For Those Who Work With Colorado’s Poor, Frustrations With Inspirations

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Photo: Curtis Garcia, principal of Centennial
Centennial K-12 Principal Curtis Garcia speaks with a member of his staff on Tuesday, April 12, 2015 in San Luis, Colorado.

More than a year ago we saw one census statistic we just couldn't shake. At the time, nearly one in five kids in the state were living in poverty. We set out to learn about childhood poverty in Colorado: What it looked like and what was being done about it. We're looking back at our coverage now, taking stock of what we've learned and revisiting some of the people we interviewed.

On Colorado Matters, we asked three people dedicated to helping those who've fallen on hard times whether it's realistic to think poverty can ever be eradicated. Joining the discussion are Teva Sienicki, of Growing Home, a non-profit that helps low-income families in Adams County; Pastor Kent Replogle, who heads the Amazing Grace Community Church in Thornton; and Curtis Garcia, who teaches education at Adams State University in Alamosa. They spoke with Ryan Warner. A transcript of the conversation has been edited for clarity:

Ryan Warner: There's a biblical verse that essentially says "you will always have the poor among you." That notion , that poverty will always exist in some form, has stuck with us as we've covered childhood poverty for the last year or so. Many faiths, of course, value helping the poor but how do you interpret that passage?

Pastor Kent Replogle: Well, I look at it that we deal with poverty all the time and the poorest of the people, even though they don’t have much, they still have so much to offer and especially this time of year at the Advent Season when we look at the birth of Christ, we know that the shepherds were the first people to come to the stable to see the Christ child. And shepherds were the poorest of the poor and yet God made sure that they were the ones that were the first ones to come and see this great gift that was sent to us. And I think that was because he wanted us to know that everybody is important. Even the poorest are important and we have to watch out and take care of each other.

Warner: And this is a message that indeed you will be reflecting on for the Advent. And do you see it as meaning that the poor will always be with you, that it's something of a fait accompli and you're to take care of them?

Replogle: Well, you know, Jesus told John, in the Gospel of John, to feed my sheep, and I think he meant more than just to feed them physically, he also meant to feed them morally and spiritually. And so churches have a dual role to reach out and when we help and feed the people, we have to do that both spiritually and we have to do it physically. We have to make sure, people that are hungry, it's not their fault all the time. We are finding more and more people coming to the church for help that are I call the working poor. They have jobs but they just don’t make a living wage with the expenses of housing and everything else that’s going up so much, that they can afford to feed their families. And so they come searching for some help. So we, as a church, believe that's our job is to reach out and help those that come to our family. Everybody in our church, we call everybody s family in our church because we believe we all need to help each other and work together.

Warner: We're going to return to that idea of where the responsibility lies for poverty. How much of that rests with the individual and how much of that rests with society as a whole. But I want to get back to this idea of "you will always have the poor among you." Teva, what do you think of the concept in that passage? Do you buy it?

Teva Sienicki: Well I'm not a theologian so I'm not going to comment on the theology of it all.

Warner: Your lay perspective of it is what we'd like.

Sienicki: But in terms of how we're doing on poverty as a country, I think frankly we're doing very poorly and I think it's unacceptable. And I think that we need to do something about that. We, in a 2013 UNICEF survey, ranked 34th on child poverty with over 20 percent of our children living in poverty. And that is not something I think we should stand for frankly, as a country. I think we've accomplished a lot of great things as a country that people have thought were impossible. I frequently hear when I talk to people about what I do for a living that it is impossible to solve the problem of poverty. But you know we've put people on the moon and people said that was impossible as well. We've done a lot of great things and I think that if we set our minds to it as a national priority, we can certainly do a heck of a lot better than we're doing now. You know currently behind most of Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand and given all of our resources, I think we need to do better.

Warner: And so I suppose you'd say that perhaps in some form the poor will always be with you. But we shouldn't accept that as a given. Is it about minimizing it to the largest extent possible and then making it easier for those who fall into it or what's your perspective?

Sienicki: Well sure, I think there's always a place for a social safety net in a society. There's always going to be crises that happen in people's lives. Disabilities, losses, other sorts of circumstances that may render a person or a family in a circumstance where they are in need of some extra help on a short term basis and I do think that that should be in place. But I also think that this problem that Pastor Kent referenced is a huge problem, that wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. And so we have families, parents, who are working full time jobs. Sometimes two, three jobs who are still not able to earn enough to pay for their rent, to put food on the table for their kids and to keep the lights on so that they can do their homework when they come home from school. And that's where I think we need to do better. You know, I've met families who have been homeless because they have not received paid leave from work when they've had a child in the hospital or given birth to a child. And you know, I remember a particular mom who was working at Wendy's, working more than full time, and she had triplets who ended up in the NICU, the neo-natal intensive care. And was homeless because she lost wages from work, visiting her kids in the NICU. And so there are thing like this that I think we need to do better at as a society to prevent this kind of grueling, long-term poverty for kids and families.

Warner: And so often what you were saying is that these are people who are working. Curtis Garcia, I'd like to get your perspective as someone who used to be principal of a low-income school and now teaches future teachers. What's your perspective on this idea that the poor will always be with you?

Curtis Garcia: My experience as a principal was in a small rural K12 district here in Costilla County, southern part of Colorado where the majority of the families that we served were living in poverty. And I had an experience early on that taught me a lot about poverty as an issue and a lot about how to work with children in schools that come from backgrounds of poverty. And what I learned was that poverty isn't just a question of income. It's an issue -- it's a quality of life issue. And the experience I had was actually with a high school student who had been referred to me because of truancy. He hadn't been showing up to school and we had exhausted all of our resources, based on our policy about truancy which was like sending letters, making phone calls home. And we weren't getting a response. So I decided to explore the issue a little deeper and I contacted a friend of mine who worked with human services and said hey, can we just do a home visit together on this child to learn a little bit about what's going on. So when I did that, it just opened my eyes to the kinds of hardships that many of these students and their families face when they live in poverty. So things like getting basic access to healthcare, access to transportation, and other types of services that are necessary in order for students to be able to get the opportunities and education that they go to school for.

Warner: What was the situation at home that was leading to the truancy? Because it sounds like you got more clarity on what superficially might have looked like a mere behavior problem.

Garcia: Absolutely. When we visited the student and met with him and his mother, we learned that the mother had been involved in a severe assault incident where she had basically been left, she had been assaulted and basically left to die on an outdoor fireplace that they had. And this was a family who lived off the grid so they had no access to basic electricity or water. But the reason, the root cause of this student's truancy was that he was needing to be at home to care for his mother. And the family had no reliable access to transportation. No way of getting his mother the access to the care that she needed and it was upon discovering this need of the family that we were finally able to put together a plan that would actually work for this student and the family that involved coordinating multiple services. Including health care services, counseling services, and also a plan to help get this kid to school which was where we started initially with the whole investigation process. And that taught me a lot about how schools are currently set up and how we need to rethink a lot of the processes we use to respond to the needs of children who come from vulnerable families and it shapes a lot of the work, the later work I did as a principal in helping to create those systems and coordinating services with community agencies.

Warner: But of course, Curtis, I think about the limited hours in a day and the limited resources of any one individual and any one school. And I think that's a huge investment you made for one student and there were dozens more students presumably at that school.

Garcia: It is and so this is where, you know I'm a strong advocate for thinking about how schools can change the way they're structured and can alter the work that we do. Whether it's as teachers or administrators, to better meet the needs of the families we serve and the realities that they face. Particularly families who come from a poverty background or who are otherwise vulnerable in other ways. And in my work now as a professor at Adams State University, that's something I emphasize with my students is really encouraging my students to think about ways and innovative ways, to work with families, to meet them where they're at and to help coordinate services around the needs of the child. It's a skill set that we haven't traditionally taught, quite frankly, in teacher education but it's something that I think is desperately needed as this issue continues to grow. And as teachers continue to encounter more and more students who have these kinds of needs.

Warner: Pastor Kent, you mentioned this idea that you're seeing people increasingly, for instance, at your food pantry who find themselves in poverty and you said something to the effect of and "it's not necessarily of their own doing. It's somewhat beyond their control." Just expound on that for me and what your perception is of the individual responsibility versus the collective.

Replogle: When we see people coming in for food, over the years it's changed as the demographics have changed. We're seeing now people that are coming in for food and we're seeing a lot of grandparents coming in for food who are once again raising grandchildren and when we talk to them it's because families are moving back in together. And the parents might both be working but the grandparents are raising the children while mom and dad are working one or two or three jobs just to make ends meet and they're not making it. And so that is a change that we've witnessed over the last few years and it seems to be getting more prevalent all the time. That people are doing everything they can do and when they come right down to the end of the month and money's running short, that's when we, when our increase in need is called upon at the church for more assistance.

Warner: I wonder if sometimes you're not able to provide all the assistance that's needed.

Replogle: We definitely aren't. We do the best we can. My church is a small church. We only have about 60 people in the church. And yet this year we've already gone through 142,000 pounds of food, giving it away. So even the smallest church, or organization, like Teva's organization too, if you put all your people to work the best you can and you work with each other and these different organizations start to work together, we are able to make some changes. And I think that we're seeing bigger changes happening all the time. We notice that people will come four, five, or six times and then they don’t need to come anymore and then all of a sudden they'll show up with a bag of food to give back to us.

Warner: Wow.

Replogle: And that's one of those great things that you don’t expect and yet you know you're doing good when things like that happen.

Warner: And they want to give back.

Replogle: And we, at the church, also reach out into the community and give emergency bags away to homeless people and a couple of our folks work in downtown Denver and they take, on their lunch hours they go out and they pass out these bags over their lunch hours that have energy bars and fruit snacks and just a basic soap and even dog food. Things that some of the homeless folks really need and so it's a huge problem, not just in Thornton where we're at, but statewide. From all over.

Warner: Teva Sienicki, reflect for just a bit with me on this idea of personal responsibility versus the collective when it comes to poverty.

Teva Sienicki Sure. I think that honestly this is something that I've been wrestling with over the course of my career in this field. I read the book Collective Impact, or Collective Impact, Forces for Good rather.

Ryan Warner Forces for Good.

Teva Sienicki A number of years ago. And in it, it talked about that the organizations that are most effective on achieving their missions not only do direct service in their area but also do policy work and advocacy work. And this is an idea that I think is really important because I found myself frustrated again and again with how much we can accomplish in one family's life or in one community's life or in one neighborhood when we're up against these greater challenges that we've been referencing, that you've talked about throughout your year -- that wages are not keeping pace with the cost of housing and other expenses, that child care is unaffordable. And we are seeing those same things that Pastor Kent is talking about and that the principal is talking about, where you know we are seeing families that just can't make ends meet and they're doubling up with family members, sometimes with grandparents, sometimes with brothers and sisters and friends. And there is something that we collectively as a society need to look at around wages, around affordable housing, around paid family and medical leave.

Warner: You said that you had struggled with this over the years. Where is the personal responsibility? Where does the individual stop and the collective begin do you think?

Sienicki: To me, it's a continuum. I think that you need to step up each day to try to be there for those kids and families in their current circumstances so that those kids can show up at kindergarten ready to learn -- so that they can do well in school, despite the challenges that they're facing at home that we've heard so much about; so that they can have their utility bill paid so that they have lights to do their homework at night and return to school ready to learn the next day; so that they have food in their bellies when they show up at school, while we're also looking at some of these longer term changes we need to make.

Warner: With the idea that helping someone [immediately] can lay the groundwork to breaking the cycle of poverty eventually on the individual level, and then you were talking about the collective level as well. (The book you talked about was Forces for Good, the Six Practices of High Impact Non Profits, by Leslie Crutchfield.) I'd like to wrap up, just briefly with what each of you thinks might be a good weapon in the fight against childhood poverty. Perhaps the most powerful thing you'd change from your vantage points. And how about we start with you, Curtis Garcia, from an education perspective in the San Luis Valley. Just briefly.

Garcia: One of the most powerful things that I saw working with these families was the power of collaboration. When we as a school collaborated with other agencies around the community who had an interest in the welfare of the children and the family. We were able to move some mountains and really get to places where we saw these children being much more successful and their families, helping their families to be in a better situation overall. So I would say collaboration.

Warner: And getting beyond just the campus of any individual school, Pastor Kent, very quickly, from your pulpit. What appears to be a powerful weapon?

Replogle: Well I agree fully with what Curtis said, the collaboration piece is huge. Getting agencies to work between themselves and also to get the schools to open up and to welcome in outside agencies that can help with their poverty programs that they have at the local school level. And that's a huge piece. We're starting to see that happening a little bit but that needs to become more the commonplace than the rare thing that happens once in a while.

Warner: And Teva, with Growing Home, you've certainly hinted at policy changes and it sounds like you think those might be the avenue to making things better?

Sienicki: I would say commitment. Having a public will that recognizes our common humanity and doesn't find the current status acceptable.

Warner: Thanks to the three of you for sharing your perspectives with us as we wrap up this childhood poverty coverage.