Mayor Donna Holaday and packaged with three pages of petitions signed by the students and hand-drawn pictures to support their request — Newburyport’s first Poverty Awareness Day was born.

Yesterday, Holaday said when she received the letter and petition from the children, she was moved to help make things happen for them. She forwarded their request to the City Council, which approved it.

“There are some facets of my job that I just truly love,” she said.

According to the most recent data, of the city’s 17,500 residents, 1,000 are living in extreme poverty, struggling to feed their families and provide the basics. Some are living under with a friend or family member or in temporary housing offered through a municipal aid agency. Some of those have lost their jobs; others are coming from homes destroyed by domestic violence or dealing with a health problem that’s affecting the household’s bottom line.

And yet, Ingersoll said if you asked the average citizen if homelessness and poverty are problems in Newburyport, they would unequivocally say no.

“Poverty is somewhat invisible (here), not by design but through lack of awareness,” Ingersoll said.

Ingersoll and other school leaders invited community advocates to City Hall yesterday to personally deliver the handmade scarves and blankets for their clients. They also asked representatives of the various social services, including the Salvation Army, Best Foot Forward, Pennies for Poverty, Central Congregational Church and Pettengill House, to speak about poverty locally.

Also on hand were City Councilor Ed Cameron, who works for Community Teamwork in Lowell and has spent his life striving to provide housing to the homeless, and Ingrid Cyros of the Hugh Doyle Center in Newburyport, who Ingersoll called the “quarterback” for the team of agencies and volunteers working across Greater Newburyport to connect people with needed services. They all offered their own take on the anguish some area families are experiencing.

At the Pettengill House, which serves Greater Newburyport, 300 of the organization’s 2,700 clients who receive food and other assistance hail from Newburyport, according to Executive Director Deb Smith. Many of those are children, she said.

Smith shared stories of a third-grade girl whose family was forced to move to a subsidized hotel room after losing their home in Newburyport and a high school boy who didn’t know where he was going to sleep. Smith said the situations are heartbreaking and few people realize they are as common as they are.

“There are kids with big, big problems — really big problems in Newburyport,” Smith said. “There are kids in classrooms in Newburyport who haven’t had a meal today.”

“They’re flying just above the tree line,” Cameron said.

Cameron said while most Newburyport residents are “flying closer to 30,000 feet” and can afford the disruption of getting the flu or something worse, given concessions afforded through a stable job, there are many who can’t afford to get sick and lose a day’s pay because they run the risk of not being able to make their rent payment.

“When you’re cruising at a low altitude, any turbulence can make you hit the ground,” he said.

The community advocates said there is help available, but increased awareness of the problem would make it easier for assistance to reach those who need it.

They expressed appreciation to the River Valley Charter students for helping to spread the word.

“Kids make the difference in the world,” Smith said.