Today is Blog Action Day 2008, and we are all supposed to blog about poverty.
I could join the lament on the appalling world statistics, and flagellate myself for being so rich, and caring so little for all these poor people in faraway lands. I could. What would it accomplish is the more important question?
Rather, I want to share the experience I had last year with Larissa, a nine year old girl who lives on the other side of the freeway. The other side is an euphemism for poor, crime-ridden, predominantly black and hispanic East Palo Alto, a town without sidewalks, and where I prefer to not venture at night. For a year, I was Larissa’s mentor. I had been warned to not set my hopes up too high. I wasn’t sure what that meant, and started dreaming about becoming Larissa’s second mom. Maybe we could even send her to college?
I did spend most of my Sundays with her. At first, six, seven hours at a time, going for walks, to the museum, the farmer’s market, the beach, shopping for shoes . . . Larissa was hungry for love and attention, and took everything I was willing to give her. She waited eagerly for our visits, and gave me the gift of her love, and her appreciation. I got involved with her school, far away in one of the wealthiest districts in our area, and soon started receiving emails from her teacher, asking me to help her with her homework. The only times I was willing and able to do so was during our Sunday times. I learned that Larissa had not done her homework for the last two years. Getting her to change became an uphill battle. Her mom was unwilling to help, and soon I felt, what’s the point? One day last Spring, Larissa announced that her mom was pregnant with her fifth child. The mom could hardly take care of her four children with three different fathers, all absent, and now she was about to have another one with a fourth father. This didn’t make sense to me. I shared Larissa’s excitement and kept my outrage to myself. With summer coming, I felt Larissa needed some times away from her crowded home, and a chance to play, and be in the outdoors. I signed her up for a one week away camp with the YMCA. She said her mom had plans to send her to another camp, and also to a day camp at the YMCA. I dropped Larissa off at the bus for her camp, and took off for my trip to Europe. When I came back three weeks later, I could not reach her. This had been a consistent problem, with her mom changing phone numbers every few weeks, and also moving from house to house several times in the course of the year. We were able to reconnect later in the summer. Her mom had lost the papers for the other camp, and had not bothered to walk over to the local YMCA to register her for her day camp. I felt mad at her mom, for not taking these simple steps. Mad at the situation, for creating a culture of helplessness, and of fatherless children. Mad at a society, that’s making it almost impossible for a bright child like Larissa, to succeed. Since we met a year ago, Larissa’s gotten fat, and barely fits in size 8 adult clothes. There are no good grocery stores where she lives. She and her family live on white bread, peanut butter, junky cereals, and noodles. Their only access to food is a neighborhood store that’s overpriced, and poor in fruit and vegetable. Larissa has had her share of funerals. Her eighteen year old uncle got shot, and his body was found in the trunk of a burnt car. Her baby cousin died. That’s life in East Palo Alto.
Most difficult has been to witness my increasing discouragement, as time went on. The agency that matched us congratulated us for making it past the one year mark. Most mentors drop out after a few months. Still, I started with high hopes, and vision of a lifelong friendship. Now, I keep in touch, but my enthusiasm is gone. I found that it is hard to fight an entire system.