By C.V. Moore
OAK HILL —
Standing room only greeted 150 community members who came out on Wednesday evening to share stories with law makers about what child poverty looks like in Fayette County, and how it might be relieved.
The new 11-member Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty met in Oak Hill to hear about the issue directly from those who see and experience it every day.
“We do a lot of talking in Charleston, and I’ll tell you we’re here primarily tonight to listen to you speak,” said Sen. William Laird (D - Fayette) to kick off the meeting.
And speak they did — from stories of hungry children gorging on snacks at after-school programs to funding requests for poverty relief programs to specific proposals to begin new initiatives.
They came at the issue from many perspectives, but all who spoke agreed that there’s a big problem in their community.
Drema Davis says extreme poverty leads many children to Appalachian Regional Hospital, where she works in the adolescent psych ward.
Harry Fuller, a pastor, wants to build an after-school center where children can eat, exercise, and elevate their education.
Scott Miller, the Executive Director of Just for Kids, wants assistance in making connections with the business community to help fund child advocacy centers.
Jessica Zukowsky — a Mount Hope native, Vista worker, and mother of two — urges an expansion of Medicaid and assistance to families who want to break the cycle of poverty.
Jacob Ivey, student body president at Oak Hill High School, wants more incentives for higher education and an increase in the value of Promise scholarships.
Ray Wibel, who trains low-income seniors for the work force, says many need employment to support grandchildren whose parents aren’t able to pay the bills.
And Ron George, a minister, says the government isn’t the total solution to child poverty, but they could sure help by improving the state’s business climate.
These were just a few of 20 who came forward to speak directly to their legislators.
Their many approaches to the issue highlight something about its fundamental nature — that it’s the result of a web of pressures and dynamics that no single 12-point plan can fix.
The complexity of its causes matches the expansiveness of its results.
“Research has shown that a child’s development between 0 and 8 is critical to their cognitive ability. By looking at children, we can reduce incarceration, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and all these factors that we’re paying for later,” senate majority leader Sen. Ron Unger (D - Berkeley) tells The Register Herald.
Unger, who chairs the select committee, says he’s not just looking for a change in legislation or funding structures — he wants to change the culture around child poverty.
He says listening to stories like the ones told on Wednesday will help the committee members become more compassionate legislators who remember children with every piece of legislation they undertake.
Select committees in the West Virginia legislature are typically created to address specific issues and report any findings and recommendations to the full legislative body.
Formation of the select committee on Children and Poverty was announced by Unger on Jan. 20. At the time he said the committee would take a “holistic approach” to the issue.
The committee held its first meeting on Feb. 20 and since then have heard from organization heads who work with children or on issues that intersect with them, like education and economic reform.
Many on Wednesday spoke about the positive impact that the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), which hosted the event, has had in their lives.
Suade Thomas is a high school dropout and father who earned at GED at the school and currently works there. He urged the committee to create more opportunities like SALS.
“Programs like what we do will give people a better chance to have jobs. Paid training opens up a lot of opportunities for many people,” he said.
Over half of West Virginia kids were eligible for free or reduced price school meals in 2009, according to Kids Count data. A quarter lived in poverty. And the abuse and neglect rate was was double the national average.
The “Our Children, Our Future” campaign, sponsored by the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, has created a ten-issue platform to end child poverty, available at http://www.wvhealthykids.org/.
The select committee plans to hold a similar public meeting in Beckley on March 20 at the Commission on Aging. After the legislative session, they will travel all over the state holding meetings, Unger said.
The committee’s agendas can be monitored at http://www.legis.state.wv.us/committees/senate/main.cfm or at Unger’s legislative website, http://www.legis.state.wv.us/Senate1/majorityleader.cfm.
A video of Wednesday’s meeting will be available on the website.
“I truly believe that (...) where there is no vision, the people perish,” Sen. Ron Miller (D - Greenbrier) told Wednesday’s crowd. “What we have here is a committee that’s looking for a vision for this state and the people that make the difference here in West Virginia.”