The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 21, 2013

Senate committee meets in Beckley on children and poverty

BECKLEY — The West Virginia Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty met with community members Wednesday night to discuss potential solutions for issues related to children and poverty.

The meeting room was filled and over 20 individuals from all walks of life came before the Senate committee to share their stories and offer their insight.

Katie Gleasman, an educator in Fayette County for 10 years, wowed the crowd with her passion about her students.

Her eloquent speech told a heart-wrenching story about a student whose parents are in jail.

“He needs someone to care. He needs spirituality to believe in something larger than himself.”

She said sure, money would help, but what he really needs is someone to care.

Gleasman said this student is one of many she sees slipping through the cracks, and she urged the senators to do everything they can to help.

She also called upon the community to volunteer at their local schools.

“They need all of us. They need love. You are the solution.”

Scott Miller, with the Child Advocacy Center, said he sees a lack of “moral richness” that children and families once shared.

He suggested training religious leaders to effectively communicate with parents about safety, nutrition and discipline.

“We need to explore what we can do differently. It’s exciting to know that the Senate is interested in doing this.”

Committee Chair John Unger, D-Berkeley, spoke about visiting a 3rd grade class recently. He told the students they were senators and they would get to make a bill. One girl suggested longer recesses and one boy suggested extra lunches. The class then held debates on which bill should pass, and Unger said he asked one boy why he was in favor of the extra lunch bill.

The boy said so he wouldn’t be hungry and could share his dinner with his brother at home later that night.

Unger asked the kids how many of them were in the same situation and many hands raised in the classroom.

“We can do all the education reform we want. We can have the best classrooms, the best teachers, the best curriculum and the best facilities, but if these young minds are on their next meals or problems at home, their minds are not there in those classrooms.”

Our culture has become a reactive one, Unger said, dealing with issues such as substance abuse and teenage pregnancy, but he said we need to focus on being proactive.

“Look at it through the eyes of a child and figure out how to develop healthy environments.”

Others in attendance included local business leaders, Department of Health and Human Resources representatives and concerned citizens.

Some of their suggestions included reaching families before they are broken, hiring additional counselors at schools, creating more afterschool programs and funding transportation to and from those programs, fighting the prescription drug problem, making more resources available for parents, creating more jobs, fighting the stigma of mental illness, and preventing the high school drop out rate.

Jim Brown, Superintendent of Raleigh County Schools, said that high school graduates who obtain a job before having a child have less than a 3 percent chance of being in poverty.

He also noted that the laws on truancy are “not working” — he said 23 kindergartners have missed over 20 days of school and one of those students has missed 59 days, not including snow days.

One retired lawyer, who said many of his clients had been in financial trouble due to medical bills, urged the senators to look at the Medicaid Expansion Plan.

Members of the Select Committee on Children and Poverty are Unger; Vice Chair Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel; Roman Prezioso, D-Marion; Ronald Miller, D-Greenbrier; Ron Stollings, D-Boone; Clark Barnes, R-Randolph; Bill Laird, D-Fayette; Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha; Robert Plymale, D-Wayne; Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire; and Mike Hall, R-Putnam. These members were appointed by Senate President Jeffrey Kessler and they will work on these issues for the next two years.

Margaret O’Neal, executive director of the United Way, thanked everyone for coming, but added, “Don’t just do the talk, walk the walk.”

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com

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