Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sister Berta

Getting to work yesterday was a challenge. We had a first-of-the-morning division meeting for which I needed to be on time, and events were conspiring against me. Aerobics class had gone a little long. Had to wait in line for my latte at the coffee shop. Couldn't find one of my shoes. I made it, but just barely, and in one of those grumpy things-just-aren't-going-right-for-me moods.

On the agenda was a presentation by the employees organizing our division's United Way pledge drive. Their plan to engage us in ante-ing up this year was to bring us face-to-face with one of the agencies that receives United Way support, and they had chosen Operation Breakthrough, a school/child care facility serving 600-some children in our city's central core. We received a list of school supplies needed by the youngsters whose families are hard-pressed to supply supper, let alone pencils and crayons, with a request to purchase and donate the necessary items.

Sure, happy to help.

Then Sister Berta, the agency's founder and director, came to the front of the room to speak. She expressed appreciation for our willingness to help, for our company's longtime support, all the requisite good-citizen attaboys. And then she told us a little about the families her organization serves.

The single moms who go to work every day, cleaning hotel rooms or serving fast food burgers, pick up the kids from school and take them home, wherever that is and whatever they can afford on a $14,000 annual income. A relative's spare room or a domestic violence shelter if they're lucky. A car, abandoned building or under a bridge if they're not. Sister Berta spoke of one mom who never missed a day of work and got her kids to school, dressed and on time every day, from living quarters in a sheltered bus stop.

I thought about the time I used to spend helping my kids with their homework, and wondered how on earth we'd have accomplished that from a bench in a bus shelter.

She spoke of the fragile network of services that get families from one day to the next. Operation Breakthrough provides some -- a dental clinic, a food pantry, a GED program for parents -- and others are patched together as resources allow. What's for dinner tonight? When the utilities are turned off and there's neither refrigeration or the means to cook, the choices are limited.

There was more, but you get the picture... of a spoiled, vastly over-privileged woman (that would be me), considerably chastened by the juxtaposition of Sister Berta's words and the memory of my morning meltdown over assorted inconveniences.

As I travel in my little bubble midst people similarly privileged, it is easy to forget there is another whole world out there where getting through each day is a genuine struggle. I forget what luck I had to be born to parents who had educations and jobs and set me on course for the same. There may have been bootstraps in the past -- my dad, actually, pulled himself up out of the dust storms with some -- but there sure aren't enough to go around these days. And even if there were, it's hard to get to Square 1 when you start at Minus 50.

I have my shopping list for the 5th graders at Operation Breakthrough and I'll be buying school supplies this weekend.

I'll also be a lot more patient, for awhile at least, waiting for my latte. Or better yet, skip a latte for a day or two and buy an extra box of crayons instead.

1 comment:

Kim and Patrick Bentrott said...

It is amazing the challenges some people in this world have to face... and a miracle that they are able to figure out our imperfect systems and survive. We all need a wake=-up, if nothing else then to stop for a minute and not take a second of our lives for granted.

Thank you for this beautiful post.