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 www.caringplacetx.org (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.

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