Every time Thanksgiving comes around, I just can’t help thinking about those that are less fortunate than us. As I’ve written before, when my father abandoned our family in 1964 we had to depend on welfare payments and other government assistance to survive and I have used this mini-bully pulpit to give you a more personal view of what it means to have to rely on others. Sure, I may go overboard with my “bleeding heart” stuff, but I just cannot sit still when I hear people (like Mitt Romney) make broad generalizations about how people on government assistance prefer not to work, how they just sit around and watch television while conjuring up their next scheme to defraud the system. Like it’s oh-so-much fun sitting around waiting for that next welfare check.
Sure, there are people who cheat the system. But I prefer to focus on the families like ours that used the system to get through some tough times. In particular, I focus not on the head of the household who may or may not be cheating, but on the children who, through no fault of their own, suffer private indignities that most folks could never even imagine. My younger sister, Laura, recently reminded me of one such incident:
It was the Fall of 1964 and Laura was in the seventh grade. We had been receiving welfare checks for about six months and, in the middle class town of West Islip, New York, word soon got out that the Fitzsimmons’ were experiencing hard times. One big giveaway was that we had a trash pile almost six feet high in our backyard because we could no longer afford to pay to get it picked up.
One Saturday afternoon, a group of boys from the local Boy Scout troop knocked on our door. Looking to help us out, they dropped off a bag of clothes that they thought would be suitable for my sister. We later learned that the bag had originally been destined for the local thrift shop, but certain items were culled out and given to the Boy Scouts to distribute. Although we were embarrassed to accept it, we took it as a warm gesture.
My sister recalls: “Inside the bag was the most beautiful red corduroy jumper I had ever seen. I was so excited to have it and could not wait to wear it to school the next day. I carefully washed it out in our kitchen sink and then washed my only pair of white knee socks and only turtleneck shirt I had, which thankfully was also white. I spent the rest of the night washing and curling my hair, suffering the torture of sleeping in curlers so that my hair would be worthy of my beautiful new jumper.
The next morning, I carefully dressed in my new prize possession, combed out my hair, and feeling exuberant I went off to school. I remember walking through the hall feeling so proud of how I looked as up to that time I only had two dresses to wear to school. As I strode through the hallways a female classmate, surrounded by her friends, came up to me and said “nice jumper.” I was so thrilled that she was being nice to me and noticed my new frock. I smiled and said thank you. She then looked at her friends and said ‘that was part of the clothing my mother was throwing out that the Boy Scout troop took to give to the welfare kids.’ Her friends began to laugh and I just wanted to be swallowed up by the halls of the school. I don’t remember a time before or since where I felt so bad about myself, my home situation, or about the world around me. For months afterward, I was afraid to wear anything ‘new’ to school that we might have received from any donation center for fear that I was wearing a cast off that could be recognized. The happiness I felt upon first seeing the jumper was lost forever. I never wore it again.”
There are many generous people in the Mount Vernon community who have donated their time and money to help the less fortunate. And then there are those who choose to focus on the occasional cheater and generalize that everyone who gets a welfare check is just playing the “victim.” Unfortunately, these same people do not think about the children who, through no fault of their own, are suffering privately and publicly — just like my sister.
That is why my sister and brother formed “Alice's Kids,” a non-profit charitable organization that provides direct assistance to the children. Our goal is to help enhance their self esteem with small acts of kindness. We are happy to have joined the fraternity of other wonderful charitable groups in Mount Vernon. At this time of the year, I encourage you — all of you — to sit back for a second and imagine what it’s like for a child to wake up and see their breath in the air because they ran out of heat or skip school because they did not want to wear the same shirt for the fourth day in a row.
The true “victims” are the children. Don’t hold it against them if you think their parents might be scamming the system.