The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 25, 2013

Select committee may hear Fayette girl’s story about living in poverty

CHARLESTON — Picture yourself with no place to call home, save a tent.

You eat, sleep, relax, do homework, entertain friends and conduct family relationships as best as possible in close quarters.

For a girl in Fayette County, some time ago, this was her life.

One wouldn’t expect much out of someone assigned to such surroundings. But the girl overcame that humble start in life and eventually performed college work.

Her story could be told next month when the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty hits the road for its first meeting beyond the state Capitol, in quest of testimony from those on the lower rungs of society’s ladder.

“We want to talk with people and receive witness from various children that live in poverty and get their perspective,” explained Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, who chairs the committee.

“And we want to look at what’s going on in the community, what resources are out there, what needs are there and see how we can work together in conjunction and cooperation with one another to try to meet those needs in order to focus in on the child.”

How could one spend a childhood inside a tent, especially in the often bitter-cold months of a West Virginia winter?

“We’re going to find out,” Unger said.

“It would be important to hear from her and others what was it like living in those conditions, what pulled you up and then you went on to college. If we can look through a child’s eyes on legislation, I think it will change our whole perspective of what we ought to be doing in regard to providing that support to children in order to have healthy children that grow into healthy adults.”

Eventually, Unger hopes to take the committee into all senatorial districts.

Hosting the first such meeting, set for March 13 at the Historic Oak Hill School, will be the two representatives of the 10th District, Sens. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, and Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier.

The second one hasn’t been scheduled, but already, Sens. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, and Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, who represent the 9th District, want one in Beckley.

As chairman, Unger says he is obligated to attend all hearings on the road.

“We’re hoping to videotape them and offer them eventually on the Web so people can access the meetings if they can’t attend,” the chairman said.

On the opening day of the session, Unger said he was inspired to create the committee after visiting his wife’s elementary school class and one boy, in a mock staging of a Senate session, said he wanted to pass a bill to provide him two lunches each day.

His explanation: By eating twice as much, he wouldn’t be hungry at supper and the food he normally consumes could be shared by his parents and brother.

“That touched my heart,” Unger said.

“And it puts a face to all the legislation and the charts and everything. That’s what I want to do with the legislators, bring that face to them, that child to them, they can remember, as they deliberate here and make decisions to help that child.”

Striving to help those mired in poverty is not only compassionate and morally correct but makes sound economic sense, as well, Unger reasons.

“Those children didn’t put themselves in that position and they can’t pull themselves out of that,” he said.

If a child is guaranteed a healthy environment, future societal ills could be minimized, or perhaps even eliminated, Unger said.

“If research shows that, then let’s go from the front end, be proactive, and then we have a cost savings later on overcrowded prisons, substance abuse, and lack of performance in schools,” he added.

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