Because of growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I didn’t have a lot of experience with the concept of poverty in my childhood years. I always knew my close-knit community of 400 people to be privileged because of the fact that every adult in town was financially stable, every person owned a home, and every child was able to receive an outstanding education through our public-school district. In elementary school I would learn about poverty, but I was never able to fully wrap my head around the idea of people struggling to meet basic needs like obtaining clothing, food, and shelter. Little did I know that my whole perspective on life was about to change when I decided to go to college over 1000 miles away to the heavily populated city of Worcester.
I vividly remember arriving to Worcester on a hot summer day in July and seeing all of the homeless people asking people for money on the streets. An image that particularly stuck out to me was a family with a dog who was sitting against the wall of a building with a sign that read ‘need money for family.’ Although this was one of my first exposures to this type of poverty in a big city, I initially didn’t feel bad whatsoever because I genuinely believed those people’s homelessness was due to laziness and their own mistakes. When first arriving to school, my soccer coach explained to me that our team would be volunteering the next day at the St. John’s Food for the Poor Program, which was a nonprofit organization that offered a food pantry to those who are struggling to buy food for themselves and their families. To my surprise, this experience of volunteering at the food pantry was going to open my eyes up to the actual problem of poverty that exists in cities across the world.
Upon first arriving to the food pantry, my heart was racing because I had no idea what to expect. Was this place going to be filled with homeless people on drugs and alcohol? Was this place going to be filled with homeless people with mental illnesses? Was this place going to be filled with rude people? When first walking into the church, I noticed the immense amount of food neatly placed around the room. I eventually learned that all of the fresh food in the room was generously donated by local supermarkets. I was first greeted by a handful of volunteers who expressed a great amount of gratitude to me for helping them out. As soon as all of the volunteers were in their positions around the food pantry, the doors opened up and the line of people began filling the church. When observing them, I noticed that they all looked like normal people. In fact, I had almost the exact same outfit on as one of the ladies who was browsing through the pantry. When taking a step back and observing the type of people in the room, I was speechless. More specifically, I was in shock at the vast amount of families and elderly at the pantry. As I was handing out the food at my produce station, every single person that wanted something from me was extremely gracious and wanted to strike up a conversation. After this humbling experience, I was overcome with a wide range of emotions that even included self-disappointment. Why did it take this long for me to realize that people living in poverty shouldn’t be demonized?
So what did I learn through this experience? The biggest takeaway that has affected the rest of my life is the idea of not judging a person until you truly know who they are and their situations. Before going into this experience, I strongly believed that people chose to be homeless and live in poverty, homeless people were all addicts, and that all problems of poverty would be solved if people simply got a job. When speaking with the compassionate site director at the church who personally knew many of the people in poverty, it turns out that many people were in this situation because of domestic violence, system failures, structural factors, and unfortunate personal circumstances. These stereotypes need to be eradicated because it is assisting in the stigmatization of a group that is currently marginalized in the first place. In order to fix this problem and create a community where these individuals feel comfortable seeking support, these common stereotypes and myths need to be debunked and the truth of poverty needs to be spread to the public.