Archive for April, 2010

Where the Poor People Were Buried

April 25, 2010

My Grandpa was in the hospital.  He was real sick, coughing up blood and phlegm. They let my Grandma in to see him, but I wasn’t allowed.  I sat quietly, like a good girl, in the waiting room right next door to where he was.  I listened to him cough and heave.  I listened to my Grandma cry. After a long time, she came out wiping her eyes under her glasses with a tissue.

 “We’ll come back again tomorrow morning,” she said.

We got in the car and left.  Grandma’s eyes were red and she just drove, not saying anything.  I watched as a boy on a bicycle, a lady pushing a baby stroller and an old man walking a dog passed by. We headed up the mountain.

We went to the family cemetery a lot.  We visited the dead more than we visited anyone living. Our family cemetery was a pretty place, at the top of a winding road on Monticello Mountain. The tall black iron gates were never locked when we got there and it seemed like not many people other than us visited. Our car always sat alone, parked under a Cedar Tree near where my uncles and sister were buried.

 We were up high and could look over into town and see the tall steeple of the Baptist church, the red Texaco Star at the gas station and the hospital where everyone went to die. I wondered if when our relatives were still living, they could see the cemetery out of their hospital rooms, if my uncles pointed out the window and said, “I want that spot right there under the shade tree,” or if my baby sister said, “put me right there near that statue  of the angel.”  I wondered if Grandpa was looking at us now.  I waved to him, wanting to let him know we were here, wanting him to feel less lonely.

Monticello Memorial Gardens was kind of like a park, but without the swings, slides and duck pond.  Flowers sprouted up from all over the ground, some were real and some never died, blooming in February when snow was on the ground.  We walked carefully at the bottoms of the graves so we didn’t disturb the ghosts that were sleeping under the ground.  Sometimes the trees dropped dry, brittle sticks onto the grass rectangles covering our relatives.  We picked up what the tree shed and threw it over the fence.  I wasn’t allowed to run in the cemetery,  pick the flowers, or talk too loud.

 Grandma got out of the car and I followed her.  She didn’t bring flowers like usual. She only had her pocketbook on her arm, and the balled up tissue in her hand.  We stopped at the foot of my Uncle’s graves, her sons, her only boys.  She stood there a long time, just looking at their headstones. She twisted and twisted the tissue in her hand like she was trying to wring the tears out of it. 

 She looked up at the sky and asked, “Why Lord? What did I ever do to have them taken from me? And now this, why?” 
I held my breath, waiting, but the Lord didn’t answer.  Grandma  turned around and walked back to the car. I trailed along behind her. We forgot to visit my sister’s grave.
We didn’t leave town to go home either,  like I thought we would.  Grandma drove to the foot of the mountain, past some stores and houses. We stopped at a small square brick building with a flat roof. It had Hartman Memorials carved into a strip of concrete across the front, above the door.  I thought it looked like a sad little house, parked in the middle of tall gravestones. Its front yard was covered in gravel and a few weeds grew up between the rocks. We had driven by it before, but never stopped.  I was surprised when Grandma parked the car there.  I was used to going to our family cemetery, but not to this new place.  

A man stepped out of the little house when we got out of the car.  He smiled at Grandma and stuck out his hand.  He took my Grandma’s hand in his and when her tears started again, he patted her hand.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

“I have to pick something out.” Grandma said.
“Do you want to look around out here first?” he asked.

“No,” she said, “I know what I need.”

Grandma went inside the building with the man who had on a suit like my Grandpa wore to church on Sunday. He didn’t look like my Grandpa though. This man was round, sweaty, had little eyes close together. His tie was crooked and his shoes were scratched and dusty.  Grandpa’s shoes shined so bright they almost hurt my eyes to look at them.  This man looked “shifty.”  That’s what my Grandpa would have said.  I didn’t get too close to him.  I stayed outside to look at the headstones. Grandma said, “Don’t you run off now, I’ll be right inside.”
This cemetery wasn’t very big and the stones were sitting close together, not in neat rows.  Some had carvings of roses, lambs, or hearts slipped together like paper chain links.  The monument’s faces were shiny and reflected mine as I looked into their hard grayness. None had names or dates like the gravestones in our family cemetery.  I felt sorry for the people who were buried here. They must have been poor people. They had headstones with no names.  There was no grass, no flowers.
I wondered why my Grandma stopped here, why she was talking to the man in the sad little house.  I wondered if my Grandpa was poor. I hoped not.

Teens Give-A Program for At Risk Youth

April 18, 2010

       Jack is fifteen years old. He’s a freshman in high school.  His increased height and deeper voice have pushed him beyond the curse words of his childhood, the small ones no one in his house noticed. He has moved onto “GD” and “MF,” the words of the men he sees on his street.   These words bring ire from adults and respect from his peers.  He is still a boy , but wants to be an adult. Grownups get to make the rules.

     He wants to be a man. His mother reminds him that he’s the “man of the house” even though he has no idea what one of those is supposed to look or act like.  His father, the man who impregnated his mother, has never shown up for any family activity or event, neither have the fathers of his siblings.  Jack’s mother makes minimum wage and has four children to support.  She works long hours.

     She tells Jack, “Man up, boy.  You need to take some responsibility around here, look after your brother and sisters, make sure they’re fed at dinner time, keep them out of trouble.” She wants him to take charge until she comes home at night to sleep. That’s what she does, works and sleeps.  In the morning, the drudgery of her life starts all over again. 

     Jack has a hard time staying at home, keeping his siblings from fighting, keeping them fed. They yell at him, “You’re not my Daddy. You can’t tell me what to do. Only Mama can tell me what to do.”

      His little brother and sisters really do need a father, and he isn’t one. They are his mother’s problem, not his.  He slams out of the house, leaving them to scoop their own peanut butter and jelly on stale bread, to turn the tv to channels they shouldn’t watch and play in the street, avoiding cars as best they can.

     Jack leaves the house to hang out with his friends, Tony, Mike and RJ.  These boys have things in common, they have mothers, but no fathers, they have poor grades, truancy, and baggy clothing.  They wear their hats sideways and don’t tie their shoes.  People passing by, don’t make eye contact and shake their heads, wondering if these boys were ever taught how to tie their shoes. The four friends stand together on the street corner, laughing and talking.

      In a report on a bureaucrat’s  desk in City Hall, these boys have a label– “at risk youth.”  Something has to be done about them and their kind, but funding cuts are making that much more difficult.  These children haven’t gotten in trouble…yet.  Trouble will find them though, if they don’t find it first.  These boys have an increased chance of dropping out of school, getting involved in gang activity, drug use and distribution, and crime.  The city has one year to try to make a difference in the lives of these fifteen year olds.  They can drop out of school at sixteen.

    Funding cuts are all around us, locally, statewide and nationally. The economy tanked and when that happened, people started saving, stopped spending and philanthropists began scoping out their list of charities more closely. Funding sources from state and government have dried up or gone to other, more important projects. The less affluent of those in our community suffered more than most, and still do. 

     For twenty one years, Teens Give has affected positive change in Charlottesville. The program does this by giving at-risk youth a constructive outlet for their energies.  Teens Give teaches pre-vocational and employment skills to young people who might otherwise be involved in negative activity.  These youth would be last in line for jobs without the training they receive through Teens Give. Not only do these children receive skill building services, they are able to positively influence change in their community through volunteering. 

     Teens Give volunteers provide service in daycare centers, the SPCA, after school programs, Parks and Recreation, and nursing homes.  Teens Give has provided volunteers for our nursing home for twenty one years.  At 100 hours monthly, that’s over 24,000 hours of community service.  In real dollar amounts at minimum wage, Teens Give volunteers have contributed $123,600 worth of service to our elders in those twenty one years.

     Many nursing home residents suffer from an epidemic of loneliness, helplessness and boredom.  If we examine the lives of our at-risk youth, many suffer from the same plagues.  Elders need to feel that they are making a difference, giving something worthwhile to their community, sharing wisdom with someone who cares to hear it.  Add children who need mentors, someone to assist with activities, and boredom is alleviated for both groups. Elders teach, youngsters learn, it’s a win/win situation. 

     Teens Give has been receiving their major funding from the VJCCCA—the Virginia Community Crime Control Act.  $75,000 has been taken from Teens Give as a result of funding cuts.  This in itself seems a crime, a theft of services taken from one of our communities’ most vulnerable populations. Imagine for a moment how it affects Jack. He’s not offered a program and is most likely still standing on that street corner, hanging out, maybe planning to venture toward a gang family.  In less than five years, the community is possibly looking at paying $25,000 or more per year to house Jack in prison. 

      Now, let’s imagine that Jack has been referred to the Teens Give program.  Part of his educational curriculum is a half day of English, Math, and History, the credits of which, along with his community service hours,  will give him a general high school diploma.  The other half of his day is spent in the Teens Give service learning program.

      Jack’s training begins at the Teens Give offices.  He and his peers undergo an  orientation that involves learning basic interpersonal skills, how to shake someone’s hand, make eye contact, smile, engage in pleasant conversation.  They learn anger management and constructive ways to problem solve.  Staff on site recognize difficulties and refer children in the program for tutoring, mentoring, life skills training, counseling and other support services.

     Jack expresses to the Teens Give staff an interest in working with elders.  He and his grandmother were close.  She died last year and he misses her.  Jack is assigned to volunteer at our nursing home.

     Jack and a staff member take on the project of the facility snack cart.  They organize and count inventory, stock the cart, list needs, take the cart room to room and Jack learns how to interact with elders, make change during transactions in buying and selling.  Residents smile at Jack and he smiles back.       

      Over time, relationships develop, residents look forward to seeing the young man and as he takes the cart around.  Jack doesn’t miss stopping by certain rooms like 103.

     “How are you Mrs. Smith?” Jack inquires.

     “Pretty good, the hip’s getting better. I walked a few steps with therapy today.”

     “That’s great.  Has your daughter been by lately. I know you were saying you hadn’t seen her in a while.”

     “She live in Northern Virginia, only gets here about once a month. I miss her.”

     Jack sits down in the empty chair in Mrs. Smith’s room and they chat.  Mrs. Smith is a little less lonely and Jack has brightened her day.  He knows that his presence makes a difference, affects someone’s quality of life.  He feels like a grandson.  He hasn’t felt that since his grandmother passed away.

     Jack has a history project due the next week.  He doesn’t know much about World War II.  Anyone in his family who might have remembered isn’t around anymore and Jack doesn’t have a computer at home to do research.  He’s never been to the public library.  His Teens Give counselor calls the nursing home to see if there’s a resident there who could talk with Jack about the war.

      Mr. Jones was in the Normandy Invasion during World War II.  It’s his favorite topic of conversation.   He’s ninety-four years old and doesn’t remember where he lives or what day it is.  He doesn’t know the current President or anything about the war in Iraq.  He does know his World War II history though and has volumes of stories to tell.

“We were scared, you know,” Mr. Jones tells Jack.  “We were young, not much older than you, and we knew some of us wouldn’t come home again.”

“Did you lose friends?” Jack asks.

“Son, I lost more friends than I could count.  Boys didn’t die by the ones or twos, they died by the twenty-fives and thirties.  I was one of the few lucky ones. I didn’t get a scratch.”

“I bet you were glad.” Jack says.

“Naw, son, I felt really bad for a long time.  I didn’t know why God decided that I should live and all those other boys should die.  It made me think, you know?”

“Made you think?” Jack repeats, not quite understanding.

“Made me think that what I have to do here must be important,  that my life needed to have a purpose, so that all those other boys didn’t lose their lives for no reason.  That make sense?”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Jack says.

Mr. Jones goes on to talk about the landing craft, the types of guns they used, battle tactics and strategy.  He gives Jack a true firsthand account of the event.  There’s an “A” under Jack’s belt for History class.  He leaves the facility knowing more about the history of his country and that he’s listened to someone’s own story of the event.  He’s made another positive difference in someone’s life.  He returns to Teens Give for their weekly reflection activity.  He talks about his experience to his counselors and peers.  He’s recognized for his contribution and offers support to a peer who’s having difficulty connecting with someone at his service site.

This is one example of how Teens Give affects the lives of members of the Charlottesville community.  There are countless other stories similar to this one. Stories of how this program puts teens on the right track to be productive members of their community. 

     What do we want for Jack?  Where do we want to find him in five years?  Take a drive through our city and notice how many of our youth are standing on street corners, on the cusp of leaning in the wrong direction.  Gangs seek them out, find them, and put them to work on a path of violence and eventually prison.  Is that where we want our future?  Is that what we want for Jack and other children like him?  Without Teens Give we will lose many and the cost will far surpass the amount of funding needed to keep this program running.

     We are asking for your help in keeping this vital community program alive in Charlottesville.  Obviously it works. It has for twenty one years.  Many of the Teens Give volunteers have gone on to win local, state and even national awards for their service.  Their futures have held high school diplomas, college, jobs, functional family lives and many have returned to mentor others. 

     Community Attention is the umbrella agency under which Teens Give exists. Heather Kellums is the Teens Give Coordinator in Charlottesville. Please contact her for more information and to learn about supporting this vital program in our area.


April 8, 2010

My mother called me two weeks ago. She was out of breath with excitement.  “I took a handful of old broken gold chains, rings, earrings without mates, that kind of stuff to the coin shop in Woodbook Center.  You just wouldn’t believe,” she said.

“What Mama?”  I asked, not quite understanding what she was talking about. She was always the one to wear jewelry.  She loved those gold chains when it was fashionable to wear six or seven with a different charm on each one, or those add a bead necklaces in the 70’s.  She had a ring on every other finger and I never saw her without earrings.  She liked to sparkle.

I have never been much for jewelry or fashion.  Mama wanted me to be. She had the girly-girl thing going on.  She enjoyed dressing up, wearing makeup, lipstick and perfume.  Her shoes matched her purse and if she thought she could get away with wearing gloves, she did that too. 

I prefer jeans to dresses, ball caps to hairstyles, purple and green striped knee socks to silk stockings.  My mother has spent her life shaking her head at me.  She tried to help, buying  me all kinds of baubles. I thanked her and  wore them enough to let her see, then put them away in boxes.  I had hopes that my daughter would take after her and enjoy them.  I had sons.

So she called me two weeks ago,  excited that she had visited the coin shop with her handfull of gold. 

 “Did they repair them for you?” I asked.

“Heavens no, TW,” she said.  “They weighed it and gave me over a thousand dollars for the piddling little amount I had.  Can you believe that? One thousand dollars!”

“You sold your jewelry?” I asked, not believing.

“Of course I did.  At that price, I’m looking for more to take.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I wanted to call so that you could go through your things and find all that gold you don’t wear.  You could get a fortune for what you keep in boxes.  I know the man at the coin shop, so I can get you a better deal.  Let me know when you have it all together,” she said.  We finished talking and I hung up the  phone.

I opened the hinged velvet containers, and laid all the pieces out on the bed in front of me.  I remembered birthdays and Christmases, High School Graduation and the birth of my first son, a trip to Reno and another to St. Augustine. My mother’s smile and excitement sparkled in each gold gift before me.  I’ve never worn them, any of them, but I could never sell them.

I boxed them back up and put them away, for my granddaughter I think.