Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pass the Cranberry Jelly, Please

Published in the Sun Nov 27, 2013

Winnie Bowen, 7 year volunteer at the Caring Place, helps a client select groceries
I am a procrastinator when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner.  Every year, 25 members of the family show up at my house, expecting a delicious meal in a delightfully festive environment.  So here I am lying awake at 5:00 AM on the Friday before Thanksgiving, deciding what to serve and wondering how much of the house absolutely must be cleaned to avoid disgrace.

Green bean casserole, of course, and cranberry jelly.  My kids like cranberry jelly right out of a can, carefully sliced so the can marks are a visible testament to authenticity.  That’s as far as I get on the menu before my mind wanders and I starting wondering about people who don’t have the luxury of being picky about their groceries during the holidays.

Curious about food insecurity, I head over to the Caring Place to meet Rita Turner, director of community engagement.  Rita tells me that although to the casual observer Georgetown looks like an affluent community, an increasing number of families have a hard time putting food on the table.  Part of the increased demand may be due to the recent reduction in federal food stamp benefits that went into effect November 1, 2013.

Playing devil’s advocate I challenge Rita to respond to the claim that some people would rather use food stamps than get a job and she snorts dismissively, “Nobody’s getting rich off food stamps.”  The maximum benefit for a family of four calculates to $1.76 per meal per person.  In other words, what I might casually spend on a morning latte would be a day’s worth of food stamps for an eligible child.  Last month in Williamson County, over 28,000 people received food stamps; 57% of them were children.

Rita further explains that most of the food pantry clients at the Caring Place are disabled or elderly and are not candidates for jobs anyway.  In 2012, the Caring Place distributed enough food for almost 600,000 meals.

While Rita and I are talking, my friend Jodie Steger walks out of a room where she interviews potential clients.  Jodie screens people in private and finds out what financial crisis has caused the need for emergency assistance and how the Caring Place might help.  She has just interviewed a woman without medical insurance who was hospitalized recently.  The woman may lose her job because of her absence, and can’t afford her new prescriptions.  Jodie can’t help her pay her medical bills from the hospital, but she is able to give her a voucher to purchase her medications at HEB and help her with one week’s worth of food every month for the next three months.  That will help the woman keep enough cash on hand to buy gasoline to get to her job in South Austin, if she doesn’t get fired.

Jodie, who let’s just say is beyond Medicare age and in a comfortable place financially, could be spending her “golden years” doing anything she wants.  What she wanted was to be a social worker.  She went back to Southwestern as a non-traditional student and graduated at age 49 with a degree in sociology.  She volunteers about 15 hours a week at the Caring Place.  She is embarrassed to be interviewed for the newspaper, saying, “I don’t want any credit; it’s not about me.  I just like doing this.  It’s a selfish thing on my part.”  She means of course that the satisfaction she feels from helping people is rich compensation for her efforts. 

I agree that it is not about her, but the Caring Place won’t let me interview a client for privacy reasons, and I can’t interview all 450 volunteers who regularly donate their time and talents to the Caring Place, so Jodie is on the hook simply because she came out of her office at the precise moment that I walked by.  She is one of many, many people who care about our less fortunate neighbors, and are willing to sacrifice both time and money to make a difference.

I ask Jodie the same question I asked Rita; how does she know that the clients aren’t trying to scam the system?  After years of interviewing desperate people in dire financial straits she seems a bit puzzled by my question and thoughtfully replies, “I just believe that everybody deserves food, and shelter, and a safe place to stay.  I would rather help a few people who don’t need it than turn away the ones who do.”

Ginna O’Connor, the new executive director, has joined us and interjects that many people can be just one or two paychecks away from needing assistance.  The Caring Place exists to help those who find themselves in a rough spot.  Jodie recalls refugees from Hurricane Katrina who had nice homes and fancy cars back in New Orleans, but lost everything in the flood.  Misfortune can happen to anybody.

If you are reading this newspaper, chances are that you will spend several hundred dollars (or way more) on your holiday celebrations over the next five weeks.  Do your conscience a favor and go to (or another charity of your choosing) and help somebody else have a nice holiday as well.  Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Improve your world.  That cranberry jelly will be so much sweeter.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Observations from the Campaign Trail

Published in the Williamson County Sun 11-20-2013

The best part of running for city council was meeting people.  I met so many wonderful people who have quietly been doing good in this town for years; people who believe that even the unlucky deserve a fair shake, people who spend their spare time making things better for the less fortunate among us, and people who believe that the real value in a community cannot be entered on a spread sheet.  Excel is not the same as Excellence.

I drank a lot of coffee with city employees who, without exception, were excited about their jobs and passionate about the future of Georgetown.  We are lucky to have such a wonderful city staff.

Knocking on a thousand doors in Georgetown’s District 2, I learned a lot of interesting things about my neighbors too.  The majority of people who answered the doorbell were eager to chat.  Some offered to introduce me to their neighbors.  Almost everybody loves Georgetown, having moved here precisely because it is a good place to live.  Many told me they intend to die here, even if Georgetown keeps growing, which they know it will.  Most had no complaints, but if they did come up with one, it was usually “Don’t raise property taxes.”  Many want more businesses on the Square that cater to Georgetown residents, not just tourists.  A lot of people really miss the monthly truck load of brush that they used to be able to dump for free at the collection station, and many were puzzled about why we do so much road repaving and curb replacement.  Many, many people thought we should restrict watering more than we currently do.

Several of my block-walking encounters stand out because they were unusual.  One very tall man answered the door in his boxer shorts.  Our conversation was brief.

A young man with multiple tattoos asked me if I liked guns.  When I assured him that city council was unlikely to pass any ordinance that would interfere with his second amendment rights, he confided that he likes to take his rifle out in public to demonstrate for open carry.  He had tried to organize a neighborhood militia but his neighbors weren’t very interested.  Since he lives about a quarter of a mile from my own house, I was secretly thankful for the lack of local military fervor.

Another youngish man only wanted to know if I opposed Agenda 21, the non-binding United Nations document addressing environmental degradation and poverty in the 21st century.  Certain suspicious individuals believe Agenda 21 is secret code for a covert plan to destroy the sovereignty of the United States and take away our private property rights.  I haven’t been able to figure out how stripping away our property rights would combat poverty or environmental degradation, and even if the UN were to set such a goal, it really hasn’t ever been successful at imposing its will on even those most deserving of control.  My attempts were futile to persuade him that Georgetown city council has little to gain by forcing citizens into serfdom.

A young home-schooling couple, after a long sidewalk conversation, wanted me to promise that if elected to city council, I would never vote to provide gay people with equal rights or domestic benefits.  When I refused to make such a pledge, they dismissed me as an incorrigible progressive.  A few days later my opponent’s sign appeared in their yard.

At another home a woman answered but seemed reluctant to talk to me by herself.  She called her husband to the door and he immediately demanded to know if I was a Republican.  When I answered that I was not, he growled “Not a chance,” and turned away.  The wife smiled wanly and shrugged her shoulders, as if to apologize silently for his rudeness.  I left wondering if she was ever allowed to converse on her own, and what kind of behavior she puts up with on his bad days.

A gentleman in a small duplex visited with me on his driveway until it was time for him to pick up his teenage niece from school.  A single man, he had devoted his life to raising his niece since she was an infant, because her mother had been in prison when the baby was born.  An entire wall of his living room was covered with pictures of the girl.

On a sweltering day in September, a young black Navy veteran, recently moved to Georgetown from Washington DC, invited me, a sweaty stranger, into his home and offered me a glass of water.  His hospitality was remarkable enough, but his race was the really unusual thing in district 2.  Of my entire list of voters in district 2, only 5 doors were answered by black people, proving yet again that a “post-racial” America is a myth.  I find this lack of diversity disturbing, not because I was the Democrat in a supposedly non-partisan election, but because I believe neighborhood segregation is an anchor holding us in the past.

It would have been more fun to win, but making so many new friends was a real gift.  And at least I’m off the hook for the repaving job.