OAK HILL —
Fayette Countians gathered Wednesday to discuss child poverty and hash out a plan for a regional forum on the issue this spring.
The WV Healthy Kids and Families Coalition has been working for six months with 140 groups across the state — including churches, schools, prisons, chambers of commerce, unions and others — to build "Our Children, Our Future," a democratically-run campaign to end child poverty.
The campaign has developed and voted on a 10-part platform for 2013, which includes issues like Medicaid expansion, family violence prevention, protecting child care benefits, healthy foods in schools, and prison reform.
On Wednesday, it was Fayette County's turn to weigh in on the process.
“Our intention today was to bring people together from Fayette County to talk about child poverty issues and work together to plan a regional forum to present to our legislators the issues we’re concerned about, the problems we see, and how we think we can work on them,” said Stephanie Tyree of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, which organized the meeting.
The group of approximately 40 people included Travis Mollohan, a representative from Sen. Joe Manchin’s office; Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier; Fayette County Commissioner Matt Wender; Board of Education member Leon Ivey; and employees of a variety of government and non-profit organizations whose work intersects with the issue.
That included Capt. Rob Barber of The Salvation Army in Beckley, who says that although there's no “quick fix” to this “generational and cultural problem,” it will take a community-wide effort to produce change.
“In the community, we have to focus on what we can do, and that’s going to involve churches, schools, and parents,” he said. “We have to get everybody stepping forward on this and not just lay it at our legislators' feet.”
Barber is particularly concerned with what he sees as a “culture of poverty” that has developed around welfare benefits.
For example, he says he has trouble finding Salvation Army bell-ringers because the workers then make too much to receive benefits. Or take the athletic star and straight-A student who told him earnestly that his life dream was to figure out a way to receive a disability check.
“The truth is that we can't keep doing social services the way they’ve been done. It can't keep continuing this way before we hit some kind of economic collapse,” he said.
The “Our Children, Our Future” campaign has not set any goals around welfare reform specifically.
Others at the meeting also expressed the need to break a “multi-generational cycle of poverty” through parental education, job training, workforce development, or by simply “telling the truth” about the issue to youth, as Wender commented.
“The future is very bleak, I think, unless we realize we need to better prepare youth so they can break the cycle,” he said.
The group brainstormed ways to fill forum seats with those who are directly affected by the issue — parents and children living in poverty.
Mollohan, Director of Outreach for Sen. Joe Manchin, attended the meeting and says the campaign’s platform lists “topics the senator has always been interested and focused on.”
He plans to report back to the senator that “in this room you had almost 40 concerned citizens and organizations that want to make a difference, and we're seeing that all over the state.”
He said the Senator will want to attend future meetings if his schedule allows.
In addition to roughly a dozen regional forums in the spring, the campaign will sponsor a “Kids and Families Day” at the state capitol on Feb. 26.
For more information on “Our Children, Our Future,” contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.wvhealthykids.org.