Time To Get Personal- “Hi, I’m Kim and I Used to Be Poor.”

I have a pretty amazing life, a beautiful home, two incredible kids, and a handsome husband who has worked hard to move up in life and provide his family with everything we have.  I don’t have anyone to thank except him, and myself.  We made this happen.  While, in our lives, I’m sure events transpired that were “lucky” or “fortuitous” that helped us get here but we are the result of hard work.  Our lives exist because of that work.

Since there have been a few remarks about how fortunate I am, and how “out of touch” I am with those I am reaching out to help with the Flats and Handwashing Challenge, I thought today was a good day for a back story.

Kim today is pretty different from the Kim of 20+ years ago.  I didn’t live in a house until I moved in with my boyfriend (current husband) during college.  No home I’ve ever inhabited had stairs, and it was never permanently anchored to the ground.  I was a trailer park kid.  I’ve lived in plenty in my lifetime, some pretty sad looking, and some that are the “cadillacs” of mobile home parks, with paved roads (NOT DIRT!), and back again.  I recall using a rusted mattress on our front porch, that was basically only rusted and sharp coils,  as a trampoline when I was 5.  We were poor, and a little white trashy too.  We were never rich, but it was only towards my adolescence that things got worse.

About 5-6 years old
About 5-6 years old

Thanks to a string of bad luck our family was thrust into a period of Hell that I’ve tried to block out.  In fact, most of my life between the years of 10-18 are a blur.  A haze of misery and disappointment, rage, pain, and depression.  My mother re-married a very nice man when I was in sixth grade.  We loved him.  But he had recently started suffering from a severe form of Epilepsy that disabled him to the point of not being able to work, and for years, he could hardly function due to the severity and frequency of his seizures.  The Epilepsy was triggered by a head injury from a fight (over my mother) while they were dating.  To this day he still suffers from it but over the years he has gotten better at recognizing his aura and doesn’t drop like a fish in public places (my chorus concert, Wal-Mart, etc) and injure himself as often, or as severely.  He can reach a safe place in time.

We were poor.  My Mother had a hard time keeping a job because she was also trying to care for my step-father, who was very ill, and would lose each job she had.  We didn’t have insurance or income.  Diseases are expensive and paying for the medications my step-father needed took everything and more that we had.  We relied on food banks a lot to eat, and were often on either Welfare or other public assistance programs.  Sometimes we had medicaid (which is the only reason I had braces- a real life changer), but often we didn’t.  And yes, I’ve eaten welfare cheese.

I won’t go into a lot of detail, but things got way worse.  Both of my parents became addicted to prescription and street drugs.  I was essentially raising myself during these years.  My grandmothers made sure we had food in our cupboards in the worst of times but neither really knew how bad things were.  I would wake up for school and see my mother and step-father and other random people already awake, looking quite cheery.  The smell of burnt metal and acrid smoke would still be in the air, needles and paraphernalia were poorly and hastily hidden when I entered the room.

The only reason I didn’t lack certain things was because my mother and step-father were, how do you say, helping themselves at department stores.  It took a while before I realized how my mother came to posses such nice things.  At that point I began refusing her gifts.

Eventually their lifestyles caught up with them.  My mother overdosed in the middle of the night, my step-father and I followed the ambulance (I didn’t have a license but had learned to drive a stick in case I ever had to take over when my step-father started to seize) and we learned that she was in a coma.  She died, but was brought back.  I went to school the next day because I was a lawyer in a mock trial I had been preparing for for weeks.  It was my time to shine, and I did amazing.  Later that day I was called to the office because my mother woke up, and was picked up by family members and taken to the hospital.

We were eventually kicked out of our home… there was a raid… other illegal activities had happened that resulted in a long investigation and arrests, though no charges stuck and my step-father didn’t do time.  I was “homeless” and shuffled around from family member to family member, trying to stay in my district because I didn’t want to lose my friends.  I settled in with my grandparents and credit that time with them for saving me from a dark place of hatred and resentment.  I was seething and of course, blaming my parents for making my life abnormal.  Every teenager craves to be normal and accepted.  I kept a good front going in school and no one knew except the closest friends, what really went on.  Even then I didn’t like for people to see where I lived, the car my family drove (when we had one), and what my life was really like.  I was poor…

I’ve lived without power, without air conditioning during the blistering heat of North Carolina summers in, what is essentially, a heated tin can.  I’ve slept under many blankets and relied on kerosene heat when we hadn’t paid the power bill and it was winter.  I’ve had to heat water on a kerosene heater and had to flush toilets with a bucket, and pee using a lighter in a dark, windowless bathroom.  I’ve lived with roaches (lots of them).  I’ve gone hungry because of pride… I didn’t want people to know I qualified for free lunches so I didn’t eat lunch.  I would read a book in the hallway or nap in the library.  Eventually, I was able to pay for my own lunch when I got a job at 15 years old, working late nights washing dishes and stocking a salad bar.  I got a loan from my grandmother that enabled me to afford a (really, really shitty) car, I paid my insurance and cell phone bill, started buying my own food, clothes, and music.  I worked illegally, got paid under the table, and therefore “laws” didn’t apply and so I could do late shifts on school nights and work more hours than allowed for my age.  I wouldn’t change it for a thing because it is how I earned my money and survived.  In fact, I was “adopted” by the people I worked with and the patrons.  I lived to work and I have the best memories of my “work family” who came to replace my real one.  It was my home.  Eventually I started working two jobs, and between them I logged a lot of hours and started providing myself with very nice things, because I could.

My second job was at Outback in High School
My second job was at Outback in High School

I graduated high school and counted the days until I would live on campus.  I graduated college, while working full time in retail and had worked up to a supervisor position, married my husband, moved to NY with him, and we started our family.  I was fortunate enough to quit my job there and stay at home with my first son, then my second, and that afforded me the time to start this website.  Now we live in Florida in a home we bought (all credit really goes to my husband) and a home I’ve worked my butt off renovating.

So you see, I have no idea how “the other half lives.”  And that is right, I don’t know how the homeless, truly impoverished, hungry, cold, desperate live.  We were never THAT bad.  We came close, but we had a safety net in the government, disability, and family.  And I’ve never been poor while having children and can’t imagine the stress of trying to provide for my kids when there is no money.  But the majority of Americans are like me, like I was, with enough to scrape by most of the time.  We never had a baby in the family (I’m the youngest of my mother’s, my step-father had 4 other children but none were babies when they married) and I don’t know what we would have done in our hardest times.  I do know that we had the tools, and the time, to have made handwashing work.  Funny thing though, we were poor and had a washer and dryer.  I suspect a lot of other poor families do because poverty is diverse and includes a wide range of families from the poorest, to the almost poor.  We weren’t having such hard times when my mother re-married, but it got that way.  Things happen in life, situations change, and sometimes you do what you have to do.

I’ve come a really long way from my former life.  Sometimes it feels like it never happened and that I started to exist in college.  As much as I distance myself from the past I’ve been shaped by it and want to help others who are having a tough financial time.  I am not forcing anyone to try this but it is an option.  It works, it helps, and I am thankful I don’t have to do it myself and won’t be ashamed of the fact that I don’t have to.


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