United Way breaks through ‘us vs. them’ mindset
by Staff Writer
In addition to my two blue-eyed biological sons, I have a handsome 6-foot-4, 24-year-old African-American son named Martreal. I’ve known Martreal since his teen years, when he was in and out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
But before we get to Martreal’s story, I’ll share a bit of my own, because the journeys are intertwined.
When I was a child, there was regularly a strange face at our dinner table. There was always a lost soul that my parents welcomed into our home for the holidays, for a meal or just for a safe place to sleep – usually a domestic violence victim or a runaway teen.
My parents weren’t wealthy. Dad was a butcher. Mom a part-time secretary (and later a realtor) who didn’t finish high school. They were determined that if they saw a problem, they were going to help.
During my school years, I was fascinated by social stratification, which I saw up-close in various forms:
• In urban Dallas, the outsiders were immigrants. Classmates from transient families would disappear without notice.
• After moving to rural South Carolina – a town so small it lacked a name – the issue was rampant racism.
• Attending Furman University on a scholarship, I experienced social divisions defined by wealth.
In three settings that couldn’t be more different, there was one common denominator – an undercurrent of “us vs. them.” Those same barriers exist in Charlotte.
The bias we face at United Way is a perception that giving to those in need results in a class of dependent people who are not working to help themselves. In reality, the vast majority of United Way recipients get help only during a brief, critical period in their lives.
For example, of the individuals who qualified for the Ada Jenkins Center’s human services program, 97 percent were able to avoid eviction or keep their utilities connected. Most need help only one time during a crisis, never returning for more financial support.
United Way recipients are not a “them.” They are our friends, coworkers and neighbors. No one goes through a day without interacting with someone who once needed help, receives help now, or will soon need help from a United Way agency.
Nearly 200,000 people in our five-county region live in poverty – not only from unemployment. Most people served by United Way are the “working poor.” Of the 388,378 new jobs added in our state in the last decade, 322,788 pay wages below basic living standards.
Yet in the face of these growing numbers, government programs to help those in need have been slashed.
When Martreal finally “graduated” from foster care, he had no family, education or money.
I found him living on the streets, homeless. We got him into the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and into Job Corps to learn to be a bricklayer. Later, he moved into the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope, which kept his 3-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter out of foster care.
Martreal is not perfect, but he loves his children and is trying hard to do the right thing. He still doesn’t have a full-time job, but he makes ends meet with part-time work, and he has found an apartment and saved up for a used car. He’s determined to make it, and United Way agencies are making the difference.
At-risk children and families don’t come in pieces and parts. They are whole people and whole families who need holistic support to be successful. That’s why the 87 United Way-supported agencies are so critical, because they weave together that essential safety net.
If you’ve given to the 2012 campaign, I sincerely thank you – if you have not, please consider doing so before the campaign ends on Valentine’s Day.
Brett Loftis, executive director of the Council for Children’s Rights, has served for the past two years as the agency representative on United Way’s board of directors.